Making Nature — how we see animals

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This is what the Wellcome Collection says about its new exhibition: Making Nature — how we see animals ...

The question of how humans relate to other animals has captivated philosophers, anthropologists, ethicists and artists for centuries. This exhibition will bring together over 100 objects from literature, film, taxidermy and photography to examine the historical origins of our ideas about other animals and the consequences of these for ourselves and our planet.

As someone with a keen interest in our troubled relationships with other animals (and with each other), it looked like it was probably an essential visit.  That was until I read Charles Foster's review in a recent Spectator — then I definitely knew it was.  If you're going, as I did the other week (another mental preparation for that Defra meeting), you might read this first.  It begins:

‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him?’ asks the Psalmist.  It’s a good question.  God Himself doesn’t give a very satisfactory answer.  In one breath he insists that humans are a little lower than the angels, made in His own image, but also (in a formulation as bleak and more terse than any modern reductionist’s) that they are made of dust, and to dust they will return.  Darwin tells us a similar story.  We don’t have to flip back too many pages in our family albums, he says, before we see furry, feathered and scaly faces.  But then he draws an exuberantly branching tree of life, rooted in stardust, and tells us that we’re perched on the topmost bough.  It’s not surprising that we’re confused.  This confusion is at the bottom of all our neuroses.  Our predominant feeling is the queasiness of ontological vertigo.  We know ourselves too well, and read the newspapers too diligently, to believe that we’re gods.  And yet our pride, and our love of literature and old churches, convince us that we’re not mere beasts.  We see human deaths as more morally significant than animal deaths.  We hold ourselves to different standards: we can tolerate cannibalism in wolves, but not in ourselves.  We’ll do anything to reduce the queasiness.  ...

Indeed we will.  Foster says that one way of asserting some reassuring control over the wildness out there — and hence the wildness in us — is to classify and to collect and lock up (in zoos), to experience electronically (courtesy of David Attenborough et al), to embody them in soft toys.  Foster's review ends:

This is a bracingly philosophical exhibition: a rigorous exposition of the phenomenologist’s axioms that context matters profoundly, and that each of us creates a universe. If you know you’re a wild thing, go along to meet some more of the family and to see what others think of them — and so of you. If you don’t know you’re a wild thing, go along to realise that you are.  "‘The most dangerous worldview,’ wrote von Humboldt, ‘is that of those who have never viewed the world.’ ‘Or themselves,’ I’m tempted to add. But my addition is unnecessary, as Making Nature so brilliantly shows.

Get yourself down to the Euston Road ...

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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