Animals, aside from being useful commodities to some, have also always fascinated us. In some cultures various animal species are still worshipped and considered holy. From the earliest cave paintings to the most up-to-date contemporary art, the depiction of animals and what they mean to humans and society has always, it appears, been a mainstay of visual culture. This exhibition explores some timeless themes relating to animals through objects from the Elmbridge Museum collections. Starting from beautifully mounted butterflies, a practice that categorises nature, a dual narrative can be formed - one leading into the museum, the other into the home.
'Taxing Nature' is an online exhibition, corresponding to a 2016 display at the Civic Centre, Esher.
Noah, and his mission of gathering pairs of animals, has been credited with being the first attempt to fully categorise the natural world. Stemming from this first instance, ideas of classification and identification have continued to obsess. Butterfly collecting was much more popular in Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than it is now. However, it still remains a fashionable hobby in other parts of the world such as Japan. The Large Tortoiseshell butterfly was a common species until the 1940s - this particular butterfly is highlighted in this exhibition - but there have been hardly any sightings since 1953 and it was declared extinct in the 1980s. Common, domestic hobbies, such as butterfly collecting and mounting, illustrate tendencies that can be traced back to Noah and his ark but the stark realisation that such plentiful creatures, creatures that hobbyists brought into their homes, are now extinct is jarring.
The relationship between practices such as butterfly collecting and flower pressing are interesting because they were informed by traditional museum practices, but they also informed them in return.
Unlike the sad case of the Large Tortoiseshell butterfly, not all animals struggle against the expansion of human interaction into traditional natural habitats; the kestrel is an example of one such animal. Kestrel numbers have remained steady despite large expansions of towns and cities into green spaces. Kestrels can often be seen hovering over motorways or perched atop electricity pylons.
Other birds have been less fortunate. The hen harrier, native to many parts of the UK, is one of the country's most persecuted birds of prey. Hen harriers are targeted because they reduce the number of grouse available to shoot - they have become victims of a very modern conflict between man and animal.
This Noah's Ark, because it is a toy, is located squarely in the home environment but with animals that, in 1910, would have been seen as 'exotic'. The opening of London Zoo in 1828 started a craze for depicting 'exotic' animals in toys and illustrated books; Montgomery the Monkey shows us this was true in the local area. London Zoo also gave us, in the form of an incredibly large elephant, the term 'jumbo' that is still in use to this day.
The process of taxidermy, in this exhibition at least, holds a strange place that straddles both the extraordinary and the banal. Kestrels, for example, are very common birds, yet the Maltese Terrier, through its royal provenance, is a one off specimen. Pets are one way in which animals have been bought into the domestic setting; however, by mounting it in an elaborate way under a dome, the Duchess of Wellington's terrier looks more like a museum artefact.
The final objects in this exhibition illustrate the conclusion of the two narratives that have been running from the mounted butterflies through to now: one toward the domestic, the other toward the museum.
The mounted hawks, with their prey, is a fine example of a traditional museum display of taxidermy. This is sometimes called a cabinet display - multiple animals, arranged in natural poses, in one cabinet or case. The display has some similarities to the kestrel above and the encased goldfinch, but in its quality and arrangement, it is very distinct from them.
Juxtaposing a mounted domestic hen with a children's toy of the same animal exhibits a modern tendency to invite animal imagery into the home while distancing ourselves from the real thing. The most troubling aspect of this relationship is the fact that the toy chicken is caged. The chicken coop, just like the glass fronted taxidermy and butterfly cases, shows how humans have always (and probably always will) pen animals, whether in categories of classification or cages.