Curating the Natural World


A year of nature programming at Wellcome Collection, London

I’m going to talk about some of the programming that Wellcome Collection has been doing over the last year engaging our visitors on environmental themes but I want to begin by briefly looking at Wellcome Collection’s particular approach. This will, I hope, provide some context for the exhibitions that I will go on to talk about but it is also, for me, a starting point from which to think about the role that museums play in civic life.

For those of you not familiar with us, Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library whose programme looks at the culture of medicine. It does so by bringing together science, medicine, life and art to explore how people think and feel about health. We address topics that do not sit within one single discipline, allowing us to unite objects and art works from different fields and perspectives. Topics have ranged from forensic medicine, consciousness and the voice through to our current exhibitions on the role of graphic design in healthcare and the West’s relationship with Indian medicine.

Wellcome Collection does not operate on a model of science communication nor on a public health model. What underpins our approach is a commitment to the idea of museum programming as a form of investigation. Ken Arnold, our former head of public programmes, described Wellcome Collection’s approach by citing the formula first put forward by academic Stefan Collini, that

‘experience + reflection = understanding’

It is an approach that has been applied very successfully in the humanities, in contrast to the alternative equation of

‘skills + information = knowledge’

that Collini suggests has found more success within the sciences. And it is in this subtle distinction between knowledge and understanding that we begin to find a suggestion of how museums can be active – and positive – participants in civic life.

Understanding is a process. It is an active and mindful form of engagement that involves thinking things through and it is unquestionably relational – understanding depends on the qualities of the understander. In doing so, it frees us from the quest for objective knowledge, allows for a messy, tangled and contradictory world, but, most importantly, it offers a space for fresh ideas and thoughts – and it prepares us for change.

Wellcome Collection is, as many of you will know, funded entirely by Wellcome, a global charitable foundation devoted to improving health. Wellcome has been developing a strand of work entitled ‘Our Planet Our Health’ that aims to establish a community of researchers taking on the challenges that food systems, increasing urbanisation and climate change pose to our health.

At Wellcome Collection our year of nature programming enabled us to explore some of these same environmental questions but in a very different way. We were able to broaden that enquiry – to ask not just where we are going, but how did we get here in the first place? It allowed us to consider the philosophical and historical origins of our beliefs about the natural world and by doing so it put environmental issues into a social and cultural context, allowing us to address the cultural perceptions of our visitors.

The year began with ‘Making Nature’, an exhibition that explored the relationship between humans and animals. It examined the narratives about nature that have been created by science and how these have been made manifest in the displays of more traditional natural history museums and in zoo design.

The exhibition started in the 18th century with the arrival of taxonomy, the science of naming and classifying organisms. This moment signalled the point at which we begin to believe in rational explanation for the similarities and differences we perceive between us and other animals.

The exhibition was curated and designed with a strong emphasis on physical interaction with the objects and the space. Canadian artist Abbas Akhavan’s ethically taxidermy animals discretely placed in low lit corners in poses that acknowledge they are dead, forced people to bend down, to resist the instinctive urge to reach out and touch these animals, to think about the size of their bodies in relation to the creatures before them. We did receive a small number of comments that visitors found these upsetting. Interestingly, not one visitor commented directly on the 19th century taxidermy foxes raised on a pedestal in a glass museum case – hunting trophies from another era.

Another example was the two-way mirrored wall that allowed visitors in room 3, the section about zoos, to look back upon their fellow visitors in room 2 and observe them as they moved around and themselves became the exhibits.

The purpose of this was to encourage people to reflect on the value of embodied knowledge. What information does our body ‘understand’ without conscious thought? Why is this kind of knowledge important? How does it compare and contrast with the information that we are given in traditional natural history museums or scientific institutions?

By drawing our visitors’ narratives into our narrative as a museum, we aimed to encourage our audiences to reflect on the impact our ideas about nature have on our actions – or, more importantly, our inactions – towards our planet.

So where could we go from here? How could the second half of our nature themed year explore these environmental questions in a way that was more meaningful or relevant? For our second exhibition we turned to our visitors and ran 10 pop-up discussion sessions in Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room – a hybrid space of gallery, library and events. Visitors were asked ‘What is nature? What does it mean to you and what object would you donate to a museum of modern nature?’

The events provoked incredibly wide-ranging discussions, conflicting views, very personal accounts and memories, and passionate polemics. Here are just some of the hundreds of questions and statements that came out of them:

  • “Is nature the government’s responsibility or is it ours?”
  • “How do you get beyond the environmental message – it’s a stuck record – how do you get the excitement back?”
  • “If we don’t use genetic modification, we can’t feed a growing population”
  • “When you talk about conservation, it’s in reference to saving ourselves”
  • “I don’t think we can any longer make a distinction between nature and the manmade”

We also went out and ran workshops with groups from the local community, the first a group of women all originally from Bangladesh who now live in central London, the second those who attend the Camden branch of Age UK. In addition, we ran an extensive project with an inner city school working with year 9 boys and artist Verity-Jane Keefe to explore their views on the future of the environment.

At the end of this process, what struck us most was the gap between people and policy – how do you get beyond that so-called ‘stuck record’? How could we, as a museum, explore environmental themes in a way that connected with people’s behaviours and values?

So we decided to step back and let our visitors create their own museum of nature. We did an extensive call out asking people to bring us an object that represented their relationship to nature and to tell us the story behind it. Over three days in May visitors brought in everything from an oxygen cylinder to a slice of bread, musical instruments to a sliver of plastic turf – and much more in between. We photographed everyone and we collected their stories.

One week later a team of individuals who each relate to nature in a different way chose the objects that would go on display in Wellcome Collection’s gallery. The team included a London park manager, a plant scientist, the first woman to climb Everest, an urban shaman, a sustainability practitioner, a farmer and a materials expert and maker.

The result was our exhibition ‘A museum of modern nature’ an incredibly human, tender exhibition that was at times funny and both joyful and sad. We stripped the gallery of virtually all interpretation save for the voices of those 56 individuals whose objects were on display, many of which could be heard directly on individual headphones by each object, explaining, in their own words, why it represented their relationship with nature.

The design of the exhibition was made entirely by repurposing the materials that had been used in our first exhibition, ‘Making Nature’.

Why did we do it?

We know that museums are changing – the role of the curator, the visitor and its objects – are all being rethought. The idea of museums as bastions of authority, as purveyors of received wisdom is outdated. An article by journalist Rob Sharp in a recent issue of the museums journal pointed out the risks that an educational approach of passively giving information can carry in entrenching opinion rather than changing it. By sharing their stories, we encouraged the visitors who took part in ‘A museum of modern nature’ to became more active and mindful contributors. Stories stop us from sitting outside of an experience. It is popular culture and narrative that shape how people think and ultimately act.

At Wellcome Collection we always aim not to take a didactic approach and we do not advocate the views of everyone that we give a platform to. What drives us is a belief in our responsibility to create a space for discussion and a space for experimentation, both by ourselves and our visitors – that ‘thinking things through’ that I mentioned at the beginning of my talk. When I’m speaking about ‘A museum of modern nature’, in hindsight it all sounds rather straightforward. It was not. We embarked on a project in which until 6 weeks before the exhibition opening we had no idea what content – if any – we would have. But what we did carry with us was a belief that our visitors had something important to say – and that we had a role to play in creating a space for them to do so, a space in which they felt they had some ownership.

As we face the future, there are complex and difficult questions to be asked about who decides what are the right decisions to be made in relation to the environment. Museums are a space where different disciplines, perspectives and cultures can be brought together. Our own particular collections and programmes will offer opportunities that are unique to each of us. But what unites all of us is our audiences. They are one of our biggest assets – use them.

The Museums Framework that Julie’s Bicycle have launched covers every aspect of creating a more sustainable museum. Our audiences also have a role to play in that. What knowledge might they have to share with one another that fits within our organisational objectives? How might we create frameworks to help them do that?

It is in this way that museums can help to build bridges – bridges between knowledge and understanding, bridges between communities, and bridges between people and the world around them.


Honor Beddard, exhibitions curator at Wellcome Collection, London.

Photo credit: Thomas Farnetti/Wellcome

This blog post was originally posted on the Julie’s Bicycle website at https://www.juliesbicycle.com/news/curating-the-natural-world.