Made up of personal objects borrowed from members of the public, the Wellcome Collection’s crowd sourced exhibition, A museum of modern nature, reveals the intriguing ways we relate to the natural world in modern life. Here’s eleven of the things people chose and the stories behind them
Black-and-white family photograph, Joan Scott, 91 years old
(Audio transcript) I think I might have been about four and my sisters were looking after me. They look like guardians, don’t they? But sometimes they couldn’t be bothered with me at all. They wanted to lose me. [Laughs] Usually every weekend we went to the seaside somewhere or other, you know? Local, not far, you know? Margate, Ramsgate, Southend. Just for the day. I think we might have stayed once or twice. We didn’t book up anywhere, just if you saw someone with a notice in the window, “Bed and Breakfast” or whatever it was, you just went there.
Music and a fair, the happiness of the place, everybody was enjoying themselves, you know? It was lovely, just lovely. I think it’s very funny because there’s a boat, a little boat, toy boat, and I know I really wanted that boat so I must have kept on until I got the boat. [Laughs] Although we were poor, a poor family, we were very well looked after –rather spoilt really, I was.
Fallow deer antler Chris Packham, 56 years old
(Audio transcript) This is treasure! To me it’s treasure. Because when I picked this up from the floor of the woods, wandering one morning with my dogs, I enjoyed the same thrill that I would have felt when I was eight years old. You can’t go looking for cast antlers. The deer shed them randomly. So you’re just wandering along and you look down and you see this remarkable object lying there. And it’s yours. You found it. Finders keepers. You see, for the rest of the year the deer are shy and distant, and with even the best binoculars in the world you can’t see the detail on here that tells a story. All of these scratches that have been made.
How were they made? Were they made in conflict, when this buck was jamming the tines of this antler into another buck during the rutting season? How did it lose this tine? Did it lose the fight? Did some young pretender stray into that glade and clash antlers with this and this snapped off and the old boy was driven out? And I like to sit down there in the woods, with this in my hands, feeling it, touching it, smelling it and imagine its story. A story that only lasted a year. They regrow these again in the late summer. This is connecting with something which is old, primal, purposeful, beautiful to touch, a wonderful piece of natural art. This is my treasure!
Fakah (fan), Khoirun Nessa, 73 years old
I made this for my granddaughter when she was three – 15 years ago. Before we had electric fans in the village that I come from in Bangladesh, we would use these fans to keep us cool. It can be really hot. Individuals would carry a fan like this with them to keep themselves cool, but you don’t need them any more. At this time of year [April], it should be raining in Bangladesh but it’s not, which is a problem.
Trench art paper knife made from brass shell casings, Alex Julyan, 55 years old
This object is symbolic of the human impetus to create art in times of unimaginable suffering. The Third Battle of Ypres was one of the largest of World War I, resulting in the loss of nearly half a million lives. This paper knife summons an image of great contradiction, a lone soldier-craftsman working intensively in a decimated landscape of mud, rain and blood. I have speculated about this beautiful shiny fish crafted from the very stuff of war, made in a place where plants and animals had all but disappeared.
It is an object that is profoundly connected to the earth, death and life. Its material substance was extracted from rock and formed into a bullet whose intention was to send men back into the earth. This object connects me in a powerful and poetic way to the mortality of all things and the renewal and hope that inevitably follows.
Crab coffins, Merle and Bette Nunneley, 17 and 15 years old
(Audio transcript) Me and my sister found the crabs when we were walking our dog in Medway Country Park in the Thames estuary when we were maybe 10 and 12. There were loads of them, hundreds of crabs on the beaches, strewn everywhere. They were like pebbles and they had been dried out by the sun, I think. Shell and bone and stuff. And so we picked them up and put them in dog-poo bags to bring them home and then we made coffins out of cardboard to put them into. I think we were reasonably serious.
We did take time to make the coffins and decorate them and place all the crabs inside. They didn’t really need to be in the coffins. I think it was more we wanted to feel like we’d done something for the crabs, rather than the crabs actually needing something to be done for them, yeah? We didn’t want to bury them. I guess we put quite a lot of work into making them, so to bury them in the ground would be kind of a waste.
Synthetic yellow chick David Cahill Roots, 36 years old
The object tells a story of a synthetic relationship with nature, and of a trip to a farm where my family and I compared real-life baby chicks to the fake fluffy thing on my desk – rather than the other way around. It made me realise my primary connection to nature (and my daughter’s connection to nature) is more through fake and commercialised symbols than the real thing – the fake items become the standard by which we hold the real world to account.
Ladybird books and school biology exercise book, Michaela Strachan, 51 years old
(Audio transcript) Some of you will remember these books. And these two are obviously particularly relevant for nature because one is What to Look for in Spring and then we have British Wild Animals. These are what inspired me as a child to get interested in British wildlife. I’m going to read something because these are just classic:
“Newts are really very queer creatures and if you look at them long enough, you’ll be filled with wonder.” Which is just so charming. I can’t imagine anyone writing that in a nature book now. So, as I say, I think they are absolutely charming books.
And then we have this book. This is my biology book from when I was about 10 years old. There’s one bit in particular that I thought was great – this is my golden eagle project. And I think I’ve done that quite nicely actually for a 10-year old. Quite neat writing. But it’s clear that I copied a lot of it out of a textbook, because listen to this: “Tremendous elevations are reached in their flight which are interrupted by successions of head-long dives with half-closed wings ending in an upward sweep at the end of the plunge.” So there we go, that was my project on golden eagles.
Very sadly I gave biology up shortly after that because I didn’t want to cut animals up, and that was part of the coursework, that you had to dissect a mouse, which I think is very sad because that was my emotional side ruling my head and really I should have done biology as an O level. There are lots of things that I might learn just reading this book from when I was 10 years old. [Laughs]
Weapons Felix, Vito and Gulliver Wayman-Thwaites, seven, seven and two and three-quarters years old
(Audio transcript) My object is an axe and a hammer put together. It’s made of wood, string and concrete. I like being outside in nature and the wood came from just on the ground in Mayow Park, which is a park I live near to. We tied the concrete onto a stick with some string and it has a bug living in it but it’s dead now.
Thermos flask, Rosemary, 57 years old
(Audio transcript) My life in London is very hard at the moment. I feel trapped in London. For family reasons I can’t leave London. My dream is to live in the country with a garden of my own and ideally a dog. I’ve never had a dog, but I would love to have a dog. I live in a very small studio flat without even a balcony and I do find it very claustrophobic. So every opportunity I have I go out with my thermals and a good book and with my walking boots, and go out to either the local park or ideally Kew Gardens, which is my favourite place in London to go to.
For me what nature does, and having my thermos, enables me to have my own space in nature, where I can be myself, free from all the demands from people in my life who want something from me, the customers at work, and I can just be on my own, be with the beauty of nature, and have a hot drink as well, which keeps me warm.
Garden gnome, Julie Carr
Born in 1901, William Thomas Cooper ran away to sea aged 14. Fast forward to 1947, when he became my mum’s stepdad. Mum says the gnomes were already there when they moved into his maisonette, a huge big bank of them carefully arranged in the yard.
Initially, when I picked this gnome, I did it somewhat ironically. But in reality it has contributed significantly to my love of nature as an adult. Many of my pastimes now involve the countryside, its birds and beasts, and my garden or my allotment. There are few greater pleasures than pootling around the garden on a warm summer’s morning. If those odd little fellows hadn’t drawn me outside while the grown-ups talked inside, my life would certainly have been a poorer one. I would have missed watching Gramps garden and bearing witness to the pure and simple joy that nature can bring us.
Tattoo, Kelli Powling, 36 years old (Tattoo artist Michael Sheerin).
I wanted a permanent symbol of the daily gratitude I feel towards nature – the complexity of her systems, the balance and delicacy of her cycles, and the beauty of her diversity. It took me years to decide on phytoplankton, which I chose because they represent each of the elements above and hold an invisible importance of immense magnitude, as they make over 80 per cent of the oxygen in our atmosphere.
For me, it is a daily reminder to honour, with each breath, the magic of the natural world. The tattoo is the artist’s version of German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s drawing of a species called Triceratium digitale, from plate 4 of Kunstformen der Natur, which is in the Wellcome Library collection. The placement, on my brainstem, also reflects the symmetry of nature.
A Museum of Modern Nature is at the Wellcome Collection until October 8 2017
London, Greater London
A free museum and library exploring health and human experience. Located at 183 Euston Road, London, it explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future. The venue offers visitors contemporary and historic exhibitions and collections, lively public events, the world-renowned Wellcome Library, a café,…