By Jack Ashby, on 16 March 2015
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 artistic outcomes of scenarios like this are the basis for much of our exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals, which opens today.
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.