This week’s specimen of the week is an object that is very special to me and one of the objects featured in our current exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals. The theme of the exhibition is representations of animals centred around George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo, Europe’s first painting of an Australian animal which became the archetype for how people imagined how kangaroos looked, despite the animal itself never being seen by George Stubbs. In addition to this painting the exhibition focuses on representations of animals across modern scientific modelling, medieval manuscripts and, a part of the exhibition that is very close to my heart, representations of dinosaurs in popular culture in the form of toys, comics, video games and film.
This week’s object from the exhibition is from my own personal collection, my first ever dinosaur toy which may be surprising to find in a museum but mass produced ephemera can tell us a lot about societies’ interpretation and response to ideas of extinct creatures despite being very far removed from any actual scientific investigation or research.
Dean Veall here. This week I return to a case that is one of my favourite in the Museum for my Specimen of the Week. It has particular relevance in a week I had my bi-annual haircut and lost my full head of curls, as the common name for this specimen has the word comb in it. I also chose this specimen as it challenges the long held stereotypic view of the group it belongs to, not slow, fumbling and herbivorous , but vicious, predatory and damn right mean looking (and ultimately really cool, swoon), you certainly wouldn’t pick a fight with this specimen. This week’s Specimen of the Week is….
Imagine that you are in a place no-one from your country has ever been before. You have just set eyes on an animal incomparible to anything you’ve ever encountered – it might as well be an alien. Cameras haven’t been invented. It will take a year for you or anything you send to reach home. Your job is to communicate what you’ve discovered to the people back home.
The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
The natural history of art; the art history of nature
By examining the world of animal representations, the exhibition explores how imagery has been used to bring newly discovered animals into the public eye. From the earliest days of exploration, visual depictions in artworks, books, the media and even toys have been essential in representing exotic species that are alien to people at home.
Strange Creatures investigates what we can learn about art history by researching natural history, and what art history can contribute to natural history.
Europe’s first kangaroo
Strange Creatures centres upon George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo (pictured above), which was created following Captain Cook’s first Pacific “Voyage of Discovery”. It is Europe’s first painting of an Australian animal and became the archetype for how people imagined this iconic species for decades. This painting was recently saved for the nation after it was initially sold to an overseas buyer. This resulted in a government export bar before Royal Museums Greenwich raised the funds to keep it in the UK (as I wrote in The Conversation at the time). This exhibition represents a chance to see the artwork among other animal depictions from the time of their earliest European encounters.
Many of the artworks on display were created by people who had never seen these animals in the flesh, either working from explorers’ accounts, or copying (and potentially embellishing) images produced by others.
Strange Creatures from many angles
As a university museum one of our key jobs is to create opportunities for the public to engage with cutting-edge research that is taking place here at UCL (University College London). As such, most of the exhibition’s displays were developed by palaeontologists and by historians of science, exploration and art from the university. They have investigated the theme of animal representation from the perspective of their own disciplines, and developed sections of the exhibition around them.
Modern mechanics and medieval manuscripts
These researchers’ stories include medieval accounts of exotic creatures, art from the ages of exploration and empire, sailors who faked “dragon” specimens by manipulating dried fish, contemporary knitted craft taxidermy and twenty-first century reconstructions of dinosaurs. Together they explore how unknown animals are communicated to the wider public.
I spend a lot of time in remote areas looking for animals (I’ve never officially discovered a new species, but I probably have caught animals that are yet to be described). As such, I wince at historic accounts of explorers briefly describing a fantastical animal they encounter, immediately followed by an account of what it tasted like. One of the researcher’s displays explains how food is unsurprisingly prioritised over science in these situations. To be fair, I don’t have to rely on ship’s biscuits or foraging (much) during my field trips, and I don’t spend months at sea to get there.
Taxidermy and dinosaurs
It’s not only historic artworks which mis-portrayed these amazing species. We have all seen taxidermy in museums that is less than perfect. [COUGH-Hornimanwalrus-COUGH]. Such specimens arose when skins were shipped back to Europe and fleshed-out to recreate the animal based on a few notes.
Modern dinosaur toys are another example. We’ve known for some time that many dinosaurs were dynamic, warm blooded, intellgent animals, but popular culture is still full of traditional Godzilla-like tail tragging dullards.
It’s been such a fascinating exhibition to pull together – being able to work with a group of historians, artists and scientists from such a diverse set of disciplines has allowed us to tell so many stories about the topic of animal representations. It’s also very exciting to see these incredible objects, like Stubbs’ kangaroo, prints and drawings from UCL Art Museum and Captain Cook’s handwritten voyage accounts (from UCL Library Special Collections), displayed alongside the Grant Museum’s animal specimens.
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, and curator of the Strange Creatures exhibition.
‘Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals’ runs from 16th March to 27th June 2015. The Grant Museum of Zoology is open from 1–5pm Monday to Saturday (but closes for a few days around Easter). Admission is free and there is no need to book.
We have a fantastically packed programme free events accompanies the exhibition, from drawing classes, open mic nights with performances from animal researchers, tours and Museum Lates to a screening of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and a Knit-a-thon.
Strange Creatures is part of Travellers’ Tails a collaboration between Royal Museums Greenwich and four partner museums to investigate the history of exploration, art and science. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund.
Happy almost springtime! Longer days and brighter skies herald the coming of the change of season. This year the official start of Spring will be marked by a total solar eclipse on March 20 (get your eclipse glasses ready). When the sun re-emerges from behind the moon, both man and beast can rejoice in the return of the light and the promise of rejuvenation.
Here at the Museum, it is also time to clean the shelves, tidy the office, refresh the displays and present a brand-new exhibition. From 16 March to 27 June join us for Stange Creatures: The art of unknown animals and explore the world of animal representation.
While springtime has many different meanings and associations, including representative animals, one animal is perhaps most symbolic of this time of year. In honour of this most springy of selections, this week’s Specimen of the Week is… Read the rest of this entry »
The Petrie Museum takes its name from famed archaeologist Flinders Petrie. It’s all too easy, therefore, to fall into the habit of always celebrating him – all ‘Petrie this’ and ‘Petrie that’ – as if he somehow toiled alone, a heroic pioneer. The fact is, he built his career with the support and labour of others. ‘His’ Museum would not be here at all were it not for Amelia Blanford Edwards (1831–1892). So on International Women’s Day this year we celebrate our true founder .
This Girl Can. Plaster cast bust of Amelia Edwards in the entrance to the Petrie Museum
Hello Grant-fans. Will Richard here. Bringing you this week’s specimen. And just like last time (and the time before etc.) the dilemma is… what to choose? So far I’ve reported on three mammals and a bird. All full of backbone.
So, I suppose I’ll have to bite the bullet, but not the bullet ant, and give a nod to the better half (more like nine and a half tenths) of the animal kingdom.
Welcome one, welcome all to February 2015’s Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month. For the uninitiated, this blog series is an exploration of world of underwhelming fossil fish. Natural history museums are packed with millions of specimens but most aren’t the celebrated, charismatic, blockbusting Hollywood specimens. Most are uncelebratable data points. Broken, ugly and altogether uninteresting. This series, the whole of which you can browse through here (READER DISCRETION ADVISED: reading too many in one sitting may put you in a permanent state of torpor), focuses on the Grant Museum’s fossil fish collection. Month by month we swivel the spotlight onto one of our fossil fish specimens and contemplate the borderline mediocre. Why do we have these specimens? Can we learn something about ourselves by trying to stay awake reading about them? No. No of course we can’t.
Matchstick props to keep your eyes open recommended for this one, set phasers to underwhelm. For series fans you may be slightly excited to learn it’s a return of the SPOT THE FOSSIL FISH format that nobody has been clamouring for!
Dean Veall here, we are getting ready for tonight’s Focus on the Positive event where we will be giving away £2,000 to a researcher here at UCL. They will pitch to the audience their project who will then vote to decide which project, related to their research, becomes a reality. Alison Fairbrass was a runner-up at a previous event and has written about how she spent her £1,000 prize giving London Biodiversity a health check.
A question we get from our visitors a lot at the Grant Museum is “Is it a dinosaur?” either preceded or followed by the question “Is it real?”. There’s something about a natural history museum that despite displaying skeletons of horses, rhinos, frogs, fish, bats, cats, rats, snakes and crocodiles, to many of our younger visitors (but not exclusively) any skeleton in a museum, particularly a big one, has to be a dinosaur (of the non bird variety of course but that’s a blog post for another time). That’s how dinosaurs come, as large skeletons. So unfortunately for us we have to deflate the expectations of our visitors sometimes by informing them that no, sorry, it isn’t a dinosaur it’s ‘just’ an elephant or gorilla or tiger. Animals which are endlessly fascinating and amazing in their own right but not at the precise moment of discovering “oh-its-not-a-dinosaur”.
We don’t have a huge amount of dinosaur material at the Grant Museum – just over one hundred specimens including a lot of plaster casts and our ever popular plastic dinosaur collection. Of the actual fossil material we have in the collection, there’s very little material which brings to mind the awe-inspiring, ground shaking, fearsome dinosaurs we’re used to in popular culture. The reality is (dare I say) a bit more underwhelming, our dinosaur fossil collection comprises fragments of ribs, partial vertebrae and according to one of our database entries a ‘sub angular fossil fragment’. However, we do have one complete (non-avian) dinosaur skeleton on display. One that’s easily missed, tucked above our whale display. So ask me again. Is it a dinosaur? Yes it is! Is it real? Errr no, it’s just a cast (topical) BUT IT’S STILL INTERESTING OKAY.