A museum of modern nature

 Thermos flask, Rosemary, 57 years old: “For me, what nature does, and having my own thermos, enables me to have my own space in nature, where I can be myself, free from all the demands from people in my life who want something from me.” Picture: The Wellcome Collection.

Thermos flask, Rosemary, 57 years old: “For me, what nature does, and having my own thermos, enables me to have my own space in nature, where I can be myself, free from all the demands from people in my life who want something from me.” Picture: The Wellcome Collection.

By BEL JACOBS

Many of us think of nature as something separate to ourselves, somewhere to visit, something ‘outside’. Yet, whether we live in the city or the countryside, we are all part of a complex ecosystem with the plants, animals, land, air and water that surround us.

A Museum of Modern Nature, Wellcome Collection’s summer exhibition, shines a light on how each of us connects with nature through objects borrowed from members of the public. Each tells a story, collectively creating a snapshot of how we think about nature in the 21st century.

The museum follows on from the Collection’s powerful Making Nature: how we see animals, which examined how people put animals on display and what that said about societal attitudes towards animals. Both events are part of a year-long programme exploring the bonds between people and the natural world.

The Museum of Modern Nature challenges the idea of edited curation that was the core of Making Nature. “We wanted to flip that on its head and ask ‘what other types of knowledge can we gain from lived experience?’,” says curator Honor Beddard. “So we asked our visitors to bring us an object that told a story about their relationship with nature.” 

 Garden gnome, Julie Carr: "When I picked the gnome, I did it somewhat ironically. But in reality, it has contributed significantly to my love of nature as an adult. If those odd little fellows hadn’t drawn me outside while the grown-ups talked inside, my life would certainly have been a poorer one.” Picture: Wellcome Collection.

Garden gnome, Julie Carr: "When I picked the gnome, I did it somewhat ironically. But in reality, it has contributed significantly to my love of nature as an adult. If those odd little fellows hadn’t drawn me outside while the grown-ups talked inside, my life would certainly have been a poorer one.” Picture: Wellcome Collection.

The objects were selected by a small team of people including a diary farmer, a horticultural scientist and a plant medicine shaman who all work water in their daily lives. “In Making Nature, we were very aware that we were a museum, putting on a display about display,” says Beddard of this bold move. “This time, we wanted to take that out of the process as much as possible.”

The final selection is unexpected and moving. A pair of running shoes, a slice of bread and a thermal flask are examples of the everyday objects that bring nature into people’s lives, routines and memories; coffins for dead crabs made by teenagers and a recording of the dawn chorus in Kenya show the ways in which nature is a source of inspiration and imagination. 

A fluffy yellow toy chick and some astroturf demonstrate the ubiquity of synthetic versions of natural things and hint at an anxiety over declining resources. The objects highlight how the health of our planet is intricately bound up with the behaviours and values of the people who inhabit it.

Each has their own story. Seventeen-year-old Maerle Nunneley donated a tiny cat made entirely of hair from her ginger cat: “You can mould it with your hands to make it into a 3D shape. Some people think it’s a bit strange. But it’s quite cute. A bit disgusting, maybe.”

Three little brothers, Felix, Vito and Gulliver, chose homemade weapons: “My object is an axe and a hammer put together. I like being outside in nature. We tied the concrete onto a stick with some string and it has a bug living in it but it’s dead now.” Kelli Powling, 36, displays her tattoo: “I wanted a permanent symbol of the daily gratitude I feel towards nature. I chose phytoplankton because they … hold an invisible importance of immense magnitude.”

 Weapons, Felix, Vito and Gulliver Wayman-Thwaites, 7, 7 and 2 3/4. Picture: Wellcome Collection. 

Weapons, Felix, Vito and Gulliver Wayman-Thwaites, 7, 7 and 2 3/4. Picture: Wellcome Collection. 

“They’re all unusual and quite extraordinary objects,” says Beddard. “My slight fear was that we would get 500 pine cones - and there’s something interesting in that if you do - but what we got were considered, thoughtful, moving, frank, sometimes funny glimpses into other people’s lives. Our public have been very brave in some of the stories they’ve told.”

The exhibition continues online in a major digital project, Sharing Nature. “There are restrictions on what can go into the gallery, so we’ve asked people to keep contributing images of objects throughout the course of the exhibition,” says Beddard.

Does Beddard have any favourite items? “They’re all amazing in different ways,” she says, slowly. “But I do love the cat made of cat hair and the story that goes with it.”

She is interested in pieces that mimic the natural world and its inhabitants. “We’ve got a few pieces that shine a light on the strange paradox of our relationship with nature,” she continues. 

“Often, we make synthetic replicas of the real thing, for instance, the plastic turf used in the city farm to cover concrete surfaces - although [the donor] talks about the fact you can’t keep nature down, that it keeps growing through the plastic grass. 

“There are so many reasons for [using it] but I still find it a bit odd that we live in a world where we use plastic grass.” 

A Museum of Modern Nature, Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. Till October 8, 2017, https://wellcomecollection.org/modernnature