Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: Animals – Art, Science & Sound

If you know me well, you know that the one thing I love more than science, are books. Recently, I found the time to visit the British Library in London to visit and exhibition that I have been meaning too since April (when it first opened). This exhibit is Animals: Art, Science & Sound, which is the perfect marriage of literature, art, and field recordings, weaving together a tapestry of knowledge and wonder that left me utterly speechless (some of that was in part due to seeing some truly amazing books for the first time). It is easy to forget in today’s modern age, that in the centuries pervious, that naturalists and researchers didn’t have the same levels of technology nor the techniques to record and document the natural world as we do now. It was therefore humbling and exciting to travel back in time, reading those early texts, viewing every brush stroke, and recognising how fortunate I am to be a scientist in the 21st Century.

Straight out of the gate things were strong, with a first edition of Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturæ

Upon entering the exhibit, I was immediately enveloped by an ambient soundscape that turned out to be shrieking animals. Why these sounds had been chosen, became apparent as I turned the corner. The exhibit was split into four main themes, Darkness (which I had just entered), Water, Land, and Air. It’s almost as if the exhibit were there biological equivalent to the World of Avatar (darkness instead of fire). As humans, we are very familiar with the daylight, but less so with the night, which has often been depicted as dangerous or frightening. However, a number of animals are much more at home in the dark (I know that feeling), whether they are nocturnal, live at the bottom of the ocean, or underground. Now, I suspect those last two would have been ones you may have overlooked if I asked you to name some species that lived in darkness (I know I did!). With a completely different set of skills, senses, and life histories, these species have captivated us for centuries due to the huge differences between themselves as us. This has proved a challenge for many, with the advent of modern technology slowly unlocking their secrets.

One of the major themes of the Darkness section was bats, who could have seen that coming?

Taking a step back for a moment, I was in an extremely fortunate position. Here I was in London on a rainy Monday afternoon (aren’t they all), wandering around this amazing exhibit with hundreds of years of zoological exploration and information for me to absorb. The curation of the book and artworks, spanning centuries and styles, was a visual feast that unfolded in harmony with the narrative that flowed from panel to panel. Ancient manuscripts, intricate sketches, and contemporary paintings lined the display cases walls, illustrating the evolution of humanity’s perception of animals through time – something that is always changing. The juxtaposition of these artistic interpretations with modern scientific insights served to underscore the inherent connection between creative expression and the pursuit of knowledge in the realm of natural sciences, something which unfortunately has become somewhat of a division in recent times.

It didn’t take me long to find some amphibians, with this amazing illustration of a Japanese giant salamander in Philip Von Sienbold’s Fauna Japnica

The next theme was Water, be it fresh or saltwater, these worlds are completely alien to us and provide a home for a huge diversity of animal life. Some of which can barely be seen with the naked eye, others include the largest animal to have ever lived. Many of these animals, such as fish, whales, and corals have been impacted by human activities, but have also played a huge part of our development as a global community. Our curiosity for these animals has led to many discoveries, from Aristotle to the modern day. However, we have only explored a tiny fraction of the Earth’s oceans, due to the immense pressure at depth, making such expeditions tediously risky and difficult. Yet, for centuries, the deep has inspired myths and legends, whilst also providing us with scientific discoveries.

One of the many displays as part of the Water theme

One of the exhibition’s standout features was the interactive stations thoughtfully dispersed throughout the space. These stations encouraged visitors to engage directly with animal sounds, inviting them to mimic calls, decipher the intricacies of vocalisations, and explore the fascinating world of animal communication. One of these within the Water area included a recording of common frog tadpoles feeding underwater. This wasn’t nearly as menacing as it first seemed, with the recording of them feeding on aquatic vegetation, instead of later in development, when they start to feed on one another! While the majority of the exhibition was visual, there were these tiny snippets of audio that helped to tie everything together, without the need for narration or a detailed understanding of the natural world. There are surely countless undescribed species to be found in the ocean, this exhibit allows those of us that rarely venture that far to be as close to them as possible.

I even managed to find some Blaschkas!

From the Water (which included far less amphibians than I wold have liked), we moved into the Land area. When you think of the land, what comes to mind? Forests, grasslands, deserts, mountains, wetlands. Terrestrial animals have evolved to inhabit all of these, and many more that we have both missed off of that list. Some of these survive in the earliest cave paintings dating back 40,000 years ago, which was surely the first time when humans decided to combine art and science, creating diagrams and illustrative representations of the animals that they shared the landscape with. Given their abundance and ease of study, terrestrial animals have got to be one of the most well studied groups out there, especially seeing as a number of animals have important roles in civilisation, from food to companion animals.

It was amazing to see an original Micrographia by Robert Hooke

Beyond its educational value, Animals: Art, Science & Sound deeply resonated with the theme of empathy and the importance of conservation. Walking through the exhibition, I was reminded of the delicate interdependence of ecosystems and the urgent need to safeguard the habitats and species that contribute to our planet’s rich biodiversity. This was highlighted by a great display of species threatened with extinction, that are listed on the IUCN Red List, which did include some frogs! As I walked through the exhibit, I overheard just how much of an impact this had on some visitors, who didn’t realise that approximately 17,000 animal species are facing extinction, or the dire condition the world’s amphibian populations are in. As a conservationist, this was all preaching to the choir, but I’m glad to know that if I didn’t have that background, I would have still been able to walk away with something valuable.

There were rows upon rows of display cases with books featuring insects such as butterflies and moths, demonstrating our curiosity with metamorphosis

The final theme was Air, yet Aang was nowhere to be seen. Those species that have lived in the air have made a significant contribution to culture from the dove in the book of Genesis, to the raven from Poe fame. Many of these animals have a whole range of unique features which make them completely alien to us, but allow them to fly or glide. These are essential for attracting mates, finding food, migrating, or escaping predators. Something that was evident was just how many amazing volumes there were of insects (most of which can fly), with a huge focus on butterflies and moths. I can only imagine that this fascination is due to the interest and intrigue caused by the process of metamorphosis from a caterpillar to the adult form, but with birds, that same level of study seems to be due to their birdsong.

Snakes! I found some 🙂

My favourite display within the entire exhibit was dedicated to the recording of bird song, and what equipment was used to do this in the early days of wildlife recording. What was more interesting, was seeing some records on display, that are part of my collection. Something that a number of you will know, is that I collect vinyl. What you may not realise, is that 1/3 of my collection is wildlife recordings including birds, frogs, whales, and everything in between. In particular, the set in the red box photographed below (a set of two 10 inch shellac discs) is something I have two copies of in my collection. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about that, they should be listened to, not locked away behind glass. I loved learning more about the artists that recorded these pieces (Ludwig Koch), and the contribution they made to our understanding of birds. I can also report that I found a few records to add to my collection at some point too, thanks to the various other displays that incorporated them.

We can’t go forgetting the sound now can we?

The curatorial prowess behind this exhibition was evident in its meticulous layout, seamless transitions between sections, and the thoughtfully designed lighting that enhanced the visual appeal of each display. The British Library’s commitment to delivering an immersive, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally resonant experience was evident in every corner of this exhibition. In conclusion, Animals: Art, Science & Sound is a triumph that exemplifies the potential of curated exhibitions to engage, educate, and inspire visitors on all levels. I am upset that I didn’t visit sooner, and unfortunately, you’ve only got three days to visit yourself. If you do, make sure to pick up the book that accompanies the exhibition as it is full of much more information that you can absorb walking around. If you can’t make it, at least snap up some bargain in the online shop, like I may have done. This exhibition is a testament to human creativity, curiosity, and the unending beauty of the animal kingdom. If you’ve already visited, I would love to hear what your thoughts were!

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