Alison Wright, exhibition curator, British Museum
The British Museum touring exhibition Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum is in its closing weeks at its final UK venue, Ferens Art Gallery in Hull (7 June – 26 August 2014). Since October 2013, 86 prints made between the 15th to the early 19th centuries and containing sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre animal imagery have been exhibited at three venues across the UK, opening at Compton Verney in Warwickshire before travelling to the Ulster Museum (National Museums Northern Ireland) in Belfast, and Hull. The exhibition is part of the British Museum’s Partnership UK programme, which is committed to sharing collections and expertise with museums and organisations outside London. In 2013–2014 over 2,792 objects were on loan at 187 venues throughout the country.
Curious Beasts explores humankind’s curiosity about the natural world, as it was expressed in the vibrant print culture of the early modern period. Printmaking emerged as a major art form and communication tool in the 15th century, coinciding with an increasing interest in and investigation of flora and fauna. The exhibition looks at how printmakers contributed to knowledge of animals, but also at the wildly different ways in which the animal subject inspired graphic artists. Our enduring fascination with animals also proved to be a good way to bond with like-minded colleagues in other museums, and to make the most of their own collections – leading to some novel encounters between the British Museum’s prints and objects such as stuffed rabbits and rhinoceroses.
The idea for Curious Beasts was sparked many years ago when, working as a Museum Assistant in the Department of Prints and Drawings, I opened a box of 16th-century Dutch and Flemish prints – while looking for something else entirely – and was startled to discover Jan Saenredam’s magnificent engraving of a beached sperm whale, from 1602.
The remarkably accurate representation of this mysterious giant is bordered by an equally remarkable frame that gives us broader insight into the ways people thought about whales: images of eclipses, earthquake and plague tie into the idea that the monstrous sea creature dying on land was a bad omen. The whale is surrounded by a crowd of sightseers, testifying to the intense curiosity about strange and rare creatures in this period – some of these people would no doubt have been among the intended audience for the engraving, too.
Saenredam’s whale is now at the heart of Curious Beasts, and I have greatly enjoyed showing it, in all its peculiarity, to new audiences. The exhibition takes inspiration from the complexity of Saenredam’s print, drawing on the diversity of the British Museum’s collection to put natural history studies in the context of people’s wider relationships with the animal world. The range of material covers everything from religious subjects (e.g. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) to political satire and practical objects – one etching of a rabbit was designed as a target for archery practice. Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros is probably the best-known object in the exhibition, and a 1620 impression is shown alongside prints by Rembrandt, Goya and Stubbs, and an array of fascinating and striking works by lesser known artists, the majority of which have never been loaned before.
Working with our three partners has been educational and inspiring – there have been so many great responses to the beauty and quirkiness of the British Museum beasts. Our lead partner Compton Verney brought taxidermy into their galleries for the first time, including a baby Indian rhinoceros borrowed from Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: an intriguing comparison with Dürer’s woodcut of the same species (he famously never saw the rhinoceros in real life).
Compton Verney also wanted to put on a complementary display that would feature their edition of the designer Enid Marx’s linocut series, Marco’s Animal Alphabet. A collaboration with Leicester Print Workshop brought printmaking up to the present day with an exhibition of new works titled A Fantastical Animal Alphabet, and a pop-up print studio run by their very appropriate Artist in Residence, Kate Da’Casto: I have fond memories of conversations about our mutual love of old master prints and the more gruesome relics of natural history.
The exhibition has changed at each venue. In Belfast the Ulster Museum decided to include Lorenzo Lippi’s lovely painting, Allegory of Fortune with a monkey, and also to display taxidermy from its extensive natural history collection, much of it prepared by the respected Belfast firm Sheals, established in 1856. The museum’s famous exhibit Peter the polar bear, prepared in 1972 after he died at Belfast zoo, was in a nearby gallery.
The exhibition’s present incarnation at Ferens Art Gallery is in the largest gallery space yet, and the curators at Hull Museums were keen to use Curious Beasts as an opportunity to bring some of their objects out of storage and into conversation with the British Museum’s prints. Over 30 objects were eventually selected, including a delightful rhinoceros-shaped ceremonial wheelbarrow made in 1862, a sperm whale tooth with scrimshaw carvings, and artworks including the truly bizarre and difficult-to-display 1960s wooden sculpture Criletic Delay Adjust (‘Zebra Legs’) by Mark Ingram, which triggered much reminiscence among the curators and technicians.
Sadly it’s the end of the road for this particular UK travelling exhibition, but the beasts have life in them yet. Halfway through the tour, we received word that San Diego University Galleries were interested in taking the show for October 2014. I can’t wait to see what they decide to do with it.