Nature in museums: curiosity and wonder

Nature's Library Cabinet Curiosities

Arthur Gordon has written about the ‘return to wonder’: that reawakening childlike joy and wonder at the everyday is a powerful tonic to apathy, disenchantment and powerlessness. Rachel Carson, one of the leading environmental thinkers of the 20th century, believed the same thing, explored in ‘The Sense of Wonder’. She wrote how “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

― Rachel CarsonThe Sense of Wonder

If museums can awaken a childlike joy and wonder, then surely natural history collections and displays have a role to play in this. Our museums are filled with amazing things and hundreds of thousands of people come to our museum to wonder at them each year. Some of the objects and specimens are hundreds of years old, and it’s great shame that we don’t know more about what people thought of each of them over time. How many millions of people must have looked at the skeleton of a Sperm Whale which has hung in the same place since 1898? The world doesn’t stand still, and just because specimens have had a long history, the way people think about them doesn’t necessarily do the same. That’s one of the reasons why we have to redevelop our exhibitions and galleries. Natural objects have a very powerful attraction for many people: they remind us that we are part of something bigger, something mysterious, and something that we barely understand. No matter how much we know about Walruses, for example (taking the example of the Walrus skull in the picture above), we can scarcely imagine what a Walrus’s world must be like: the internal forces that draw it to migrate, what it feels like under the Arctic sun hauled out in a herd on the edge of a remote island, how it communicates and understands the world of other Walruses through underground clicks and whistles, how it finds food and thrives in the cold Arctic waters.

The photo above shows the ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’, one of the displays in our Nature’s Library gallery. We are trying to find ways to connect people with nature through our collections. Promoting wonder and curiosity seem a good place to start. To quote Rachel Carson again:

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
― Rachel CarsonThe Sense of Wonder

I’d be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on this.


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