Making Nature: How we see animals

Richard Ross, Museum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 1

Richard Ross, Museum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 1


The world is split about animals. Broadly, one half sees them as resources, to be used and exploited for the benefit of humans. The other half sees them as conscious, intelligent beings in their own right, capable of companionship and deserving of respect.

You won’t have to be a genius to work out that I fall within the second half (just look at the use of language) so Making Nature: How We See Animals, the Wellcome Collection’s examination of how humans observe other species,  was always going to be significant, possibly heart-breaking.

The now-seminal exhibition, ending May 21st, is the start of a year-long exploration of what humans think, feel and value about other species and the consequences this has for both them and the planet. It does this through over 100 fascinating objects from literature, film, taxidermy and photography, organised around four themes – ‘Ordering’, ‘Displaying’, ‘Observing’ and ‘Making’.

Thus, in Ordering, you have a clear-eyed reflection of the Enlightenment-era craze for natural classification and how, very often, as in Charles Bonnet’s Scale of Natural Being, from 1783, humans came out top, thereby, in some antiquated way, giving us the right to bash everything else about a bit. Display features a diorama of taxidermied fox cubs, frolicking against an artificial landscape, at once ridiculously twee (that coy tilt of the head - not from reality, surely?) but also, through its anthropomorphic approach, heralded a new sympathy for small creatures. Modernist architect Hugh Casson’s early-’60s designs for a radical new type of elephant house had nothing to do with the requirements of the beast itself.

These are historical curios, but there’s recent stuff too: on loan from Pittsburgh’s Center for Postnatural History, the first institute to explore animals that have been fundamentally altered by humans is a genetically modified mosquito, unable to carry the dengue fever virus, soon to be released into the wild to breed out the rest.

Curated by Honor Beddard, the exhibition is enormously clever and enormously moving, simultaneously questioning the approach of ‘learning through looking’ and charting the changing fashions of museum displays alongside society’s changing attitudes to the world around us, while examining the search for an authentic encounter with nature.

Most moving of all is Allora and Calzadilla’s film installation ‘The Great Silence’, which juxtaposes footage of Arecibo Observatory’s transmitter, used to broadcast messages into outer space in search of extra-terrestrial intelligence, with the reality of the endangered parrots trying to survive in the diminishing landscape around it.

The accompanying text, written from the perspective of the parrots, is at once doomed but affectionate: “You be good. I love you.” it ends. The message is clear: take care of what you have now.

Making Nature: How We See Animals is at the Wellcome Collection, London, until May 21st.