After nearly a year working at the Grant Museum I realise I have become accustomed to aesthetics of my working environment. Decorations in your typical office might include team photos, prints of inspirational quotes and once a year, some tinsel. Here our walls are decorated with skulls, intestines and pickled reproductive organs. An interaction between a visitor and myself might involve them asking me ‘what is THAT??’, only for me to matter-of-factly reply ‘oh, that’s a bisected seal nose’. Not all interactions are so cordial however; when one visitor recently told me that our displays were ‘gratuitous’ I gently reminded them that our museum is primarily a teaching collection, meaning students across a wide range of disciplines often look at certain ‘unappealing’ parts of an animal in great detail. I hope that by writing about today’s specimen I can demonstrate why we have these ‘gratuitous’ objects on display, and what they can teach us about animals. Okay readers let’s hop to it, it’s the…
For the past fourteen weeks a kangaroo has been the most celebrated object in the Grant Museum, but it was not part of our collection, nor was it a zoological specimen. Europe’s first painting of a kangaroo, from 1772 by George Stubbs left us just last week. It had been the centrepiece of our Stange Creatures exhibition and now it is continuing its nationwide tour from the National Maritime Museum*. I have argued it is one of the most important artworks in the history of British exploration.
Now that it’s gone, I would like to shine the spotlight on a kangaroo that does “live” here at the Grant Museum. Although it also featured in the exhibition, I suspect it’s recently been feeling somewhat overshadowed by its 2-dimensional counterpart. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
There is a popular British colonial narrative in which Captain James Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770, as demonstrated by this Google autofill:
In reality, not even Cook thought this was true. Australia had been known by the French, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch (hence its original European name “New Holland”, which Cook himself used) for at least two hundred years before Cook landed in the southeast of the country on his ship HMS Endeavour. Obviously Indigenous Australians and their neighbours also had been there for around 50,000 years.
Our current exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals explores how newly discovered animals are communicated to the public back home. It is is centred around a painting that resulted from that voyage of Cook’s – a kangaroo by George Stubbs. This is the first painting of an Australian animal in Western art. As I wrote in the exhibition text:
This painting helped begin Europe’s relationship with Australian wildlife. Commissioned by legendary naturalist Joseph Banks, painted by celebrated animal artist George Stubbs, and based on findings from Captain Cook’s famous voyage, this kangaroo truly captured the country’s imagination.
Stubbs’ image became the archetype for representations of kangaroos for decades – reproduced and refigured prolifically. It may not be anatomically perfect, but this is how Britain came to know the kangaroo.
It is an emblem of the age of exploration at the historical threshold of the European occupation of Australia. Nothing was ever the same again.
Here I’d like to explore some of the meetings between Europeans and Australiasian marsupials that preceded Cook’s visit. (more…)
This week I’m honouring a mammal that we can link to two significant factors in my life recently. First, it’s an Australian hopping marsupial, as are kangaroos. Our current Strange Creatures exhibition centres around Europe’s first painting of a roo – by George Stubbs. Secondly, I’ve been in Australia for the last few weeks doing fieldwork with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and my first task was to help test a mechanism for surveying this Critically Endangered mammal.
This week’s Specimen of the Week is…. (more…)
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.
The Grant Museum is extremely excited to be a partner in the National Maritime Museum’s Travelers’ Tails project, which will involve this painting of a kangaroo by George Stubbs – the first ever western painting of Australian wildlife – coming to the Grant in March.
Last month I was in Australia on zoological fieldwork. I decided to visit the places that Cook went on his first voyage of discovery, which resulted in Britain’s first kangaroo encounters and ultimately this painting being made. It very nearly didn’t happen, and Cook’s Australian expedition would have been a zoological disappointment.
I wrote this post for the National Maritime Museum’s blog. It begins…
The kangaroo painting that might never have been – following in Cook’s footsteps
The painting of the kangaroo by George Stubbs would never have existed if it weren’t for an extraordinary bit of bad luck in a very dangerous situation. (more…)
In September I wrote a post about two paintings by George Stubbs – of a kangaroo and a dingo – which had been placed under an export bar to allow time for the National Maritime Museum to raise funds to save them for the nation. This was because they had been sold to an oversees buyer.
This week we learned that the campaign was successful. Had it not been, the paintings would have been bought by the National Gallery of Australia. They are understandably disappointed. I was asked by The Conversation (“an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community”) to update my article for them, covering the Australian case for their acquisition. (more…)
James Cook’s landing in Australia in 1770 changed the political, social and natural world. With regards to the latter, the animals the expedition discovered, described and exported have had profound effects on people’s experience and understanding of zoology.
Whilst I believe that the descriptions of Cook’s party’s early encounters with kangaroos were ridiculous, it was these encounters that began Europe’s relationship with Australasian wildlife.
A few marsupials in the Americas (opossums) were already known by this point, but a whole continent with entire ecosystems based around them, and including 6 foot kangaroos questions the very nature of mammals. What else could be left unknown? American opossums, with their pouches, would have been interesting discoveries among scientific communities, but they must have been nothing compared to the sensation of the kangaroo in the eyes of the public. (more…)
I’m writing this second review in the predictably punned “Book Worm” occasional series whilst in the desert town of Alice Springs. As I like to match my reading with my surroundings, I’m reviewing Kangaroo by John Simons, published in December as part of Reaktion’s Animal Series.
What this book seems to attempt to do is tackle the kangaroo from a variety of angles – biological, ecolgical, historical and anthropological. It is extremely generously illustrated (on nearly every page). There is sometimes, however, no obvious connection between the image and the neighbouring text which can make things a bit confusing, particularly when he is describing a specific visual scene without providing the appropriate image. (more…)