Ministry logo

Ministry logo

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Taking risks at the Wellcome's Making Nature

What is Wellcome’s Making Nature about? Usually with museum exhibitions the answer is either a famous artist or individual (Bowie, Lockwood Kipling, Rauschenberg) or a theme which can typically be summed up in one word (underwear, Modernism, maps, mental health). Making Nature is about, well, exactly that. The idea that nature is a construct manufactured by human action and, more specifically, museums. Pretty conceptual for an exhibition right? This perhaps why the Wellcome hasn’t received universally glowing reviews for this one (see for example this Guardian think piece). When you build a show on a concept, people can disagree. It’s probably why most museum’s don’t do it. But it’s also why ALL MUSEUMS SHOULD. Making Nature is the thought-provoking, risk-taking exhibition you’ve been waiting for from the Wellcome. And we love it.

Richard Ross, Muséum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 © the artist

If Making Nature had only been one room, it still would have been the best thing I’ve seen a museum do in ages. The first gallery had everything you could want from a gallery of art and science. Entitled ‘ Ordering’, the opening to the exhibition does a fantastic job of demonstrating how a museum can communicate a complex idea. The concept is just that, how humans have ordered the world. From the Bible to Linneaus to Bonnet’s ladder of natural being, humans have been trying to rationalize and categorize the world around them from day one. Archival documents are used to great effect – providing a sense of history and context, but without being too ‘this is a history lesson’. A poster of Juliana Pastrana, the Bearded Lady, asks us to consider what happens when something defies categorization. If you weren’t scared by the hidden taxidermy fox, you are lying. I genuinely jumped.

Roger Fenton, Skeleton of Man and of the Male Gorilla (Troglodytes Gorilla) II, c.1855 © Victoria and Albert Museum,

Making Nature is full of unusual display techniques, but they are all for a purpose. The idea that a curator has suggested this off the wall exhibition, conceptual design and someone said – yes we will support you in that, heartens me. We are not an industry that has to put out cookie cutter exhibitions. The Wellcome knew full well that putting taxidermy animals in unusual places (ie dead on the floor) would upset some people. But that’s kind of the point. The animals serve a dual purpose: to push you to think about conservation (there’s a reason why they’ve picked the examples they have cough badger) and to mix up the way we are used to viewing animals. Animals go in nice dioramas where they look like they are alive, right? Yeah but we made that. And that’s the point.

Richard Ross, British Museum, Natural History, London, England 1985 © the artist
I don’t want to go into every single detail and spoil the visit for you. Let’s just say, you’ll never look at Richard Owen’s ‘cathedral to science’ (aka the Natural History Museum) the same way again. Or the ZSL Zoo for that matter. But I did just want to say a few words about the last room about Postnatural History. It’s clear from the get-go that this room has been curated by someone different. The reliance on speakers to tell the narrative is a little jarring, and not all of the displays seem to fit in exactly with the theme as it explained in the room label. And while this was a bit off-putting for me at first, I’ll forgive it because its just so damn interesting. The Centre for Postnatural History is interested in how we are making new animals and purposefully modifying the natural world. From multi-coloured budgies to radioactive rodents to bacteria which has learned to say hello, are we looking at a nature which is no longer natural? The stories in this room are bizarre and somewhat frightening.

Transgenic mosquito (Aedes agypti), 2009, Pinned specimen © Center for PostNatural History

Making Nature is without a doubt challenging. It’s challenging to audiences who think they know about nature and how it works. Challenging to traditional exhibition design. And to be honest, morally challenging. Importantly, its self-reflective on the part of the museum community. How as we as institutions profoundly changed the way people understand nature, and in consequence, the way people use natural resources. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Nature is about love not manipulation (oh please). As the parrots say, all nature ever did was love us, and how have we repaid them? Making Nature is what I hope museums are moving towards. Exhibitions that are complex, challenging, and invite comment. Something that moves beyond that one word catchy theme or celebrity subject. I can’t wait for Part 2!

No comments:

Post a comment