At The British Library – Animals: Art, Science and Sound

Dear Readers, I have been trying to get to this exhibition for ages, but as it finished on Bank Holiday Monday (28th August) it felt as if I really needed to get a move on. So today I visited with my good friend A. We’d picked a day when it wasn’t too busy – British Library exhibitions tend to feature books (not surprisingly) and it can be a nightmare if too many people are huddled around a 15th Century manuscript or are shouldering one another out of the way of the drawings of dissected turtles.

The exhibition comes in four sections: Darkness, Water, Land and Air. As you’d expect, each section features items from the collection in each section. In the Darkness section there are illustrations of bats, including these Funereal Vampire Bats, illustrated by John Gould. They aren’t vampire bats at all but fruit bats. They were included in Gould’s ‘Mammals of Australia’, which was quite the undertaking.

From the British Library Collections.

The exhibition is, as you’ll have noticed from the title, about sound as well as image. In this section there were some interesting nocturnal noises, including the all-too-familiar yipping of a fox. Incidentally, my friend A and I have both noticed how few foxes there are around in North London at the moment – has anybody else noticed? Normally the cubs would be leaving their parents and  there would be all manner of fighting and general shenanigans. Let me know how your visitors are doing…

And here, just to get you in the mood, is a recording made by A.J Williams back in 1975. Seven minutes of red fox, traffic noise, planes going overhead! And a general reminder of how the fox brings a touch of wildness to the most domesticated of settings.

The Water section had some of the Blaschka’s glass sculptures, including an octopus and a squid.

A glass model of an octopus (Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka) (Photo Derbrauni, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons)

And it had this picture of a ‘monkfish’, from Pierre Belon’s De Aquatibilus (Of Aquatic Species) from 1553. This is what happens when you go by description, rather than actually observing something for yourself. Fake news!

This part of the exhibition also featured a tardigrade going about its business, and a recording of a walrus, which sounded rather like someone thrashing a tree with a cane.

Then onto the ‘Land section’. One of my favourite things was this picture of a tree with red squirrels in it, by Abu’l Hassan (1605-08). I adored this painting – the more you look at it, the more you see. There are birds everywhere, ibex in the field below, and plants painted with great exactitude. I love the squirrels looking quizzically at the man climbing the tree – there is no chance that he will catch them, and they know it. Interestingly, the squirrels are European red squirrels, not found in the wild in India (where the picture was painted), and the ‘hunter’ is wearing European clothes, so there is probably more going on here than meets the eye. With its gilded background and astonishing detail, there is a good chance that this painting was made for the Moghul emperor Jahangir, who had a very fine art collection.

Sadly, there was also this film of the last known thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. It’s been colourised and it shows the animal in a bare compound in Hobart Zoo, as recently as 1933. I find it almost unbearably sad.

Finally, we’re on to the Air section, with its birds of paradise. Again, it’s clear that when illustrations were based on reports or on dead specimens, the results weren’t always true to the original.

Bird of paradise illustration by Conrad Gessner (1551-58) from Historia Animalium

Mind you, when you watch this film of actual birds of paradise, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone who hadn’t seen them would have got it right.

And finally, there’s this recording of the O’o A’a bird of Hawaii, by John Sincock. This is what is thought to be the last male, who lost his mate in Hurricane Iwa in 1983. The species had been driven to extinction by habitat loss and the introduction of non-native animals such as the rat and the mosquito. The sound of him calling out, with no one to hear him, moves me greatly.

O’o A’a bird (Moho braccatus), now extinct

This was a very interesting and varied exhibition, enhanced by the short films that you have the opportunity to watch at the end – one on hedgehog conservation, one on the crustacean collection at the Natural History Museum (with some more of those extraordinary Blaschka glass creations), and one on a piece of music made from the sound recordings at the British Library. Well worth watching if you have time, and very pleasing to see women scientists and museums, and London’s diverse range of people, celebrated.

Finally, I’m not sure how long it’s been there but there is a very fine new restaurant and café, with outside space and lots and lots of seats, as opposed to the rather hugger-mugger space that was there before. And don’t forget that you can get a free readers pass if you want to research anything at this extraordinary institution – I’m planning on renewing my readers pass asap, for when I retire. Did I mention that I was retiring :-)?

You can book tickets for Animals: Art, Science and Sound here, but hurry, it finishes on 28th August.

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