Mental asylums. Mind-altering drugs. Dirt. The Wellcome Collection has carved out a rep for delivering exhibitions that are outlandish without ever being sensationalist. And while the premise of their latest show – the relationship between humans and animals – might not have the same WTF factor, it’s still just as quirky and enthralling.
The first room kicks off with the Enlightenment-era craze for natural classification. On display is Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus’s ‘Systema Naturae’ from 1735, which listed and filed the animal kingdom, humankind included (albeit as a kind of exception to the rule: this was pre-Darwin). So is Charles Bonnet’s ‘Scale of Natural Being’ from 1783, a league table of best to worst in which humans, naturally, come out top. Older manuscripts show delightfully crap engravings of camel-like beasts the size of houses.
Rooms two and three focus on our urge to observe and display animals. Maquettes of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs – the first ever models of an extinct species – show us a Victorian wonder of the big bad lizards that’s never waned since. Dioramas of taxidermied foxes, intended to place them in their natural habitats, seem hopelessly twee and antiquated. Mind you, so do modernist architect Hugh Casson’s early-’60s designs for a radical new type of elephant house. They might replace the painted fakery with concrete, but ultimate still treat the poor pachyderm as little more than a circus spectacle.
These are historical curios, but the really eye-opening stuff is kept for the final room, on loan from the Center for Postnatural History in Pittsburgh, the first institute to explore animals that have been fundamentally altered by humans. So there’s the genetically modified mosquito, unable to carry the dengue fever virus, soon to be released into the wild to breed out the rest, like a new product on the market. More troubling is the rat bred by a lab in Finland: born alcoholic, so scientists can test out drugs that will, hopefully, combat that nation’s huge addiction crisis.
As you’d probably expect, a heap of ethical questions emerge throughout the exhibition, chiefly about how our own perceptions of animals inevitably affect how we treat them. Which is pretty bloody dubiously, obviously (Harambe, we haven’t forgotten you) – but here’s the magic of the Wellcome: it never bashes us over the head with this stuff. Another coup is how they drop artworks throughout the show that never feel like mere shoehorned conceits. A highlight is Philip Warnell’s film, a re-enactment of New York apartment where a man kept a pet lion and alligator. And there’s Allora and Calzadilla’s film installation ‘The Great Silence’, which juxtaposes footage of a radio telescope with a sanctuary for endangered parrots. The point is pretty obvious. We homo sapiens might be sending out messages to the cosmos on behalf of planet Earth – but we’re only one of its residents.