Bergit Arends

Homo sapiens or Homo ludens? Adventures in Curating or On Working with Artists at the Natural History Museum London

This collage of text, quotes, and images is to complement my contribution to the panel The Micro-Spectacular at the Congress for Curious Peoples symposium Reclaiming Spectacle at the Horse Hospital in September 2013. While I showed works on insects by artists Mark Dion, Mark Fairnington, Tessa Farmer, Lucy + Jorge Orta, and Alison Turnbull on that occasion, in this text I will sketch out my curatorial practice more generally through examples of artists’ commissions for the Natural History Museum London, where I was Curator of Contemporary Art from 2005 to 2013.

‘The variety and variability of life is a wonder of infinite complexity. There is no more curious and uncanny topic then the biodiversity which surrounds us. The objective of the best art and science is not to strip nature of wonder but to enhance it. Knowledge and poetry are not in conflict.’

Mark Dion, Excerpt from Some Notes towards a Manifesto for Artists Working with, or about the Living World, first published in ‘The Greenhouse Effect’ exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2000.

These commissions were all adventures in curating, which involved collaborative processes framed through many questions, but with uncertain outcomes. Our wanderings were, however, always bracketed by a public outcome, leading towards showing works within a museum exhibition space to engage audiences in the wonders of the natural world and the complexities of the studies of natural history. In shaping the works the future display was always kept in mind. Most interesting, and not always integrated as documentation into the exhibitions, were the research and making processes behind the scenes of the institution, in the field or in the artists’ studios to create these works for display.

‘The wood experts I worked with were incredibly generous with their knowledge, and everyone got caught up in the magic and ridiculousness of what I was trying to do. I caused a lot of wise heads to be scratched, but maybe if you spend that much time working in the woods you become the sort of person that can pass on expertise and wisdom very gently to someone like me who knew nothing. My understanding of woodland has changed. I love the bit about being an artist that means you find things out.’

Through my curatorial practice I work directly with artists, the commissioning institutions and other collaborators to originate works that build on the artists’ interests and expand the aesthetics and thinking of all contributors. The curatorial processes at the museum started with bilateral thinking, which began by considering both, the artist’s practices and the needs of the museum. There are needs which were openly perceived by the institution, but there were others that, until then, remained rather unacknowledged. It is at these points where artists can lock themselves into the institutional structures in an attempt to transform these. Primarily, as a curator I work with artists who can benefit from and thrive on the challenges that are set from collaborating with the museum’s research scientists, collections, and museum displays, which are laden with  the vagaries of natural history studies. The commissions were anchored within the encyclopaedic knowledge of the museum and how this could be mapped onto today’s demands for research, impact and public engagement, in order to create new orientations, images, ordering systems, and actions. The curatorial practices then were set within the tensions of the institutional history, the understanding of its place as a research and museum institution in today’s society, and its projection into the future. How can these tensions be explored, sharpened, and challenged?

‘[Hu Yun’s] was “invisible artwork” – you could really easily miss it! This was his intention but others didn’t ‘get it’. He didn’t want his name to be mentioned…, he played on the conventions. Staff understood the programme would be happening and expected something show-stopping, dazzling, big. Did his subtlety and sophistication mean that they valued the work less? It was delightful, playful and serious; disturbing preconceptions.’

Quote from senior staff member, from an evaluation of the International Artists in Residence Programme undertaken by Gaby Porter in 2012.

No arts programme within a museum can exist without external funding. The Natural History Museum London financially supported the programme and received additional funding from Arts Council England and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Both funding bodies provided the necessary external oxygen that contributed much to the legitimization and integrity of such a programme, in particular the International Artist in Residence Programme. This programme ran over three years and provided a platform for artists’ research into the historic scientific illustration collections that can be used to map the histories of trade, science, and interactions between British merchants, settlers, scientists, and colonisers with indigenous peoples, artisans, collectors, and physicians. Working with artists enabled the museum to enter into cultural dialogues, then and now, and to experiment with new ways of communicating these dialogues and research.

‘[It] exposed me to a different way of thinking – through conversations; through looking at some of the things he had drawn – a sideways look… Making it interesting is so hard. This was an opportunity to see what you do from someone else’s perspective. It prompted me to think perhaps I can turn this around, talk in this way, shift from ‘teaching’ mode to “conversation” mode…, challenge the way people look at things.’

Quote from senior staff member, from an evaluation of the International Artists in Residence Programme undertaken by Gaby Porter in 2012.

My curatorial practice is motivated through the understanding that artistic knowledge and cultural knowledge together with scientific knowledge are driving contributors to an integrated, contemporary culture. The curatorial practice enables the interweaving of bodies of knowledge, thereby creating constructive provocations out of which new works are created. But above all, we, be that artist, scientist, curator, librarian, editor, or colleagues within interpretation, visitor service, or estates, and so on, we all became Homo ludens, exploring exhibition making through play – within the highly orchestrated spectacle of the museum.

‘When Bergit Arends and Bob Bloomfield initially suggested I work on an exhibition project at the Natural History Museum, I was as wide eyed as a kid in a candy store. I can’t lie, this project has not been easy. However, the exhibition team, technicians, curators, scientists and librarians we were so privileged to work with were most often patient, generous and warm. Despite the awesome and invaluable collections, the Museum’s greatest assets are its remarkable staff.’

Mark Dion, about Systema Metropolis, 2007, Natural History Museum exhibition handbook, p. 6.

The Contemporary Art Programme

The Contemporary Art Programme at the Natural History Museum in London from 2005 to June 2013 encompassed the following major exhibitions, commissioned works, and international artists-in-residence programme: Lucy + Jorge Orta: Amazonia, shown as part of International Year of Biodiversity in 2010; Mark Dion: Systema Metropolis (2007) and, in 2006, The Ship: The Art of Climate Change in partnership with Cape Farewell. In 2009 Tania Kovats created the permanent art installation TREE for the Museum’s iconic Central Hall to mark the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The proposals by 10 artists were shown in the exhibition Darwin’s Canopy, which included Christine Borland, Dorothy Cross, Mark Fairnington, Tania Kovats, Alison Turnbull, UnitedVisualArtists, Mark Wallinger, Richard Woods, Richard Wentworth, and Rachel Whiteread. Also in 2009 I curated the exhibition After Darwin: Contemporary Expressions and edited the accompanying publication Expressions: From Darwin to Contemporary Arts, including writing by Antonio Damasio, Mark Haddon, and Ruth Padel. Artists’ residencies at the Museum were taken up by Lyndall Phelps, MotiRoti, Tessa Farmer, Chinese artist Hu Yun, Australian artist Daniel Boyd, and Indian artist Sunoj D during that time. On behalf of the NHM I co-curated with Greg Hilty Galápagos (2012 to 2013), a touring group show of 13 artists’ work based on research they undertook on the Ecuadorian archipelago and co-edited the accompanying exhibition publication together with Siân Ede. An archive of the programme is kept at the Natural History Museum.

Image copyright: The Natural History Museum London and the artists
Text copyright: Bergit Arends and the authors