Making Nature at the Wellcome Collection

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Wellcome Collection is always a reliable source of interesting and thought-provoking exhibitions, and their last few have featured a lovely variety of subjects: from sex and forensics to sound and asylums. It's a special place for me especially because of the specific kind of fusion of science and art which it manages to create. I've always thought the two disciplines fit so well together, and historically they weren't considered in opposition as they seem to be currently.

Their current exhibition, Making Nature, opened in December and - in a year of great exhibitions - shot straight to the top of my favourites. I've been twice now, and I'd wager that it'll at least make it into my top five for 2017 too (and there's a lot of good stuff on my list to see this year). It explores the relationship between humans and other species in a way I can't recall ever seeing done before. Whilst the way we view animals might seem logical, natural and inevitable, Making Nature exposes the many ways in which we have built our views, consciously and unconsciously. We have observed, categorised, displayed, studied, changed - and exploited - animals for millennia, and those actions influence the way we see ourselves, too. Examining these relationships is fascinating, but it's not always particularly comfortable, and that's important.

Included in the exhibition are a huge range of the animal-related media which humans have produced over the years. Taxidermy specimens, sixteenth century accounts of species and material relating to natural history displays in museums sit alongside Beatrix Potter's sketches, modern film pieces and the frog which presented the first reliable pregnancy test. It's a testament to how animals impact and shape our lives across every aspect of science, culture, art and leisure. The exhibition opens with Allora & Calzadilla's collaboration with Ted Chiang, The Great Silence, one of the most effective video installations I've seen. The piece ties together footage of the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot, and footage of the Arecibo Observatory, part of the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, with Chiang's cleverly woven narrative of connection and loss. Humans look into the universe to connect intelligent life - and overlook, or devalue the potential that non-human species on earth could hold for that connection. In fact, like the parrot, we are often the cause of their extinction. The wordless film is powerful and thoughtful, and an excellent orientation into a different frame of mind to view the exhibition. What would the animal world look like to us, if we hadn't had our perceptions built in these ways?

With Making Nature, the Wellcome has put on yet another beautifully curated, thoughtful exhibition. I'd have gone for Gessner's Icones Animalium alone, but I came out having learned a huge amount about a surprisingly wide variety of subjects and extremely pleased at the straight forward acknowledgement of the role that institutions like the Wellcome Collection have themselves played (and continue to) in influencing the public's view of the animal world.

FIND 'MAKING NATURE' AT: The Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE

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