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A Museum of Modern Nature: Review

“Intriguing, surprising and inspiring” are the words used by the Wellcome Collection’s own catalogue to describe the show. A Museum of Modern Nature was a modest-sized exhibition on the second floor of the Wellcome building in London. Split into four sections, Change, Imagine, Sustain and Ritual, A Museum of Modern Nature takes the premise of ‘show-and-tell’ and turns it into a themed show. A wide variety of objects submitted by the public were selected by a team of nature enthusiasts and experts, and displayed in their respective categories. Each object is displayed with a short written description, and many are accompanied by voice-recordings from the owner of the object themselves. From milk teeth, to pine cones and old photographs, the Wellcome Collection has taken the subject of nature and made it personal. Each of the selected pieces are charged with emotion and memories. Although perhaps a little sentimental in its presentation, the aim of the show is honourable: “to address our place in the natural world…no longer distinct from nature…[and] to contemplate the consequences of our daily actions on earth”.

Modern is the key word in the title of this Wellcome exhibition. Strategically staged opposite the permanent exhibition Medicine Man, the Museum of Modern Nature is a reminder of both our past and our future on this earth. Much like Medicine Man – which is something between an ‘apotheke’ and a traditional ‘wunderkammer’ of objects collected by the namesake and founder of the Wellcome, Henry Wellcome – A Museum of Modern Nature displays bits & bobs from around the world in cabinets and booths. But rather than the objects themselves being wonderful or extraordinary, it is their emotional and memorial value that make them interesting. Where television and the internet has taken the place of the ‘wunderkammer’, fulfilling our need to gawk at the unfamiliar, the Wellcome Collection presents something that is rooted deeper in nature to fill up this modern-day Cabinet of Curiosities. Key in this contemporary display is the idea that we humans are not more powerful than nature, but rather that nature is capable of a beauty and sentiment that can stir us.

“It lives in my kitchen, on the windowsill above the sink, and sometimes it’s very comforting, and sometimes it’s very painful…”. These are words recounted by 47 year old Heather Ticheli from Alabama. Through a nifty magnetic ear-piece, each visitor can hear the story of Heather and her Duke’s Mayonnaise jar filled with cotton, pecans and pine-cones from Alabama whilst encountering the object first hand. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, the object itself is rather unremarkable. Dukes jar filled half-way with scraps of cotton, pecans and pine-cones. But what becomes apparent through listening to Heather’s voice is that this small jar acts as a microcosm of her hometown, over 4,000 miles away. She explains: “when you move to a different country, a different climate, you are in a different habitat. The trees are different, the smells are different, the flowers are different, and I miss them.” To Heather, this small collection acts as an emblem of the mighty surroundings that she gave up to move to the UK. In its modesty and simplicity, this object manages to capture the feeling of nostalgia that many of us feel when we can no longer roam in a natural habitat that was once our home.

Displayed opposite the Dukes jar is Plastic Water, a sound-installation by Ania Tomaszewska-Nelson. Also addressing nostalgia, Plastic Water uses imitation to stimulate memories of the seaside and, as Anja herself puts it: “the past, when the seas were clear and full of fish”. The audio recording which  rains down from the ceiling from a sound-umbrella, consists of the audio of plastic containers gently rubbing against each other.  Standing directly below the speaker, the visitor is struck by the evocative similarity between the recording and the familiar sound of gushing water. The experience of this work is almost eerie in that, stepping away from the sound-shower, one feels the peculiar need to towel off. One of the only pieces in the show, originally conceived as an artwork, Plastic Water plays with our senses and suggests an inevitable future that cruelly imitates the past.

The future and past is also the theme of another outstanding contribution to A Museum of Modern Nature. Hung in simple frames in the second section of the show, Imagine, is a series of two photographs; one from the 1950s and one from the 1980s. Both slightly damaged, although the former significantly more than the latter, the photos look like something between a painting and a snapshot. 29 year old Elizabeth Shuck found the images in her grandfather’s house. Both photos capture the same view, taken from the same place, but the representations are entirely different due to the passing of time and human intervention. One shows a field with children and the other a motorway teaming with traffic. Although the topic of the detrimental effect of human imposition on nature is far from a new one, there is something in the quiet simplicity of these A5 photos that speaks to the personal in us. The damaged areas of the older picture,  whose pink fragmented discolouring makes the image look aflame is like a nod to the destruction yet to come. What is touching about Elizabeth’s own description of the two photos is that in her own memory, she recalls considering the motorway as being a landscape for organic, seasonal change. This suggests that nature can manifest itself, even through concrete.

The exhibition ends with what is essentially a mural. Contributed by the year 9 art students at the Central Foundation Boys’ School (with artist Verity Jane Keefe), the piece is a digital collage spanning the length of a wall. It represents the merging of ‘pure’ nature with human nature through stratum which shift from organic to constructed. The work is strangely beautiful and equally curious in its combining of dinosaurs and wild animals with deli chalkboards and mobile phones. It seems to sum up the entire exhibition beautifully: the world is both ours, and that of our fellow inhabitants and, although we are to respect and appreciate it, we can also contribute and leave our own mark. Of course, the extent to which this last message should be exploited is one that we must be wary of, but with institutions like the Wellcome Trust, we can be sure that there are some positive influences out there.

A museum of modern nature
Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road
London NW1 2BE