Making Nature: how we see animals

A vis­it to the Well­come Col­lec­tion this week, for the exhi­bi­tion Mak­ing Nature. It explores human inter­ac­tion with ani­mals; how we clas­si­fy them, dis­play them, observe them, and change them. From Wal­ter Potter’s taxi­dermy tableaux, to tigers in Man­hat­tan apart­ments, to BioS­teel™ goats that lac­tate spi­der silk, it’s a well-curat­ed, thought­ful, and even­tu­al­ly unset­tling expe­ri­ence.

It starts with Lin­naeus’ tax­onomies, the desire to impose order on the nat­ur­al world. Per­haps well-inten­tioned, but his racist human stereo­types (‘indo­lent and capri­cious Africans’) indi­cate that order is as much about opin­ion as fact.

Mak­ing Nature shows how our view of ani­mals changed from asset to resource to com­mod­i­ty, to enter­tain­ment and dec­o­ra­tion. This obser­va­tion struck me:

Humans soon dis­cov­ered they could train cap­tive birds to sing songs that may not attract mates in the wild, but would cap­ti­vate human lis­ten­ers.

The song­bird became a pro­gram­ma­ble musi­cal device.

Per­haps the sad­dest part of the exhib­it was the video instal­la­tion The Great Silence, by artists Allo­ra & Calzadil­la with author Ted Chi­ang. It con­trasts shots of two loca­tions in Puer­to Rico—the Areci­bo obser­va­to­ry for mon­i­tor­ing sig­nals of alien life, and a sanc­tu­ary for endan­gered parrots—simultaneously with Chiang’s epony­mous short sto­ry, writ­ten from the point of view of one of those par­rots.

Humans have lived along­side par­rots for thou­sands of years, and only recent­ly have they con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we might be intel­li­gent.

But par­rots are more sim­i­lar to humans than any extrater­res­tri­al species will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to rec­og­nize an alien intel­li­gence if all they can do is eaves­drop from a hun­dred light years away?

The exhi­bi­tion is, like every­thing in the Well­come Col­lec­tion, free to vis­it. It runs until 21st May, and is the first in a year-long series explor­ing our rela­tion­ship with nature.