Tag Archive for: Animal Studies

Museum Godeffroy, Hamburg: The South Sea in the North Sea

MfN Kleinschmidt Bird

Senior Research Fellow, Understanding Written Artefacts, University of Hamburg  (2019-2020)


The ‘Museum Godeffroy’ of Hamburg was both short-lived (1861-1885) as a public venue and incredibly long-lived in terms of its impact. Its extensive trade with other significant collections worldwide — collections which still retain large numbers of Godeffroy natural history specimens — include the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and London’s Natural History Museum. Through its highly effective and standardised duplicate sales catalogues and logistical streamlining, it distributed and sold natural historical and ethnographic materials across the globe, including sales made back to the very regions from which it collected in Australia-Pacific among others. Skilfully interwoven with the vast Godeffroy & Sohn trading empire in what was then known in Europe as the South Sea, the Museum was ‘scientized’ through an equally well-distributed network of learned natural historians willing to assist in species determinations in exchange for rebates on purchases, as well as through the creation of a lavish publishing programme.



For most of the academic year 2019-2020 I have been effecting research on the Museum Godeffroy as a Petra Kappert Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures. The Centre is home to one of the most prestigious research grants awarded by the German State — an Excellence Cluster – the funding for which has supported my Fellowship. Understanding Written Artefacts investigates the material objects of manuscript cultures, globally and in a wide range of time periods.


One of the five major areas of inquiry for Understanding Written Artefacts is the node on ‘Archiving Artefacts’ — examining the physical and spatial contexts for the structuring of written information into conceptual and retrievable formations. Of course, these archival practices have a direct bearing on the production of knowledge, be it in property law or in religious observance, and naturally ‘Archiving Artefacts’ also looks at ‘the relationship of collections of written artefacts with other objects, e.g. in museums’. The spokesperson for this area of inquiry on the larger Excellence Cluster is Markus Friedrich, the author of the magisterial The Birth of the Archive: A History of Knowledge.


archival folder museum godeffroy files mfn


I first met Markus when we were both Visiting Scholars at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in 2012, in the framework of the ‘Sciences of the Archive’ project led by Lorraine Daston. Both Markus and I were effecting research on the materiality of collections inside a working group that generally had much more esoteric and malleable bodies of knowledge in their sights, such as astronomical or meteorological data. At that time, I was beginning to trace some of the epistemological links between the natural history collection management practices of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) and 21st Century practices in high-throughput genomic databases like BOLD (Barcode of Life). Markus was working on his manuscript for The Birth of The Archive. It was a pleasure to share notes on our messy, organic subjects and the organised disorganisation of collecting and categorisation in early modern Europe.


When I saw that Markus had included a study of a natural history collection in his area of the ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’ Cluster, I got in touch. ‘Label, object and collection — principles, practices and reflections of the genesis of knowledge’ was initiated by the Director of the University of Hamburg’s natural history museum (CeNak) Professor Matthias Glaubrecht. He saw that the labelling of natural history collections constitutes a form of manuscript culture that clearly plays a crucial part in knowledge creation in the natural sciences. Matthias’s interest in, and knowledge of, the Museum Godeffroy is of long date, stretching back to his dissertation years based at the University of Hamburg in the Museum of which he is now the Director — a Museum which holds a substantial proportion of what was once the Museum Godeffroy. Between his disputation in 1994 and his appointment as Director of CeNak in 2014, he held a range of other posts, including twelve years at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin – where there are also considerable Godeffroy-related materials.


Museum Godeffroy Label Octopus


The three of us met in June 2019 and agreed to propose a Fellowship to enable me to bring my experience of research on histories of knowledge production in museum and collection practices to bear on the project outline that Matthias had created. Through my extensive work on the early modern manuscript catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections of natural historical and economic botany specimens and research documents formed the basis of the British Museum / Natural History Museum, I am very familiar with the complex and evolving indexical and epistemological relations between specimens, labels and catalogues. These information architectures are key paper tools with both significant materiality and critical agency in the development of morphology and taxonomy, yet we still lack a full understanding of their emergence, history and imbrication with specimens in knowledge- and method-producing practices over time.


It has been wonderful to be part of the international research arena that has been created at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures under its Director, Professor Michael Friedrich, the eminent sinologist. The range and scope of research at the Centre is unparalleled, and has given me a chance to return to my training in history of the book, as well as to tie this in with my work in history of collections and of natural history. As with many of my projects, this one has also involved moving back and forth between museum and university contexts, and I have also been welcomed and supported through collaborations with highly knowledgable curators and collections managers at the CeNak.


With their help, I have been able to effect primary research at the CeNak on Godeffroy-related historical collections and labelling practices, and we have also worked with the UWA ‘Object Profiling Team’ to analyse inks and paper compositions of Museum Godeffroy labels from the later 19th Century. We will be co-authoring an article about our findings in the coming months. I’ve also visited archives where outgoing correspondence from the Museum Godeffroy – mainly from its then ‘Custos,’ Johannes Dietrich Eduard Schmeltz (1839 – 1909) — shines a clear light on the reciprocity between collections and duplicate sales of the materials that the Godeffroy empire was able to commission from envoys and scouts across the Pacific. This subject of duplicates is the focus of a working group at the Department of the Humanities of Nature at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, and I will be participating with my findings. I’ve also been able to delve into business history, which is a new field for me, and have had some excellent guidance from the Stiftung Hanseatisches Wirtschaftsarchiv in Hamburg.


object profiling team UWA Hamburg


The Fellowship period has enabled me to refine the project scope and research questions and give clearer definition to the methods and aims of the project. It is clear to me that the scale and reach of a coherent project concerning the Museum Godeffroy and its afterlives must match the scale and scope of the original 19th Century project in a number of significant ways. Both natural history and ethnographic materials were collected and traded: the link between these two disciplines, and between science and commerce, are sharply delineated in the case of Godeffroy. A rigorous research project concerning the Museum Godeffroy would also look closely at the intertwined nature of colonial practice and logistics, as well as the practices in museology and biology that these have engendered. It must involve museums from all across Europe which purchased significant specimens from Godeffroy. Ultimately, any project hoping to address the Museum Godeffroy as a phenomenon should include researchers from the Pacific nations, great and small, where all this teeming life was collected, and which reflects an ecosystem that has now been profoundly altered.


Perhaps the forensic work of ‘understanding written artefacts’ can hope to understand not just the epistemes, but also the deeper existential and even ethical connections between trade practices and science practice, and in so doing also perform a kind of colonial provenance research for the natural world of the Pacific, in which historical, environmental and climate justice could all hope to be served.


museum godeffroy doubletten catalogue detail



Further Links: Centre for the Study of Manuscript CulturesCentrum für Naturkunde HamburgHumanities of Nature – Museum für NaturkundeStiftung Hanseatisches Wirtschaftsarchiv


[Image References: Egg of the Ardea sacra, collected for Museum Godeffroy on Lunado Levu 15 September 1875, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; Bird specimen (Pachycephala torquata) collected by Kleinschmidt on Tavinui December 1875, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; bound correspondence files, Historische Arbeitsstelle, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; Museum Godeffroy label for an Octopus specimen, CeNak Hamburg; Object Profiling Team of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures setting up a multi-spectral imaging session with Museum Godeffroy specimen labels]


Politics of Natural History

cinchona bark and peruvian researcher roque rodriguez

Natural historical materials, beyond the more obvious case of physical anthropology, have remained until quite recently largely outside of the important discussion and debate around heritage — both tangible and intangible — in relation to human rights and cultural goods across an asymmetric globe.


The deep schism in museological practice and function between museums of material culture — be they decorative arts, ethnography, archaeology, or fine art museums — and the museum of natural history may have briefly postponed the moment when these issues become critically important to examine, but such arbitrary disciplinary differences are increasingly intellectually untenable in the face of the moral imperative of decolonisation.

This exclusion of natural historical materials from this debate to date has in part been due to the very strong ring-fencing and contextualisation of these kinds of materials as existing in a circumscribed ‘science’ arena that is incorrectly deemed to be entirely outside a cultural or heritage framework.  Collections of zoological materials and herbaria in particular have been understood through the twentieth century to have significance in the Global North mainly for the life sciences such as biology, zoology, molecular research and genetics, phytology, chemistry and so on.  And in this same period, science practice itself was well scaffolded as being concerned uniquely with absolute, repeatable, timeless and discoverable matters of fact that were in no way open to the productive ambiguity of the cultural ‘objet’.

This broad-brush outline fits if we look at 20th century natural history from the point of view of most biologists.  But it does not tell the whole story if we look at natural history from the point of view of historians and philosophers of science and of knowledge practices in the 21st century, and if we look at natural history from the point of view of historians of collections and of globalisation. It is certainly not the whole story for indigenous peoples whose deep-time worldviews include, to take but one example, direct connections between ancestors and organic materials such as dried plants — organic materials with spiritual and cultural attributes, as well as (or in spite of) its western scientific attributes.

I have been investigating the relationship between natural history, colonisation, and museum practice for many years in different contexts — beginning with the large-scale site-specific project The Wilds and The Deep, which I created with Lyne Lapointe in 1990, through to my work at London’s Natural History Museum two decades later when I was part of the team setting up the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research there.  But recently there has been an acceleration of research in this nexus, and I have shared my expertise with colleagues in  Göttingen, Berlin, Copenhagen and London over the past year alone.

In Berlin, I spoke at the ‘Politics of Natural History’ conference organised by the Museum für Naturkunde and the Technische Universität Berlin in September of 2018.  Alongside the historian of natural history Dominik Hünniger, we presented preliminary findings from a workshop that we had led during my research fellowship at the University of Göttingen earlier that year.  Our joint presentation, Putting Metadata to Work: Modelling Information on Historical Collections of Natural History in Social Justice Contexts, outlined some of the difficulties to be encountered in aligning bodies of knowledge from different time periods, knowledge regimes, and cultural contexts, and in attempting to configure those bodies of knowledge in more equitable relations.

A sustained and ongoing investigation into the histories, methods and influences of globalised economic botany is being led at Kew Gardens by Felix Driver, Caroline Cornish and Mark Nesbitt.  This May 2019, their international conference ‘Collections in Circulation’ will see a highly interdisciplinary group of museum professionals and other researchers delve into what happens to biocultural collections over their long lifespans and wide circulations.  I will also be speaking at this event, summing up and highlighting what the papers might collectively be pointing towards.


Cinchona Distribution in GBIG

[Image References:  Herbarium specimen of Theobroma cacao, as collected by Sir Hans Sloane in Jamaica in 1687 (NHM London); bark of the Cinchona tree held by Roque Rodriguez; Screenshot of the distribution of herbarium specimens of Cinchona ledgeriana]

Natural History Museum: CAHR

Vice-Chancellor’s Investment Fund Secondment, Centre for Arts and Humanities Research, Natural History Museum (London):  Kingston University  (2009 to 2011)


This key two-year post was central to a small dynamic team developing an arts and humanities research hub inside this national museum with international reach, where 300 scientists are at work studying plant and animal genetics, geology and mineralogy, the structure of the universe, biodiversity, climate change and more.

Having worked at the Science Museum (London) and the Medical Museion (Copenhagen), as well as a number of fine art museums, I was excited to see the advertisement for this post — which was headlined: “Would you like to work in a creative, fulfilling and exciting environment, where you will have the opportunity to explore the world class Natural History Museum collections?”

I felt I could answer that question clearly and succinctly in the affirmative.

The ad continued: this is “an innovative new project, which aims to explore the potential of the Museum collections as a resource for arts and humanities research. With a relevant postgraduate degree and a successful record of applying for and obtaining external research income, you will have the ability to build effective networks within the field of humanities and work in productive partnership with academic colleagues.”  Just as interesting to me as the collections was this opportunity to help operationalise the highly interdisciplinary practice that would be the outcome of a successful integration of arts and humanities researchers into this scientific research institute.

I already had experience of aligning methodologies across arts and science through individual projects, and had been consulted for strategic development advice by institutions such as the Royal Society and the Science Museum vis à vis resourcing the research potential of their collections. This project would be a chance to be directly effective at an institutional scale in implementing change.

The NHM is essentially UK science infrastructure for systematics, taxonomics and biodiversity: the excitement for me was in the potential for enabling productive links between the vast range of biological research methods at the NHM and those of arts and humanities researchers that CAHR, as it came to be known, would bring in.

My work with organic collections and with contemporary molecular and microbiological practices at the Medical Museion was a very good grounding for moving into natural history fields like zoology and entomology. I was at home in both the collections environment and the lab areas: it is an amazing institution and every day of the week there was something astounding to see and understand.

A crucial linchpin of information management about specimens from across the Museum — in Zoology, Entomology, Botany, Mineralogy and Palaeontology — is the incredibly rich NHM Library and Archives. For the 350 pre-digital years of the Museum’s specimen collecting practice, any relevant observations including locations and dates were kept in notebooks and manuscripts, and the trade in specimens involved of necessity various forms of scientific visualisation. Thus 500,000 images of nature from the world over are also part of the collection.



Taken as a whole, these rich and diverse collections trace a wide spectrum from the history of science to the history of empire, from epistemologies of observational practice to ontologies of data-mining. With associated field notes, films, photographs, diaries, drawings, ship’s logs, correspondence and both GIS and DNA data, the Natural History Museum specimen collections are a rich resource for investigation. Fields as varied as history, philosophy, museology, anthropology, literary studies, film and photo studies, animal studies, cultural theory and area studies relating to South Asia, Africa, China and elsewhere find firm purchase and important primary materials in the NHM collections.

My post involved me in gaining a detailed understanding of the historical and scientific basis of the NHM collections, their management and use. With the generous support of NHM staff, I effected more than 25 specimen collection and laboratory research visits, and produced a 35 page strategy document outlining an appropriate and fundable research programme divided into several interlocking sections:

  • Natural History, Global History
  • Visual Cultures Of Natural History
  • Literatures And Texts Of Natural History
  • Museum As Laboratory: ‘Improving Natural Knowledge’
  • Facilitating Interdisciplinarity
  • Sharing Knowledge


Under ‘Natural History, Global History’ I wrote:

The co-production of understandings of the natural world with the development of empires – both financial and geo-political – is the subject of this Research Cluster. The recent ‘material turn’ in historical research is beginning to extend beyond the holdings of cultural museums to address collections whose primary purpose has been scientific investigation, with its attendant specific histories and economies.

The unique qualities of natural history specimens and the geospatial and temporal data which accompanies them means that they function as information-rich pivots for historical investigation. Who collected these specimens – from indigenous groups to Presidents of the Royal Society – and how and why they were collected – from instrumentation and instruction to economic botany – is in essence a history of the world since 1500. The circulation of specimens, ideas and goods is concomitant, and an examination of this nexus over time is a key epistemological endeavour in which the Museum can play a central role.

Humanities researchers are best placed to analyse the often widely divergent and physically disparate sets of written records which can join up dots to plot the movement of ideas and objects through time and space. This would be a contribution not only to history and epistemology, but also to current science, by enabling the reintegration of point reference data with earlier collections.


I identified and developed contacts with researchers internationally who have the skills to effect this work, including drawing up a longlist for the Centre Advisory Board, and assisting with its formation. With other members of the team (Julie Harvey, Centre Manager; Dr Charlie Jarvis, Scientific Advisor; Nadja Noel, Project Coordinator) I organised and hosted both pro-active and responsive meetings and collection visits with potential partners, individual and institutional. A considerable part of the post involved enabling and promoting partnerships for CAHR with universities, research councils, foundations, libraries and other major museums.

Zoology, taxonomy and systematics are structurally very interesting activities, with complex institutional and linguistic regimes and instrument practices, and I also developed two research project proposals rooted in these fields. One of them related taxonomic nomenclature to philosophy of language, and another outlined a methodologies-exchange between zoological scientists and animal studies researchers. One outcome of the latter was the lecture programme Unruly Creatures, convened by Kingston Professor John Mullarkey. I also represented CAHR at a range of external conferences, from Scientific Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation to In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science and Museums and Restitution.

The Centre ran a number of larger projects during the period of my tenure, some of which I was also directly involved in. I co-organised the conference Science Voices (at the Royal Society) which examined oral history of science as part of Museum Lives — a Kingston University AHRC-funded Knowledge Transfer project to interview 50 NHM members of staff. I also became closely involved in the project initiation phase of ‘Reconstructing Sloane’ — a cross-institutional project between the NHM, the British Library and the British Museum, which intends to reunite, analyse and make accessible the original foundation collections of all three institutions as constituted by Sir Hans Sloane in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Representing the NHM, I worked with Dr Kim Sloan, curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, and Liz Lewis, Higher Education Partnerships Manager at The British Library, to co-author a 60-page business plan for ‘Reconstructing Sloane.’ Produced in July of 2011, this project initiation document is now the backbone of the project, supporting the Consortium’s unfolding work on Sloane.

Institutional business planning, communication strategy creation and implementation, participation in policy and procedure development advocating for the humanities researcher, lecture series curation and management, mentoring, fundraising and more were also part of my work for the Centre. Working across both the Museum and Kingston University, I helped Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences researchers formulate projects through the Museum, and collaborated with KU’s Museum and Gallery Studies director Dr Duncan Grewcock and NHM Public Engagement Staff to design and deliver postgraduate teaching and learning.

Since the end of my tenure, Kingston University has instated five research Fellowships at the NHM Centre under the rubrics I identified in my CAHR strategy document: I look forward to the outcomes.



You can hear a podcast of my lecture Natural History, Global History, presented at the launch of the Centre for the Historical Record conference ‘Providing Public History: Challenges and Opportunities‘ (10/06/2011) Kingston University.

Further Links:  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum; Unruly Creatures 1; Unruly Creatures 2; London Graduate School, Kingston University; Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation; In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science; Museums and Restitution; Museum and Gallery Studies, Kingston University; Centre for the Historical Record; Reconstructing Sloane’

[Image References: Lepidoptera Collections, Natural History Museum; Earth Sciences Librarian Hellen (Pethers) Sharman displaying William Smith’s Geological Map of English (1815) for geological historians; the Central Hall of the NHM]

Barbara Howard: Canadian Art

Drawing Attention: Barbara Howard’s Ecologies, in Canadian Art Magazine (Summer 2006)


As is the case for many others, I have been deeply informed and influenced by the work of artists who came before me.  There have also been kind and brilliant mentors and role-models, from childhood on.  Sometimes, these have even been the same person — the Canadian artist Barbara Howard, now sadly deceased, was both.

Barbara and her husband, the poet Richard Outram, were close friends of my parents, and a big part of the childhood I shared with my brother and sister. Environmentalists and knowledgeable naturalists, they taught me a respect for the natural world that echoes through into my animal studies interests. Both were dedicated and disciplined artists, and their example (among others) showed me what kind of stamina, technique, method and rigour were required to make a serious contribution to cultural life. They were also both extremely amusing, and often quite ribald.

Several years after her untimely death in 2002, I wrote about Barbara’s life and work for Canadian Art Magazine — a journal in which my own work has often appeared:

“Doubtless the first time I saw sustained attention paid to anything as infinitesimal as an insect, it was in Barbara’s meticulously drawn articulations of living things. Durer’s astounding watercolour of a Stagbeetle and its shadow may have been made 500 years ago, but it was Barbara’s wood engraving of dragonflies I would have seen first. In this, she trained me to look closely at nature, she prepared me for the blinding genius of Durer, and she showed me what hard work and discipline was involved in being an artist.

Unique to Barbara was the transmission of the integrity of these lessons: the conviction that there is a direct link between the arenas of art, nature and daily practice. She was an environmental artist avant la lettre, and the ecologies which she herself practised extended clearly into domains of intellectual, social and spiritual health the interconnectedness of which is only now beginning to be acknowledged — perhaps most notably in the writings of Felix Guattari.

Differentiating historically between serious investigations of what it means to be part of Gaia in Canada or elsewhere and those works of art intended to create a comfort zone of nature porn will require looking closely at work that has not yet been the subject of critical attention. In the immediate, it means not only looking at generations of artists trained and working prior to (and through) the design and conceptual boom of the 60s and the emergence of support structures of the 70s, but also looking at the contexts and techniques of those artists. Barbara Howard’s work is an important place to begin such a project.

What we are doing when we look at animals, how we look at them, and what we do with those observations has in the last decade been a subject of sustained critical inquiry in visual culture and in history of science, from the work of Nigel Rothfels on zoos, to Steve Baker on contemporary art, and Lorraine Daston on attention to nature in the Enlightenment. The relationship between technique and looking, between eye and hand, between what one chooses to look at closely and long and what one is consequently ignoring are all as important as what is in the centre of the final image. Barbara’s work in wood-engraving throughout the 1970s, which was mainly focused on living creatures, is a case in point: drawing attention to something is the first step towards exploring the big picture which surrounds it.”

“These engravings by Barbara Howard were in the main also effected for hand produced books: those of the Gauntlet Press which she and Richard Outram began in the 1960s. Indeed, most of the engravings reproduced here are from one book — entitled Creatures — a work full of awe yet entirely devoid of sentimentality.

Creatures was published in 1972, only a few years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and a few years before Three Mile Island melted down. The rapid and alarming acceleration of visible effects of the degradation of nature into the 80s brought many of us up sharp against the ‘big picture.’ Barbara wrote this in 1987:

“We must constantly attempt to become more fully human… I am concerned, as we all must be, about what we, through greed and ignorance, are doing to the natural world; to the world and all its life forms including, of course, ourselves. I am not an activist and I am not a preacher… I am an artist and believe in doing what I do best as an artist. To be an artist requires of one the deepest concern allied to detachment, otherwise one cannot accomplish one’s work. In my work I am attempting to explore and reveal the essential inter-dependence of all life; to communicate what I have seen, what I love, to engage the viewer in a response of love and celebration and hence deep concern for all that we must treasure or risk losing forever. I must share what I love, to give some insight into what I discover and see as the treasures of existence, which are everywhere to be found, to be seen for the looking.”



Further Links: Barbara HowardCanadian Art; Gauntlet Press at Memorial University; Gauntlet Press Digitised at Memorial University

[Image Credits: Barbara Howard painting Arlette’s Garden (1984); Barbara Howard painting in the kitchen of the Massey House (1952); Monarch, Fish, Dragonflies, Frogs, Lobster, Owl and Snake, from Creatures (1972) all courtesy the Literary and Artistic Estates of Barbara Howard and Richard Outram]

Charles Darwin Trust

Looking With Darwin, for the Darwin and Twentieth Century Culture working group convened by the Darwin Trust (Wellcome Trust, 2005)


A closed consultation on developing Down House and other outreach activities of the Darwin Trust, this event convened a group of about 25 scientists, authors, academics, artists and broadcasters under the direction of Jon Turney.  The intention was to assist the Trust in the orientation of its stewardship of Down House and other of its outreach and science communication activities.

I was invited to speak for about ten minutes as one of several kick-off presentations for what became a lively and productive day.  The following are excerpts from that contribution:


In the same way that genes will express very differently in two different chemical environments, visions of life will express differently from one culture to the next.

This projective nexus of “multiple allusions” in which animals are caught up, this nexus of anthropomorphisation, denigration, lionising, fear, idolatry and so much else, is something that has to be tackled in order to truly see the life which we share. In Steve Baker’s important book The Postmodern Animal — about animals, philosophy and contemporary artists’ practices — he makes the point that “the representational, symbolic and rhetorical uses of the animal must be understood to carry as much conceptual weight as any idea we may have of the ’real’ animal, and must be taken just as seriously.”

Like the production of scientific knowledge, works of art are the product of sustained observational practices and sometimes overlap directly the purposes and interests of science. Sometimes works of art extend the arenas of science and even the methodologies of science. Visual art is not just an interpretive tool or a communicative tool in its long relationship to scientific practice. I identify with one of the few skills that the modest Charles Darwin knew to be key about his work: the skill of close and sustained observation. It is not just the stunning accuracy of Durer which makes his work ’scientific’, but the fact that he chose at that moment in time to do something as unusual as to spend an entire week observing an insect such as a stag beetle.



One of the things I find most moving about Darwin’s work is the awe in which he held the organ of sight. This awe has been seen as a weakness by both Darwinists and opponents. Dawkins has called the eye “the most formidable cliff Mount Improbable has to offer.”

A very great deal of research — not least by Dawkins himself, and people like Mike Land at the University of Sussex and Andrew Parker at Oxford — has gone into understanding the eye and its evolution since Darwin first admitted freely that its depths were unfathomable to him. His statement never led me personally to doubt that the theory of evolution was a sound proposition. I am not one of those who think the rainbow is unwoven by what science can tell me, or that complexity is always irreducible. But there is a nuance: I am one of those for whom scientific knowledge is, however often unimpeachable and amazing in itself, only a part of the picture. I have friends and colleagues at the Institute of Ophthalmology, others in quantum optics, and still others who design photon-detectors. But, if asked by Edge Magazine — as many senior scientists were last year — to articulate a belief I hold which is not yet provable, I would say that I believe that the eye emits a ray of some kind.

Though some colleagues admit that it is very likely that there are both particles and radioactivity that we don’t yet know how to detect, most people in science to whom I have confided this belief think it’s preposterous, a throwback to the Pre-Socratics. It is quite possible that even expressing this hunch will mean that you will discredit everything else I have said here — in much the same way that some people discredit the entire theory of evolution based on Darwin’s own expressed concern that the eye’s complexity was so great as to set it outside a process of evolution.

What I am trying to say is that there is as much potential science in doubt on the one hand and in persistent belief on the other hand as there is in actual scientific proof. I am trying also to draw your attention to arenas which have become so polarised that they are avoided, when in fact their very messiness — like that of our relation to animals or our feelings about sight — offer exciting potential to explore ideas that do not stop being science just because they enter a cultural realm.

It is important to remember, in defending the theory of evolution, that there are complex human beliefs — not any of them religious — which engage contrapuntally with, live alongside, and sometimes even produce science. One of the most trenchant ripostes to the tenet that folk belief is just pre-science comes from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough:

“The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy.”

The new Darwin Forum would do well to pay attention to the contiguity of belief and proof. What and how we see and how we feel about this is bound up in what we make for each other to look at. This has physiological, cognitive and phenomenological underpinnings; effects and affects.  It is something we do with our bodies. The electromagnetic radiation of light is a deep driver of evolution and possibly part of the origin of life itself. An exciting programme at the Darwin Trust would put visual art, light and the eye close to the heart of its activities, not just as an instrument of communication, but as a means to nurture conjecture.



Further Links: The Charles Darwin Trust; Down House

[Image References: Rabbit, by Albrecht Durer (1502); Rabbit, by Jeff Koons (1986); the eye of a squid; visualisation of the evolution of the eye as a landscape in which height represents optical quality and the ground plane evolutionary distance by Professor Mike Land (1996)]

Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust

Founding Trustee, Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust for Art and Science (2000 to 2003)


My governance experience of this art-science educational trust extended to the creation of a lecture series portfolio for our partnership with the Royal Institution of Great Britain. This built on the annual lectures which we had already been running — roundtable and keynote presentations on art and science. The Rosen Trust hosted a variety of events at the RI including speakers such as Carl Djerassi, Howard Hodgkin, Richard Gregory, Sander Gilman, Steve Baker, Brenda Maddox, Claire Tomalin, Dan Fern and others. Subjects included music and mathematics, epidemiology and representation, human-animal relations, scientific biography, colour and more.

I was invited by Dennis Rosen’s children to be a founding Trustee of this small but dynamic Trust, alongside Professor Sir Eric Ash, Professor Lisa Jardine, and Professor Richard Kitney.  As the only artist in this illustrious group, it was my pleasure to art direct the Trust brand, and I worked with graphic designer Michael Martin of Oblique Design to create stationery and a logo for the Trust.  I based this on a series of roundelles that featured in the artist’s website I had created for the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford, entitled Rain of Atoms. Of course, there is rather more to good governance than good design, and my experience with artist-run centres and on editorial boards in Canada prior to moving to the UK stood me in good stead.

From the Trust’s website:

Dennis Rosen was a scientist who took the trouble to be a well-rounded man. A biophysicist who specialised during the latter stages of his career in pattern recognition, he was as curious about the application of this technique in science and medicine as in fine art and painting. His love of theatre, music and history were deep-rooted parts of his life that supplemented his scientific activities.

I had first heard of Dennis Rosen when I bought the book he co-authored with his wife, Sylvia, entitled London Science: Museums, Libraries and Places of Scientific, Technological and Medical Interest (1994).  Of course, I had already visited a number of the repositories they listed, but it was an important guide for me when I first moved to the UK shortly after it was published.  Though slightly out of date now — mainly for all the right reasons that many of the collections it describes are now more publicly acccessible — it is still a very insightful and helpful volume.


Further Links:  The Dennis Rosen Memorial Trust

LMU School of Art Architecture and Design

Senior Research Fellowship, Leeds Metropolitan University School of Art, Architecture and Design, (1999 to 2001)


Among my research activities in this post was an AHRB-funded research exchange secondment to the Ashmolean Museum to research images of animals in the early modern period with Dr Arthur MacGregor. Working across all three disciplines of the School, I was also able to give advanced tutorial supervision of students’ higher degrees, specialist lecturing on visual arts, graphic design and typography, public art in architecture, and art-science collaborations. I shared this two year fellowship part-time with artist Jaki Irvine, and our work, including international exhibitions, was a major contribution to the School’s submission to the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise.


Further Links: Leeds School of Art, Architecture and Design, LMU

[Image References: The old H Block building at LMU, which was purpose-built as an art school, now awaiting conversion to student housing having been sold to a private developer; Colonel Smith Grasping the Hind Legs of a Stag, artist unknown (1640-1680), Victoria and Albert Museum]

Eat Me / Drink Me / Love Me

Eat Me / Drink Me / Love Me:  The New Museum (New York, with Lyne Lapointe, 1989)


Invited in 1987 by curator Bill Olander to create a work for The New Museum, we devised a project about the interplay between social convention, literature, and natural history. Eat Me / Drink Me /Love Me took its title from a section of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, in an installation that simultaneously both domesticated and rendered ‘wild’ the white cube of the contemporary art museum. Cerebral and yet sensual, the project included mixed media works that are meditations on organic matter, animal life, female sexuality, Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae, and 19th century proto-feminist poetry.


Here is a quote from the artists’ statement we wrote for the exhibition:

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me

Lizzie to Laura in Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti (1862)

Eat Me / Drink Me / Love Me proposes a quest for sites of pleasure, for the expression of pleasure, and for the acknowledgement of pleasure for women, inside the rigid cultural institutions which are available to us.

This project gestures to historical precedents in the search for pleasure against all odds by hearkening to similar strategies on the part of creative women within an entirely other institution: that of literature.

Eat Me / Drink Me / Love Me forays into natural history — botany, zoology and other ‘pastoral’ pursuits — and questions the hidden interests of its masculinist construction of ‘Eden.’ We believe that there is another ‘garden’ very different from this one, in spite of a partially shared iconography. It is the interior garden women create for ourselves, wherein we seek a complex sexual refuge, and which is a site of resistance.


In a sense, it was an extension of the approach we took in La Donna Delinquenta — seeking fissures for self-realisation inside dominant cultural tropes — but this time it was more pointedly feminist.  New Museum founder, the visionary pragmatist Marcia Tucker, dubbed the work and our approach ‘critical romanticism.’  Sadly, Bill Olander did not live to see the project installed: he died of AIDS earlier that year — one of many entirely unnecessary deaths that have left a very different cultural landscape than the one in which many of us had hoped we would now be living and working.

We went on to create The Wilds and The Deep with Creative Time, and to exhibit in several New York galleries during this period, including Curt Marcus Gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery, PPOW, Wessell O’Connor, and shows curated by Nan Goldin and Independent Curators International among others.  Work from Eat Me / Drink Me / Love Me was acquired by collectors such as Vera List, Richard Ekstract, Thomas Ammann, Joel and Zoe Dictrow, Pierre Bourgie, and others.  The largest elements of the project — a worked floor entitled Wild Nights / The Unswept Floor and its accompaniment, Miasme/Hyene et la Valve — are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

Lyne Lapointe, who also has a highly regarded solo career, has recently exhibited at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York and at Galérie Pierre Francois Ouellette in Montreal (February and March 2012).


Further Links:  The New Museum; National Gallery of Canada Miasme/Hyene et la Valve; Lyne Lapointe at Jack Shainman Gallery

[Image References: all images are of Eat Me / Drink Me / Love Me, by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (1989). Black and white photographs are by Marik Boudreau.]