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Making Nature: How We See Animals – Wellcome Collection

making-nature

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

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Review of the Year and What to See in 2016

2015 has been a golden year for London culture combining top-quality theatre with some of Britain’s leading actors, some game-changing exhibitions and probably the best London Film Festival so far. Coming up with at least 52 review posts seemed easy with so many incredible opportunities on offer and with current announcements it’s hard to see how 2016 is going to compete.  The big news this time last year was the impending arrival of what I termed ‘the big five’ to the London stage as James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch were all set to appear. The year opened with a deliciously dark production of The Ruling Class with McAvoy in fine fettle as the serenely insane Lord of the manor which saw him unicycling in his underwear and attached to a crucifix. It’s a performance that received a lot of awards attention – not just for the underwear – recently winning an Evening Standard Award as well as nominations for the 2016 What’s On Stage Awards but lost the Olivier to Mark Strong.

Next up the West End transfer of A View from the Bridge led by Mark Strong confirmed its place as the best production of recent years earning a clutch of awards before transferring to Broadway in the autumn to even more acclaim. Next came Ralph Fiennes in the National’s superb revival of Man and Superman that took a more modern approach to a classic play, and with Fiennes on stage for more than 3 hours award nominations seem likely. The National, on balance, had an excellent year under new Director Rufus Norris, staging wonderfully fresh productions of The Beaux’ Stratagem, Three Days in the Country and Husbands and Sons, but the less said about A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire the better, undoubtedly the worst and most tedious thing I saw this year.

In April Damien Lewis returned to the West End as the dangerously charming lead in a thoroughly enjoyable revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, happily bringing Jon Goodman and Tom Sturridge with him, and the ‘big five’ concluded with the probably the most hyped Hamlet of all time starring Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Selling out a year in advance, his performance was sadly overshadowed by there being more drama off-stage (about not signing autographs, cheeky early reviews and audience filming) that on and sadly the whole thing deflated by the time we got to see what was at best an average show. Good interpretation by Cumberbatch but drowned in a needlessly cavernous stage – pity.

But for all the excitement these star actors produced some of the biggest treats were unexpected hits including the Royal Court’s transfer of The Nether – a brilliant and challenging production – as well as the superb Hangmen which is undoubtedly the best new play of 2015 which you can now see at the Wyndhams until mid-February. Other unexpected gems were The Globe’s production of The Broken Heart, the Old Vic’s High Society and the Donmar’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with commanding performances from Dominic West and Janet McTeer which also runs till February. Finally Kenneth Branagh delighted us by forming a theatre company and bringing two of five plays to the West End for a 10 month season at the Garrick, opening the delightfully staged Harlequinade and the utterly beautiful The Winter’s Tale with Judi Dench.

Branagh features heavily then in the 2016 shows to see with expectation now running high for his versions of Romeo and Juliet with Cinderella stars Lily James and Richard Madden, The Painkiller with Rob Brydon and an Olivier-esque role as The Entertainer in Osborne’s classic.  From what we’ve seen so far, these are bound to be delightful so booking now is advisable. Ralph Fiennes is also back in The Master Builder at the Old Vic which his performance is sure to raise, especially as recent offerings Future Conditional and the inexplicable The Hairy Ape have been a let-down (despite critical support). David Tennant is reprising his magnificent performance as Richard II at the Barbican as part of the RSC’s History play cycle early in the year which is another chance to see one of the best productions of recent times. Otherwise 2016 so far will be dominated by the Harry Potter stage show, announced with Jamie Parker as the lead after his show stealing performance in High Society, and several musicals including a West End Transfer for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and the launch of Mowtown the Musical. Maybe not as inspiring yet as the start of 2015 was but undoubtedly more announcements to come.

Over in the exhibition sector 2015 marked a new raft of new approaches. Leading the pack was the V&A’s game-changer Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty which stunned everyone with its dynamic approach to displaying beautiful fashion, necessitating 24 hour opening towards the end to meet the need. Smaller galleries also began to make their mark particularly the wonderful House of Illustration near King’s Cross that staged Ladybird by Design and E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War taking a new and intelligent approach to familiar topics, so look out for the opening of their dedicate Quentin Blake gallery in 2016 and show about female comic book artists. Forensics and crime fascinated us first at the Wellcome’s utterly brilliant Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, shortly followed by the Museum of London’s The Crime Museum Uncovered which runs till March. Finally Somerset House struck gold with its fantastic retrospective The Jam: About the Young Idea which took a fan-friendly approach to examine their glory years.

Sticking with the music theme in 2016, the British Library will profile the history of Punk at a new exhibition combining its document and sound archive which promises to be quite innovative, while it also host its first major show dedicated to Shakespeare looking at the interpretation and influence of his work in 10 key performances to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death. They also have a free show looking at the image of Alice in Wonderland on display right now (review to follow next week).  The V&A have a big show about Boticelli while the National Portrait Gallery take up the fashion mantle with an exhibition of Vogue images which bodes well. The Royal Academy brings several classics together including Monet and Matisse to examine the evolution of the garden in painting, while the Barbican gets us thinking about being British in a show using the perspective of international photographers on our great nation.

Finally the London Film Festival showcased some of the best films of the year with some glitzy premiere opportunities. Opening with the excellent Suffragette, there was also Black Mass a less glamorised gangster film than we’ve seen in years attended by Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, Carol attended by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (although it wasn’t to my taste), the rather strange High Rise with Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, and best of all the closing night gala, the brilliant Steve Jobs attended by Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender – my ultimate 2015 highlight. But outside the festival, with Spectre letting me down somewhat, Fassbender also wowed in my film of the year – Macbeth, a gripping, glorious and breath-taking movie that a gave fresh interpretation while perfectly relaying the psychology of the play, film perfection in fact. Expect all of these films to end up walking away with plenty of awards in the next few months.

So there you have it, as we say goodbye to a glorious year for culture we have high hopes for 2016. Whether it can top the plethora of great opportunities we’re leaving behind remains to be seen, so let’s find out…

For reviews of London plays, exhibitions and culture follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Objects – Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection is probably not the first place you’d expect to see modern art but after the success of their excellence Forensics exhibition earlier in the year which mixed scientific objects with art and installation, the Wellcome has successfully progressed to a full-on art exhibition, albeit one with a link to the nature of human cognition. The way we form and retain memories both as individuals and as a society is a fascinating subject. Often on a personal level the things we remember change over time, becoming distorted, embellished and embedded by frequent retelling, while the things a nation or culture chooses to memorialise are often sanitised, stripped of emotion and form, empty platitudes to some significant event. Anderson’s work speaks to both of these interpretations which makes this exhibition well worth seeing.

Now our memories are increasingly recorded in online forms; websites that hold our pictures, record our thoughts encapsulated as Tweets or Status Updates, or suggest people it thinks we should know. Anderson represents this using the fine copper wire she uses to wrap everyday objects, and by wrap I mean completely encase, mummify and cocoon so they become both unable to be the things they were and something else at the same time.

It opens with the exhibition’s centrepiece a Ford Mustang car which you can help to wrap – book ahead and you can spend an hour helping to shroud the car in gleaming copper. Already heavily covered by my visit it is a strangely fascinating item to look at, recognisably a car still from all but a few angles, particularly the back where it’s begun to lose form. Divested of its natural function, is this still a car or just the memory of one? It’s beautiful but it can no longer do any of things it is supposed to, and you can barely discern its usual features all now moulded into a smooth and glittering shape. When you can’t look beyond the surface, then the surface is all there is, and what a damning insight into our modern culture, a love of shiny surface things that deep down have no purpose.

Next up is a dark room like a museum, filled with items on pedestals that look reverent against the blackness. Strangely the wrapping process seems to change the physical form of the objects making them seem soft and squishy so you want to touch them to check, which obviously you can’t. Shears, glasses, a video camera, iphone plug and mobile phone all recognisable but changed. Some of the most impressive pieces, however, are on a considerably larger scale – a globe that becomes a giant ball of hair, a flat screen TV that has been covered so meticulously with such faultless straight lines that it starts to look like a giant shiny pillow or an electric guitar, all of these things are divested of their purpose, muffled but preserved forever. As a statement on memory it is interesting, each object represents a moment in time frozen and just a fleeting idea of what it once was.

It is the meticulous skills of Anderson’s work however that is so fascinating and the centrepiece of the exhibition is a giant staircase which even up close looks like perfectly created wood grain. The way the wire has been wrapped around each step is in perfectly straight lines which glisten invitingly in the centre of the room. As a symbol it is very striking, an empty staircase leading nowhere seems to be the epitome of Anderson’s other work which while preserving or ‘mummifying’ these objects is simultaneously stripping them of their purpose.

The next room artfully wraps and arranges recognisable items in new ways to create innovative forms, and here you’ll need the accompanying text to tell you what some of these things are. You’ll notice as the exhibition progresses that it becomes harder to distinguish all the things on display as the wrapping process reduces them to mere geometric shapes. Here there are some eye catching pieces including a tower of what could be wastepaper bins stacked to the ceiling, the light dramatically catching the lines of the copper wrapping to draw the eye upwards. Also impressive is a wall of ladders used to create block patterns as different sets of rungs are bound together, so again we see how Anderson’s technique changes something’s function to art. One of the most interesting items is further on, a collection of tall rectangular panels arranged in a circle, each wrapped with a slightly different pattern. There’s something Stone Henge-like about it and you can stand in the centre of the panels or between them as part of the circle. What it means is largely open to interpretation but it perhaps suggests something about the way we ritualise memory-making, like a form of pagan festival.

The final room looks at destruction and picks up again on this theme of removing an items purpose, but this time by using the wrapping process to crush or distort it. We see how the screen of a laptop has buckled, the contortions of a crushed wheelbarrow and some straight planks that have become curls and waves under the strictures of their binding. So this is asking us to consider the pressure memory-making can exert on the remembered moment, squeezing it over time to become useless and changed, which reflects how susceptible our memories are to later distortion.

This is my favourite kind of exhibition, while there is some guidance on the artist’s intentions there is still plenty of scope for the viewer to see whatever they choose. While on the one hand I did see Anderson’s intention to focus on memory formation, you could also argue that she’s commenting on our shallow engagement with the wider world. Arguably we no longer care about depth or the truth of something, preferring to have only superficial engagements with a lot of things, thus Anderson’s perfect shiny surfaces belie what’s underneath and hold a mirror up to the shallow digital world we have created. But that’s only one interpretation and as this show offers no answers, perhaps it doesn’t mean anything at all. The Wellcome has opened its doors to modern art and offers a fascinating exhibition that combines impressive technical skill with wider philosophical debates about the way we preserve and record the world around us.

Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Objects is at the Wellcome Collection until 18 October. Entrance is free.


Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime – Wellcome Collection

We all love a good murder mystery, and there’s something about the committing and investigation of horrific crime that fascinates us. Whether your taste is for the gentle mystery of an Agatha Christie Poirot or Marple puzzle which is light on the gruesome details, or for the more graphic depiction of criminal activity in gritty dramas, chances are forensic investigation will have played a role somewhere. From fingerprint evidence to DNA samples the forensic elements in the process of identification and conviction of criminals fills countless books and TV shows every year.

This new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection examines the use of forensic evidence and its place in the process of detecting the perpetrators or crime. It takes you from the original crime scene, through the morgue, laboratory and ultimately to the courtroom, whilst giving an excellent overview of how practices and techniques have developed in the last century. Interweaved among the sometimes gruesome exhibits are some artistic works created by those inspired by the nature of death and decomposition, as well as insightful video interviews from those who collect, use and analyse forensic material as part of their work.

Investigators stat at the scene, so is a natural place for the exhibition to begin. The first thing you see is unexpected- what looks like a doll’s house with an open front but is actually a detail reconstruction of a house where a violent crime took place. Around the walls nearby are large scale colour photographs of reconstructed deaths in a bathroom and kitchen using dolls as proxy for the victim. It’s rather unsettling but an immediate insight into the way investigators need to understand the space in which the act took place. Now digital scanning is used to create a computerised image of the scene and a video explains how this works.

But things are about to get a lot more gruesome with photographs from real murder scenes, a piece of ‘art’ made from the floor on which the artist’s friend was murdered and some photographs that use luminol to show the remnants of blood spatterings many years after the crime took place. This really isn’t going to be an exhibition for the faint-hearted, but I found I became most squeamish about the behaviour of blowflies and maggots, attracted to the body, which are used to determine the time of death. Now I’ve seen a lot of Poirots and not once does the medical examiner ever mention maggots, even though this is their key method! Although, in this case I’m rather glad TV has lied to me.

Moving swiftly on, you enter the morgue and the techniques used to determine the cause of mysterious death – the autopsy. We learn that in France identifying dead bodies used to be a spectator sport and many a respectable Frenchman would pop down to the morgue for a bit of light entertainment – presumably on days when the opera or theatre was closed. There are some recreations and some real examples of injured body parts including a replica shattered skull, a pierced liver (as well as the knife that pierced it) and a brain showing the passage of a bullet. Alongside this are digitised index cards which tell the human story behind the work of the forensic pathologist including a woman who was hit by a motorbus, detailing her age, lifestyle and the condition of her organs, as well as the circumstantial details of the accident.

Once the relevant samples are collected, everything is then sent off to the laboratory for analysis, and in this section of the exhibition we learn about the development of finger printing techniques, charts with eye shapes and colouration, mug shots and more recently DNA sampling. It also includes some fascinating experiments with blood types and how the size and shape it leaves behind can indicate the nature of the death. So as well as seeing how different types of investigation have changed over time, this room shows that crime-solving techniques and scientific specialisms like toxicology and pathology were also developing along the way.

In the next room, the process returns to changes in search and identification techniques, where more human stories are emphasised. One interesting example is the use of head x-rays of a recovered body overlaid onto a photograph of a missing woman to prove it was her, and a touching video from the survivors of mass genocide in Chile who have spent more than two decades searching the desert for the remains of their relatives, becoming experts in identifying fragments of bone among the sand. It’s a sad reminder that while much of this exhibition has focused on individual crime, the expertise it unveils is also being used on a larger scale in the search for those lost in war and mass political crimes.

At the end of this detail process comes the moment in court and this final section gives examples of where forensic evidence has been used in trials, including the now contentious sentencing of the infamous Dr Crippen who was found guilty of murdering his wife, although recent DNA testing has cast doubt on this. So finally you get to hear from lawyers and those who have used forensics to actually prove their innocence, and questioning the role of the media in implying guilt before a trial has concluded.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is one of the best exhibitions running at the moment and completely free – although you will need to judge how much is suitable for children (after the first room it’s less gory). I liked the way it balanced the scientific knowledge with engaging human stories, while subtly mixing in examples of medical art and important historical texts. It cleverly, and rightly, avoids getting caught up in fictional portrayals of detectives, and maintains its proper scientific focus throughout. It will certainly open your eyes to the vast array of specialisms that modern forensic scientists and the police can use, which is some comfort in knowing that however anonymous the person may be, all of this knowledge is called upon to solve the crime. I may prefer my murder mysteries light and lacking in carnage, but I probably won’t look at Poirot the same way again.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is at the Wellcome Collection until 21 June and entrance is free, although timed entry by ticket may be in operation at busy times. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.


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