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Collections & Interpretation blog: Art, Nature, Engagement and Rural Life

Art, Nature, Engagement and Rural Life

My visit to the 2016 conference for the Natural Sciences Collections Association was a trip into the unknown. I had booked tickets weeks before even applying for my current position at the Museum of East Anglian Life and I wanted to attend as a neutral, not least because the museum’s collections have very little to do with the natural sciences. But I soon noticed strong links between our latest exhibition, ‘Life though the eyes of East Anglian artists’ and some of the projects being discussed at NatSCA 2016, and specifically in the efforts being made to engage new audiences.

In ‘The Artist and the Dead Zoo’, Nigel Monaghan, Keeper of Natural History at the National Museum of Ireland, delivered a selection of light-hearted accounts of artists (modern and traditional, writers and musicians) who have used the natural history collections of the NMI as inspiration, as raw material for casts, and the galleries as backdrops and venues – the museum hosts recording slots for artists on Mondays. Suitably relaxed and open-minded to the benefits of establishing strong working relationships with artists, we were treated to Amgueddfa Cymru’s visual log of their ‘Museum in a House’ project in Roath, Cardiff.

Specifically designed as part of a local modern arts festival, the idea of deliberately displaying natural history items outside a museum context had unsettled me slightly given the recent focus at MEAL to saturate an exhibition of historic art with rural life context, at once visual, audible and intellectual. No need to worry though, as Jen Gallichan and Annette Townsend ably demonstrated great enthusiasm throughout the project, with a non-hierarchical team allowing for freedom of everyone’s ideas on design, content and installation, from volunteers to curators.

This collaborative and fun approach yielded excellent results, and even some context drawn from popular art and culture of recent decades: suspended taxidermy harked back to the mid 20th century, while the family’s DVD collection was carefully arranged to highlight animal- and nature-related films such as Jurassic Park and Madagascar. The aim was to excite the local art world with a playful exhibition, and create new interest in natural history collections. In this they excelled, seeing 600 visitors in 10 hours, with many visitors returning later with friends and relatives. On-the-hoof creation of a ‘nature trail’ proved the value of freedom of ideas and created another layer of engagement with the artistically-minded public.

Speaking immediately afterwards, Kay McCrann further strengthened the case for the role art (this time fine art) can play to increase awareness and popularity of natural history collections. William Jones’ 18th century taxonomic work ‘Icones’ and Jeff Gabel’s modern line drawings were front and centre. Gabel is known for drawing portraits of real and imagined subjects, while naturalists may have to draw specimens arranged in their mind’s eye to portray all pertinent features for taxonomic identification. Both Jones’ and Gabel’s works are confined using borders. These shared aspects of process and composition between modern artists and historic naturalists offer a handle for appreciators of fine art to begin to appreciate the value of natural history collections and connect to the natural world.

At the Museum of East Anglian Life 34 historic oil paintings, watercolours and drawings rub shoulders with rarely-seen objects from the museum’s stores. Each item illustrates a facet of rural life in East Anglia during the last two centuries: horse shoes sit alongside a thatcher’s needle; a lady’s bonnet overlooks a model wagon; a shepherd’s smock stands sentinel over the whole. The artefacts

emphasise a specific item or theme in each artwork, offering encouraging our visitors to engage with and appreciate the splendid art on offer, while a soundtrack of birdsong and traditional song, of water mills and farriers and farmyards transports the physical displays into their wider natural environment.

Across the country, enthusiasts are finding innovative and exciting ways to engage with artists – at the NMI and in fine art research, interest in museum collections through their relationships with art organisations, the creative process and artists themselves.
Amgueddfa Cymru generated interest by removing museum objects from their traditional context, but it’s a two-way street: at MEAL, interest in fine art arises thanks to a strong sense of place created by using the museum’s own objects, while a themed soundscape encourages engagement with the exhibits throughout our 75-acre site.

The exhibition ‘Life through the eyes of East Anglian artists’ is open during normal museum opening hours until 31st March 2017. Admission is free.

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