Natural history displays tend to be about what animals are. We pickle, macerate and stuff animals’ bodies, so they can show visitors how big they were, their colours, and who they were related to, perhaps where they were from.
The new Beavers to Weavers exhibition at Leeds City Museum is about what animals do, how they live their lives. This is really what makes each of us unique, and is how we impact upon each others’ lives, whether in the music we play, our words and actions, or what we create.
Being a museum exhibition, the gallery space necessarily has lots of things in. As well as objects, we have also included sound, light and dance made by animals. I feel that as we lose more and more animal species to extinction, museums become increasingly important as memorials of lost behaviour, as well as archives of lost bodies.
Except of course you can’t bottle birdsong, or pickle the light of a glow-worm. The value of what we and other animals do relies on how this interacts with others, and with the environment we are part of.
For example, you can record the sound of an oboe, preserve an oboe in a museum, even an oboist. But you can’t freeze the tingle of excitement you feel as an oboe leads the tuning-up of an orchestra before a performance, while the lights go down on an auditorium.
Similarly, you can record and play back the song of a Blackbird. But this isn’t really birdsong. A Blackbird’s song has evolved over millions of years to be heard outside, in the acoustics of a cool dewy woodland morning, singing as part of a symphony of other sound and song.
You can preserve sections of leaf cut by Leafcutter Ants, and the Leafcutter Ants themselves. But you can’t keep the vast colony of millions of interacting ants, the whole crackling busy horde weaving themselves within the rich ecosystem of the rainforest. You can’t grasp in your hands the excitement of seeing them for the first time, and the growing wonder as you follow their busy line and see how never-ending it is. A Leafcutter Ant can’t exist in isolation, it just doesn’t make any sense. And neither can we.
So, while I really hope you enjoy this exhibition, it can’t really tell you the whole story about the animals in it, let alone the millions we couldn’t fit in. The exhibition acts more as a reading list for nature, a series of serving suggestions. In the nicest possible way, I hope it makes you want to leave the museum. To go outside to look and listen, and enjoy the utterly wonderful animals we share out precious planet with.
By Rebecca Machin, Curator of Natural Science
Follow our #MondayswithMachin hashtag for behind the scenes collections videos ahead of the exhibition launch.