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Making Nature: How We See Animals – Wellcome Collection


Beatrix Potter stories, a trio of stuffed foxes frolicking in a faux wood, London Zoo and vial of mouse DNA all have one thing in common, they are projections of the way we see, interact and categorise animals. The Wellcome Collections latest exhibition considers how humans have imposed constructed categorisation on the natural world and, more recently, storified the role of other creatures in our lives. Making Nature: How We See Animals is the first part of a year-long programme on how humans interact with nature. And on the basis of this exhibition the Wellcome is opening up some fascinating debates.

Being top of the food chain and having the ability to consciously reason and control our behaviour is something humans have long seen as separating themselves from and assuring their superiority over other creatures. And despite growing research on the more varied communicative responses and learned behaviours in the animal kingdom, we have long categorised, defined and controlled the world around us. All of this began in earnest, this exhibition argues, in the eighteenth-century when scientists began to classify and rank creatures as international exploration considerably expanded our knowledge of the natural world.

The first section, then, looks at ‘Ordering’, centred around Carl Linneaus’s Systema Naturea published in 1735 which gave the two part Latin descriptions to all creatures that is still in use, and it is his idea of self-realisation that is the focus for this room. As ever with the Wellcome, the exhibition cleverly unites scientific and medical artefacts with art and culture pieces relevant to the period. Pictures borrowed from the V&A include a coloured photograph of the flower Linnaea Borealis from 1864 named after the scientist, and a poster for a ‘bearded-lady’ described as ‘half-human, half-animal’ who became famous for straddling the boundaries of classification.

In terms of scientific pieces, the Wellcome has Linneaus’s 1758 pressed fish specimen which he used in his species description that has been remarkably well preserved for its 250 years. Interestingly, the Wellcome explains that original pieces like this became known as the ‘type’ specimen against which future discoveries are compared and differentiated, so it’s quite interesting to see such a defining piece. And to add further to the idea of classification, Linneaus’s system is put into the context of other forms of ordering the animal kingdom including Charles Bonnet’s 1783 hierarchy that considered the idea of creatures moving up the system as they evolve and become more intelligent.

One curious aspect is how simply these apparently scientific systems sit alongside religious imagery and ideas, so while in the nineteenth-century evolution largely pushed aside the notion of one overall creator, somehow 100 years before the two sat easily side-by-side. So while Linneaus believed in natural theology, in Bonnet’s system, he sees humans progressing into angels, while Gérard Jean Baptiste Scotin II’s etching from Genesis shows Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden.

All of this is nicely mixed in with ideas of assumed ‘fake’ creatures like the duckbilled platypus which leads neatly into the second room on how ‘Displaying’ animals adds to the kinds of fiction we have created around the idea of their homes and habitats. This will certainly be an important room for taxidermy fans and as the idea of the diorama took off in the nineteenth-century museums of natural history sought to offer more ‘realistic’ presentations of their specimens in the wild.

As well as a curled-up badger on the floor which you should try not to step on, there is a family of playful foxes in a woodland scene in one of the cases, again mixing the notion of scientific depiction with the artistic and cultural transmission of knowledge to the public which the Wellcome does so well. But while such displays acted as a substitute for seeing the real thing, the exhibition argues that these images have created ‘stereotypes’ based on the ‘qualities and behaviours’ imposed on these animals by their creation which have affected and partially fictionalised our idea of these creatures.

From plans for the original Natural History Museum layout prepared by its first director Richard Owen to its cathedral-like architecture captured by watercolourist Alfred Waterhouse, the Wellcome forces the viewer to think about how the presentation and display of animals has been “designed”. The NHM building itself plays up associations with an overall creator, while Owen specifically rated the creatures by importance and ‘complexity’ from the centre of the museum, and later the dioramas on display in this room attempted to “teach by the eye” whether visitors were looking at a giant dinosaur park at Crystal Palace in the 1860s or humorous presentations of squirrels playing cards.

This bleeds seamlessly in to the next section on zoos and the fame accorded to individual creatures. In ‘Observing’ animals, zoos during the period the exhibition covers have veered between creating pseudo-natural habitats for their creatures to roam around in, and responding to the changing architectural interests of the day. London Zoo’s famous elephant house designed by Hugh Casson in 1964 was created to showcase the animals to the public rather than replicate their “normal” environment. And Casson’s now listed enclosure was in keeping with the brutalist designs of now equally famous culture centres like The National Theatre and the Barbican.

As a extension of this, the exhibition shows how humans project stories onto the existence of particular creatures developing ‘celebrities’ in the animal kingdom and ascribing a meaning and agency to their lives that animals do not experience. There are music sheets for a London Zoo elephant called Jumbo who eventually joined the circus and toys and merchandise celebrating the 1950s chimps tea parties which are the antecedents of ZSL’s popular animal adoption programmes and late night visiting opportunities, encouraging visitors to engage with its inhabitants more closely.

Part of this storification is usefully employed to aid conservation. There are images of bison taken by William Temple Hornaday in the late 1800s who hunted them in order to preserve these endangered creatures in the Smithsonian Institute – clearly not entirely understanding that by killing them, he was adding to their scarcity – while in the final room this idea of preservation has led to scientific experimentation with animal DNA to improve breeds or to solve human problems.

More than anything, this last section forces you to think about the varied and unconstrained power we have over the animal kingdom. From selective dog breeding to overriding natural birdsong by teaching them human tunes, to genetic engineering, redesigning, repurposing and adapting other creatures for human requirements is a fascinating and scary business. Focusing on the collection of the Pittsburg Center for Postnatural History, dedicated to organisms deliberately altered by humans, there are vials containing a ribless mouse embryo, photosensitive E.coli and a frog that can tell if you’re pregnant, sitting alongside selectively bred examples of King Charles spaniels, budgies and pigeons. The Wellcome makes no judgement on whether you think this is right or not, but while we all know it happens, seeing it so starkly gives you a lot to think about on the way home.

Arguable then, we don’t see animals clearly and in their own right, but as part of a socially constructed system of classification that for at least 300 years has influenced our mastery and dominance of nature. Seeing them as something less than us means we have cutesified their lives adding rationality and purpose they do not experience, and our continual dominance on the planet rests in modifying and adapting their genetic make-up to improve our own lifespan. The Wellcome’s new exhibition is a fascinating insight into our relationship with nature, beginning what promises to be an important year of complex debates.

Making Nature: How We See Animals is at the Wellcome Collection until 21 May 2017 and entrance is free. Galleries are closed on Mondays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age – Barbican

Do we ever really look at the buildings around us? Maybe in the big cities, and particularly in London where you’re tripping over heritage sites every few meters but what about all those other buildings which architects have designed as office spaces, suburban homes or even farmsteads? Time, planning and considerable amounts of money have gone into them, they may not be obviously pretty but for the vast majority of buildings architecture has a functional purpose which this new exhibition at the Barbican explores. Photographs of buildings may not sound that riveting but this is an insightful and nicely curated exploration of developments since the 1930s using examples from around the world.

One thing that very clearly emerges from this exhibition is the idea of architectural intent and how often this differs from the ultimate purpose of the building they designed. There are two very good examples of this, first in the pictures of Guy Tillim showing the decaying remnants of buildings in Africa which is now used as accommodation. These places, built in a spirit of optimism have fallen into near ruin, and though once clearly beautiful are now crumbling, covered in weeds and the washing of their new inhabitants. Similarly the photos of Iwan Baan in Venezuela show a building that was never completed and eventually became the home of a huge number of poor families squatting in the empty structure. This place built as a monument to modernity and progress had become a regular part of the slum conditions of the area. The purpose and enthusiasm for which things are created can often be radically altered once their original use fades or is overridden.

Another interesting aspect of this exhibition is the contrast between rural and urban building concepts. Perhaps the most obvious historic example of the very epitome of architectural progress is the 1930s construction of New York and the work of Berenice Abbott is a fascinating exposition of this process. We see that contrast of old and new, as skyscrapers or modernist homes go up next to old brownstones, and there’s some fascinating shots of rubble sites or old streets with shiny new buildings in the background behind them. A great contrast to this in the next section is the contemporaneous Walker Evans pictures of life in rural Louisiana – farmhouses and shacks as well as the people living in them. They show a life of hard work, poverty and tough conditions that seem grindingly permanent and so far removed from the hope and progress in the photos of New York.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of this show are in the upper gallery – Ed Ruscha’s aerial images of American car parks and a wall of German water towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher. That sounds pretty dull I know but I haven’t gone entirely mad; the semi-empty car parks actually make for some interesting patterns, both in how they’re arranged around important sites like sports stadia and in the interlocking arrangement of lines and boxes. Similarly the water towers which are displayed together in a unit show the enormous regional diversity in architectural styles and preferences, from art deco influenced minimalist shapes to fairy-tale like castle turrets. Probably more than any part of the exhibition these two photographers exemplify that notion of hidden architecture, the stuff we pass every day without a moment’s thought.

Of course this exhibition is about more than the buildings it’s also about the photography and there are some beautifully captured images including Simon Norfolk’s studies of regeneration in Afghanistan where elaborate cartoon-like structures are appearing. One of a garden looks almost like a painting where the approach with which the individual leaves have been shot looking not dissimilar to the way Constable might have painted them. There’s Julius Shulman’s magazine-shoot of California hill-side homes that are exactly as Hockney depicted them, but the most stunning are saved for the end; Nadav Kandar’s large scale shots of riverside China are beautiful and show local people engaged in traditional pursuits that could come from any era, like fishing, bathing or picking, whilst hazily captured enormous bridges and buildings are being built in the background. The somewhat timeless quality of the people makes an interesting juxtaposition with the modernity appearing around them, and takes you right back to those Berenice Abbott pictures of New York in the first room.

There are a couple of things that don’t work that well; it’s clear how architectural taste and styles develop but we don’t see so much on how the photography of it has changed, and given this is specifically meant to be an exhibition of architectural photography it would be interesting to understand more about the things these artists look for in a subject. This is especially true in the formal partnerships of particular photographers and architects – what is it that the one continuously finds inspiring about the other. There is also a greater focus on American than anywhere else and it seems a shame given the Barbican location not to use this as inspiration to showcase more UK work. There are 18 artists on show and London has had its fair share of controversial buildings that have been repurposed, the Millennium Dome for one, so it may have been interesting to give just one room a local flavour. Nonetheless Constructing Worlds is a fascinating journey across the 20th and 21st centuries, from car-parks to skyscrapers, showing just how broad architectural work is and how the plans and hopes for new buildings often become something quite different in practice.

Constructing Worlds: Photography & Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican until 11 January 2015. Tickets cost £12 with good concessions available.

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