Molly Shrimpton finds hope in the unusual at the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition ‘A Museum of Modern Nature’.
In Spring 2017 the Wellcome Collection asked members of the public to bring in objects that ‘tell a story about their relationship with nature’. The objects received were then carefully sorted through and selected by a team of individuals who all work with nature in varying ways: from a horticulturalist to a mountaineer, a dairy farmer to a shaman.
The objects received ranged in an astonishing diversity. For some, such as a pair of binoculars, a Ladybird biology textbook, and an elderflower sprig, the logic seems clear. But for others, such as a pack of PG Tips playing cards, a shopping list, and an oxygen cylinder, the story is more complicated. For me, there was no clear route through the exhibition. You enter the large white room and find yourself lurching from one direction to another, moving sporadically towards interesting object after interesting object, whatever the eye snags on next. It reminded me somewhat of the experience of walking through a forest, in which multiple paths spiral off in different directions and the senses are bombarded with new dimensions of sound, smell and touch; the eye is drawn to random totems of sylvan life: a branch, a feather, a husk.
One of the clear, overarching themes to be found in many of the objects – which likely attests to the location of the exhibition and the demographic of its contributors – is the experience of urban life, and the struggle of connecting to nature whilst living in the city. A Thermos flask speaks of a woman’s agony of being ‘trapped’ in London, dreaming of a life ‘in the country with a garden of my own and ideally a dog.’ The flask enables her to have her own space in nature, liberated from the demands of others. It is a symbolic facilitator of the solace that time alone in nature can bring to the harried, the stressed, and the unhappy. A particularly touching entry is a homemade suncatcher, which consists of coloured jewels strung onto a clothes hanger with scraps of ribbon. The creator, Ikuko, explains: ‘I’m living in a second floor flat, I haven’t got a garden, so the window is for me the lookout into the nature around me. (…) the window is an interface to nature and the suncatcher is representing the window to connect me to the outside world, surrounding nature.’ These words capture the quiet longing of someone who is painfully aware of the distance that circumstance has forced between her and the natural spaces of the world. The suncatcher is a labour of love, a humble collection of unwanted domestic articles, which acts as a refractor, taking the light and colours that lie beyond the mediatory window and spilling them joyfully over into the intimacy of the apartment, naturalizing the interior space.
The material, industrial culture of the modern city engenders other surprising reactions to nature: an artificial yellow chick, a clothes brush and a carton of Princes 100% Pure Apple Juice. A young woman speaks of two old photographs taken by her grandfather of the view from his house, before and after the construction of a motorway. We expect the melancholy and nostalgia of the grandfather, grieving for the loss of his natural surroundings. What we do not expect, is the reaction of the granddaughter: ‘the motorway actually reminds me of the seasons, because as a child I would look out at the motorway when I was visiting my grandparents and in winter, when it gets dark about 5 or 6 o’clock, the lights of the motorway actually looked like Christmas tree lights. So it really reminded me or Christmas and the fact that winter was coming. And I used to kind of watch for the Christmas Coca Cola van on the motorway. So yeah, that’s why it reminds me of nature.’ Industrial development and commercial capitalism – industries we associate most with environmental degradation – here create a surprising access point. Perhaps what this highlights is the remarkable ability of humans –especially children – to adapt to their surroundings, and to find imaginative routes and pathways to nature, even in the most unlikely of situations.
The creative tenacity evidenced in this story reflects the wider perseverance of the natural world, whose wondrous capacity for regeneration many contributors captured in their stories. An elegant sculpture of cast bronze and silver birch stands in this light, the latter of which the contributor uses for its capacity as a pioneer species to regenerate damaged or polluted areas, creating the right conditions for other species to follow and grow. A piece of plastic turf tells the tale of an urbanized city farm smothered in concrete, which the owners decided to turf over in order to encourage people to visit and engage with nature (belying an ironic belief in the capacity of plastic to reconnect us to the natural world). Over time, plants started to grow through the turf: ‘it wasn’t just grass that was growing, it was… there were little bits of kale coming up and little nasturtium seeds’, the contributor laughs as she speaks. Hearing the story, one imagines a kind of green patchwork, in which delicate shoots needle through and interweave themselves into the wider membrane of the plastic lining; a dystopian metaphor perhaps for the future of our planet, in which plastic will become as ubiquitous as grass, inseparable from the raw structure and strata of the earth in the age of the Plastocene.
Other items speak of the importance of the home in our relation to nature. A Dukes mayonnaise jar is filled with soft cotton, into which pecans and pine cones nestle. The objects have been sent from the contributor’s mother, who still resides in her native Alabama. The contributor speaks of the comfort that the jar brings her, perhaps conjuring visions of the shimmering prairies and golden light of the forests of her home. But she also speaks of the pain and longing that alienation from this landscape brings. Her words point directly to the importance of the home environment on the creation of the self, and the way that the self corresponds to the exterior world: ‘I think maybe the influence of the nature of home is maybe underestimated. When you move to a different country, a different climate, you are in a different habitat. The trees are different, the smells are different, the flowers are different, and I miss them. I miss the smells and nature of home. So there’s something about having a connection with almost the deepest part me of me, the part when I was a child, when I could go outside, pick up pine cones, pick up pecans and crack them open and eat them with my grandmother, stop on the side of the road and go into a cotton field and pick some. It makes me feel a bit less lonely and a bit more like my true self.’ The natural surroundings of childhood forever enmesh themselves into our identities; to be alienated from the native landscape for many brings a profound sense of dislocation. One thinks of the numerous indigenous communities who have suffered this displacement, whose cultures, languages, and belief systems have disintegrated with the loss of natal land. What they are, as Barry Lopez says in Arctic Dreams, ‘is not finished at the skin’, they are attached to the natural landscape ‘as if by luminous fibres’, the severing of which is a form of cultural genocide.
Childhood features throughout many of the objects in the exhibition. A vast display of model Volkswagen Beetles is produced as an unconscious longing for the collecting of beetles and insects that the contributor undertook as a child in his native Australia. The difference between these two types of beetles highlights the changes that have passed in recent environmental law. These temporal junctures are also evidenced in a display of shell and silver jewellery, which the contributor was gifted from her own children after it became illegal to take the shells from her local beach, as she loved to do as a child. Indeed it is the entries from children that are among the most interesting, and often the most insightful. An amethyst flower crystal was sent in by ten-year-old Dyala. She is clearly an avid crystal collector, and was attracted to the stone for its beauty, but there is more to her story than this. She explains that the flower crystal gets its name ‘after its shape because its got like little spikes coming out, and its nice to think that like some, it might have been growing one day. I like to think of it that way.’ Her words exhibit an awareness of the vast interconnectivity of organic forms, and a capacity for imagination that allows her to appreciate the correspondence of the natural world in a way that most adults are unable to.
There were many children present at the exhibition, and they were all unusually quiet, absorbed into the items on display before them. Some children sent in creative compositions that highlight the connections between nature, imagination and play. Two young girls sent in the paper coffins that they made for the dead crabs they found whilst walking on the Thames Estuary. There is ‘a (rain)bow and arrows’ from seven-year-old Mia: ‘Making things with sticks, its fun. Nature’s a playground to me.’ Similarly there is a wonderful display of weapons from brothers Felix, Vito and Gulliver, whose axes and hammers are made out of fragments of natural materials found in their local park: ‘We tied the concrete onto a stick with some string and it ha a bug living in it but its dead now.’ The discovery, wonder and joy involved in this imaginative childhood play is encouraging. It provides a stark contrast to a recent memory of a young boy at a campsite in the Lake District, who spent his holiday marching between tents with a disturbingly realistic replica of an AK-47.
Several adult contributors also used creative practices as a method of connecting with their natural surroundings. A beautiful scroll drawing of a loomery is unfurled under glass, the astonishing detail attesting to the long period of time that the artist spent observing the guillemot colony. He writes: ‘It’s a drawing of wildlife and that’s my way of connecting to nature.’ For many, the most poignant object in the exhibition will be the Trench art paper knife, made by a soldier from brass shell casings whilst in the trenches in WW2. As the contributor writes, ‘this object is symbolic of the human impetus to create art in times of unimaginable suffering (…) [it] summons an image of great contradiction, a lone soldier-craftsman working intensively in a decimated landscape of mud, rain and blood. I have speculated about this beautiful shiny fish crafted from the very stuff of war, made in a place where plants and animals had all but disappeared. It is an object that is profoundly connected to the earth, death and life. Its material substance was extracted from rock and formed into a bullet whose intention was to send men back into the earth.’ Paradox and juxtaposition abound in this story. The bullets, intended to sever, maim and kill, are reformed into an object whose purpose will forever be the opening of letters, connecting people and places by the words of love and warmth they contain. It is a totem of mortality, renewal, and perseverance. But most of all it speaks of hope, and the urge to turn to nature and creation when all that is human and humane appears to have vanished. In such times we perhaps reach to the order from which we came, and attempt to leash ourselves back to its security through creativity, beauty and story.
A yearning for the natural world in times of emotional trauma is not unique to this story. A pair of trail running trainers sit quietly alongside a mammal trapping bag and an oxygen cylinder. They are unassuming, not out of place in an exhibition about connecting to the outside world. Worn through to the soles, they are rubbed bare in places. The loose threads, thin patches and eroded heels tell the story of a young man called Adam, who found distraction, peace, and ultimately recovery in the natural world at a very dark time in his life. Being out in nature gave him space to think, and ‘a purpose to keep going’. Rosa, 38, sent in a wooden Hand Plane, used for body surfing; a friend made it for her after her brother’s suicide. In the aftermath, she set herself the task of completing 32 wild swims in 32 days to mark the life of her sibling, swimming into the wake of his death as a way of coming to terms with her loss. She began to feel strongly the pull of the ocean, and to experience ‘the power of the sea and water and nature to heal.’ Rosa carved her brother’s name into the hand plane, and every time she catches a wave with it she is lifted into her memories of him, and is comforted to know that she carries him with her.
For me, the most striking thread that wove through all of the items in the exhibition was the precedence of the subjective; the favouring of emotion, aesthetic, and the personal over the cold hard science that – though undoubtedly important – traditionally dominates the nature we meet in museums. A woman sends in her prayer mat as evidence of the way in which she makes contact with the natural world through her faith. The consistency of her ritual makes her sensitive to the seasonal changes that fluctuate around her. In prayer, she is aware of the world; she is physically close to the ground as she takes herself down into sajdah, with her forehead on the floor, where she feels ‘close to the earth and very close to God.’ The importance of ritual in an awareness of the environment is solemnly evidenced in the traditional Bangladeshi Fakah (fan), sent in by Khoirun, who notes that such cooling methods are no longer needed as the climate of Bangladesh has changed so drastically even in her own lifetime.
A large jar of feathers was sent in by Kitty. When listening to her story, you can hear hesitancy in her voice as she tries to explain her object, as if she is also being asked to explain herself: ‘Oh, its just one of those kind of magpie impulses, isn’t it? It’s just you see something lovely and can’t help but pick it up (…) I’ve always picked up feathers just because, you know, they’re lovely. And so it’s not really scientific at all the jar of feathers’. She sounds vulnerable to criticism, to the idea that an aesthetic, felt appreciation of the natural world –often associated with femininity – is meaningless and trivial, less valid than one founded upon scientific understanding and fact. She acknowledges that the feathers she likes best are those of the Parakeet: ‘I know they’re invaders and they are probably… they’re probably quite invasive, aren’t they? But they’re just so magical, seeing them flying around in our grey sky, so they’re lovely really.’ I feel a strong affinity with this woman, and a sadness that she has not been made to feel more confident in her emotional connection to her surroundings, as if wonder, joy and awe are less valuable reactions to nature than correct identification and analysis.
The intention of the project, was ‘to create a collective snapshot of how we think about nature in the 21st century and [to] explore how the health of our planet is intricately bound up with the behaviours and values of the people who inhabit it.’ By creating this snapshot, this cross-section of social thought about nature, the trust hoped to create ‘a different kind of museum of nature’, one focused not on science, but ‘which celebrates our everyday relationship with the world around us.’ By taking nature out of the cabinet, the textbook, the glossy brochure and the fenced reserve, the trust aimed to reconnect the individual and their natural environment.
The exhibition begins with copies of the book, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Organizing Nature: A Picture Album’, which was published by the Trust for this exhibition, with an introduction by birdwatcher and writer Tim Dee. It is a handsome book, with many fascinating examples of the strange ways in which our species has learnt to approach and understand its natural surroundings, including maps, taxonomic charts, comparative diagrams, collections, nature prints and cyanotypes. Each of these pieces is a work of art itself, and in the book, contributes to the careful elucidation of the fine line between appreciation and mastery that taxonomic science treads. However, whilst flicking through the text again after experiencing the exhibition, it occurred to me that what the curators had done was to completely bypass the scientific frameworks that traditionally structure our understanding and perception of nature. Instead they had collated a collection of objects that spoke entirely of the personal. Each submission is based not on the correct identification of an organism, or an understanding of its life and purpose, but on an emotional, aesthetic, personal, subjective, embodied or individual approach to nature that is entirely human. They represent the ways in which everyday people manage to overcome the increasing distance placed between them and their natural environments, and begin a dialogue with their surroundings. By allowing members of the public to create the material for the display, they speak back to the detachment that a pane of glass normally forces between viewers and natural exhibits. The objects are totems, vectors, vehicles for contact and communication. They tell intimate stories about the lives of real people, and in so doing, place the human back into the picture we paint of the natural world, undoing the centuries of work that has been done to separate us from nature, and confronting us with the degradation, humiliation and loss that this has facilitated.
The exhibition teaches us –and importantly teaches children – that there are lots of different ways to know nature, and encourages a search for a unique personal connection to it. It demonstrates the vast ubiquity of the natural world; that nature is not just the trees in your garden, or the mountains you see on holiday; it is to be found everywhere, in a fan, a slice of bread, an oxygen cylinder, a garden gnome, a thermos, in you yourself. The diversity of objects collected reminds us that nature is not a static entity, but a web of flux, change and multiple dimensions; it means something different for everyone, indicating that an individual relation is not only possible, but critical. The Trust writes: ‘the environmental challenges we face are global but the solutions to them start with the personal and the local’. Antipathy is perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the prevention of environmental degradation. In order for people to feel genuine concern for the natural world, they need to have an authentic, emotional relationship towards it, which does not allow them to ignore its destruction. By celebrating the wonderful variety of highly personal ways in which people relate to their natural surroundings, the exhibition encourages us to seek out our own natural spaces, to explore and revel in the personal reactions they provoke, to create stories, and to treasure the wonders that we find.
The exhibition ‘A Museum of Modern Nature’ is open at The Wellcome Collection until 8th October 2017.
All images copyright to The Wellcome Collection.