Throughout last autumn, a series of unique, delicately constructed works of art graced the walls of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, looking very much at home alongside its collection of Rembrandts and Vermeers. Beautiful, yet highly functional, these creations were the work of a master artist possessed with unrivalled craftsmanship, a keen sense of symmetry… and eight legs.
Live creepy crawlies are not often welcome in a museum space – in fact, many pages of Museums Journal over the years have been devoted to telling readers how to keep them out.
But for the duration of its Clara and Crawly Creatures exhibition, which closed in January, the Rijksmuseum banished feather dusters and vacuum cleaners from its public spaces to allow spiders to roam freely and weave their webs, inviting visitors – and museum staff – to consider new ways of coexisting with invertebrates (see box).
This was a big step forward. As cultural institutions, museums are firmly on one side of what has long been perceived as a dichotomy between culture and nature: the idea that the two are distinct, opposing entities. Most were established at a time when western society saw dominance over nature as its goal, and though this view is changing, some of that mindset lingers on.
Clara and Crawly Creatures
The Rijksmuseum’s recent Clara and Crawly Creatures exhibition explored how the perception of insects and invertebrates has changed over the centuries, as evidenced through art.
“Now that it is almost too late, since many species are threatened with extinction, we are just realising how important these critters are for biodiversity,” says exhibition curator Julia Kantelberg.
“The dominant position of humans at the top of the pyramid of life is increasingly being questioned. Here the relationship between humans and other animals is critically examined not only in science, but also in art.”
The exhibition featured an installation by the artist Tomás Saraceno, titled Gravitational Solitary Semi-Social Solitary Solitary Choreography LHS 477, made in 2019. The work is a spiderweb sculpture woven by four spider species.
Inspired by the work, and by Saraceno’s manifesto, An Open Letter for Invertebrate Rights, curators decided to allow spiders to build webs in the museum’s public spaces for the duration of the exhibition.
“One of the goals of the artwork is for people to start looking around and notice spiderwebs by themselves – not only in the museum, but everywhere – and ultimately start to consider them as artworks,” says Kantelberg.
She adds that this didn’t pose a conservation risk to the museum’s artworks. “We talked to many different colleagues in the museum to get everyone on board. It was interesting to see the shift in perception among colleagues on how we look at other animals and what is considered as art.”
The public was fascinated by the beauty and ingenuity of the webs, according to Kantelberg. “I noticed that allowing real spiders to weave in public spaces was one of the best ways in which people could understand Saraceno’s concept,” she says.
“It’s a very concrete action that appeals to people, and that stretches their imagination on how to engage with other lifeforms in a different and less-hierarchical way.”
But will the museum continue with this approach now the exhibition has closed? “It is a wish but it hasn’t been decided yet,” says Kantelberg. “But my colleagues and I have gone through a transition because of this work and we don’t look at spiderwebs in the same way. I now notice spiderwebs everywhere and have started looking at them with great awe and admiration outside the museum walls.”
Though many museums do celebrate nature, they are by necessity sterile, controlled environments. If anything wild exists on the exhibition floor, it is either stylised or dead: mediated through the lens of art or collected as a specimen to be stuffed, pinned or kept in a jar.
But as museums face up to the planetary crisis, many are rethinking their relationship with the natural world and hoping to inspire their audiences to do the same. Far from being separate entities, it is now well understood that culture and nature are complementary forces: a strong connection with nature is crucial to our wellbeing, while culture can help to deepen people’s appreciation of the wild.
This comes not a moment too soon. Humans have never been more distant from nature, which is both a cause and a consequence of the profound ecological crisis we are in. Globally, the UK is in the bottom 10% of countries for biodiversity, with climate breakdown, habitat loss and factors such as the ongoing bird flu pandemic intensifying the emergency.
This year, several major museum and heritage initiatives are coalescing around the People’s Plan for Nature, a campaign for action and change that aims to be “too big for anyone to ignore”. The UK-wide campaign, which is led by heritage conservation charity the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the World Wildlife Foundation, has produced an action plan based on the findings of a people’s assembly involving more than 30,000 members of the public.
Linked to this, the arts charity Art Fund has launched the largest-ever collaborative project between UK museums, The Wild Escape, which has so far seen more than 500 museums run projects to inspire schoolchildren to engage with nature.
Both the Plan for Nature and The Wild Escape initiatives were timed to coincide with BBC One’s Wild Isles, a David Attenborough documentary that aired in spring and has highlighted the crisis in British nature.
So far, The Wild Escape has seen participating museums use their collections to encourage children to create pictures and stories of wildlife, all brought together in an immersive mass digital artwork unveiled on 22 April for Earth Day 2023.
“We’ve thought about this from a child’s point of view,” says Jo Paton, The Wild Escape’s project director. “Children’s great affinity with living creatures creates an opportunity for them to have a different experience in a museum and engage with collections in a different way.”
Escape to the future
This approach could be a model for other museums, says Paton: “There is already lots of great work in the museum sector happening to address the climate and biodiversity crisis, but still a long way to go. We hope The Wild Escape has given museums a new way to address this with their audiences.”
The Natural History Museum is also leading in this area, with its ongoing Urban Nature Project developing research and public engagement in the biodiversity of towns and cities across the UK. In 2024, the London museum will unveil its re-landscaped gardens, which are being transformed into a haven for urban wildlife, complete with wetlands and a learning centre.
This focus is being backed by heritage sector bodies. The National Trust has made restoring biodiversity a key goal, while the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s new 10-year strategy, published in March, listed nature recovery as one of its four key investment principles.
Place and climate action are also priorities in the new Museums Galleries Scotland strategy. And Arts Council England is building a partnership with the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (NAAONB) to develop an Art in the Landscape programme. This aims to enable people to experience a deeper connection with the natural beauty of the landscape through the arts.
Ruth Colbridge, communications and advocacy manager at the NAAONB, believes that bringing nature, culture and place together in this way can have profound results. Many people see untamed nature as an aberration, she says, but art can help them appreciate it as a part of everyday life and see the beauty in its unruliness.
“The more we can link together and start seeing the magic in the weeds coming up between paving slabs, and reach back to the communities we’ve all come from, the more we can see how intrinsically linked we all are, to nature and to each other,” Colbridge says.
Cultural interpretation also offers a way of raising awareness about the ecological emergency in a way that doesn’t overwhelm people. “We know messages based around fear are difficult for people to hear,” says Colbridge.
“While there may be serious messages to convey, we feel people are more likely to develop a meaningful and responsible relationship with nature if they are introduced via an awe-inspiring piece of art, a beautiful song or a walk of just the right length that leaves you feeling in step with the nature around you.”
“We think it’s the focus on humans as being a part of nature that is important. We’d like to see people recognising that we can and should work in harmony.”
Museums and galleries are increasingly thinking beyond their four walls and reconsidering their relationship to their natural surroundings. Rebecca Yorke, director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire, says: “At the Parsonage, where we are surrounded on all sides by stunning Yorkshire moorland and at the mercy of the elements, the boundary between the natural world outdoors and the historic rooms once inhabited by the Brontës is almost imperceptible.”
Throughout the year, the museum is running a programme of events, workshops, nature walks and installations inspired by the natural world, alongside its 2023 exhibition, The Brontës and the Wild, which explores the huge influence these natural surroundings had on the family. The exhibition is centred around the Brontë family’s annotated copy of Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds, which the museum recently acquired.
“Landscape, seasons and weather play an integral part in the lives and work of all the Brontës,” says Yorke. “We hope this exhibition will prompt our visitors to consider their own relationship with the landscape, and inspire them to venture onto the moorland and gain a greater understanding of the landscape as a habitat for wildlife, rather than just a view.”
Other institutions have done away with walls altogether. The Artist’s Garden is a gallery set on a previously derelict roof terrace above Temple tube station in London. Overlooking the Thames, the garden opened in 2021 as an outdoor oasis for commuters. “We are up in the trees and there’s an amazing canopy of sky – it’s about as close to nature as it’s possible to get here,” says Claire Mander, director of artistic collaborator at The Colab.
The gallery stages exhibitions that draw on natural themes. Its current show, Through the Cosmic Allotment (on until 1 July), features living plant sculptures by the artists Tony Heywood and Alison Condie, who are also horticulturalists.
“The artists have a profound understanding of gardens, landscapes and nature’s rhythms,” says Mander. She, too, believes that the unique, artist’s view of the world can be a powerful tool to change how people look at nature. The space intends to show that a garden doesn’t need to be a “subjugation of nature”, says Mander. “We don’t have to be oppositional, we can live a harmonious existence.”
People need to relearn how to commune with nature, she adds, and spaces like the Artist’s Garden offer them a way in. “We show there’s nothing wrong with spending time looking at the sky, the trees – it should be a valuable part of your day.”
Although they may be increasingly walking on the wild side, it seems unlikely that many other cultural institutions will follow the Rijksmuseum’s example and give nature free reign. But could they be missing out? Perhaps the next step is exploring not just how museums can help nature, but how nature can inform museum practice.
“Nature will change, adapt and continue whatever happens. Humans don’t have the same adaptability,” says the NAAONB’s Colbridge. “Nature-based solutions are often the cheapest, most attractive ways of solving many of the challenges we face.”
The Wild Escape in museums
The McManus, Dundee
Wild Escape Eco School
During the Easter holidays, the McManus became an eco-school, an open forum for children to think about the environment and become nature champions. Storytellers, artists and museum educators led hands-on activities that encouraged children to make their own creative responses to the collection.
Gallery Oldham, Greater Manchester
Gallery Oldham worked with sculptor Ruth Moilliet to offer local primary schools and community groups a series of workshops in making endangered and extinct flower structures from reused plastic.
Mid-Antrim Museum, The Braid, Ballymena
Wild About Wellbeing
Mid-Antrim Museum worked with local artist Carly Wright and Ballykeel Primary School to deliver an activity to promote children’s wellbeing and create an artwork based on nature in the local environment.
The Horniman Museum & Gardens, London
The Wild Escape at the Horniman Museum
The Horniman offered a range of activities for schools, including a creative comic strip workshop imagining a life for the museum’s natural science collections outside of their cases. On Earth Day, the museum held a family celebration event showcasing the children’s artwork.