The distant sound of a parrot squawking, models of disembodied horses’ mouths, a taxidermy badger lying on the floor. Making Nature takes us straight into the animal kingdom, but not quite in the way you would expect. It explores the human-animal relationship and our attempts to understand animals over the centuries. Focusing on four elements of this relationship, ordering, displaying, observing and making, it reveals some uncomfortable tensions and bizarre discoveries.
It feels as if man and animal have been naturally separated since the dawn of time, but as this exhibition shows, the process of categorising and separating animals has been a long and divisive process. The first room explores the process of classifying animals, and how taxonomists questioned the divinely bestowed Great Chain of Being. Figures such as Carl Linnaeus separated species into kingdoms of animal, vegetable and mineral. This was subject to many different interpretations and even some satire, as demonstrated by Jorge Luis Borges’ own humorous categorisation of animals printed on the walls of the first room (including ‘mermaids’ and ‘fabulous ones’). Yet with such an interest in ordering and categorising, there was also an equally prevalent fascination with the unidentifiable and the nondescript. We see some rather eerie creations by taxidermist Charles Waterton who fused different parts of animals together, an unsettling introduction into some of the more grotesque exhibits.
What becomes clear as you walk through the exhibition is the tension between people’s fascination with animals and their difficulty with fitting them into a human narrative. There is some indication that we may not be so different from animals ourselves, such as Roger Fenton’s photograph of a human skeleton and a gorilla showing the similarities in stature between man and animal. Yet more generally there is a sense of the unknown about animals that museum exhibits tried to clarify. We see foxes play fighting in dioramas, taxidermy representations of animals in their natural habitat. Detailed educational illustrations of animals in children’s books attempted to give realistic depictions but still remained artistic impressions. We also see original architectural drawings of the Natural History Museum commissioned by Richard Owen, which he wanted to resemble a cathedral for nature. The mystery surrounding animals and their relationship with humans deemed them artefacts, a source of fascination and elusiveness.
But as the exhibition suggests, there is a danger of simply looking at animals and not truly seeing them. It explores how zoos gave the public the opportunity to observe and be closer to wild animals. The modernist redesign of London Zoo, as photographed by modernist artist László Moholy-Nagy, was designed to put the animals on display and frame them for the public in a consciously unnatural environment. The effects of this are explored with leaflets from the zoo’s 1926 chimp’s tea party attraction, and soft toys of zoo celebrities such as Jumbo the Elephant, which were attempts to anthropomorphise animals for human entertainment. From artefacts to real-life exhibits, this part of the exhibition explores the harsh realities of introducing wild animals into a human context. A mini documentary of Antoine Yates tells the extraordinary story of how he kept a tiger and an alligator in his high-rise New York apartment. Although Yates’ account of how he had bonded with these animals is quite heartwarming, the long, drawn out footage of the tiger wandering around a tiny bathroom feels isolating and slightly upsetting. Contrastingly, one of the more positive elements is a video documenting the Gir Wildlife Park in India, where the inhabitants live peacefully beside the lions in their natural habitat. It’s suggested that protecting the natural habitats of animals should be a priority, but as the exhibition shows, the human interpretation of and fascination with animals makes this a struggle.
Finally the Making room resembles a laboratory, a selection of experiments that shows how the makeup of animals has been manipulated by humans. Ribless mice sit alongside African clawed frogs, the latter was quite astonishingly used as a pregnancy test during the 1930s. We see rats bred to become alcoholic so that scientists could use them to measure pleasure responses, an extraordinary insight into the breadth of animal testing by humans. Taxidermy heads of perfectly bred pedigree dogs and rainbow dyed budgerigars are strange little oddities that further demonstrate how humans have moved from simply observing to shaping animals and utilising them for scientific and stylistic purposes.
Image credit: Budgie specimens illustrating colour variations (c) Trustees of the Natural History Museum
Making Nature reveals the hierarchies that have developed through the ages between humans and animals, with a selection of astonishing artefacts and curiosities. Despite some indication of our inability to truly see animals as they are and the urgency in which we must preserve their natural habitat, it generally passes little judgement and leaves us with few answers about how the relationship between man and animal will develop over the next century. Those expecting a joyful celebration of animals, complete with fluffy happy creatures, might be quite surprised by some of the lurid contents of this exhibition, from birds of paradise headdresses to taxidermy body parts. The ultimate lasting impression is that humans have categorised, displayed and ultimately mastered animals in a paradoxical relationship of fondness and dominance.
Making Nature runs 1 December – 21 May 2017 at the Wellcome Collection, entrance is free. Find out more here.