Natural History Museum has roots dating back to 1753 —how has time and evolution of cultures affected or changed the collections in exhibit whether physically or in meaning?
The world was a very different place in 1753 — in terms of the political landscape and that people thought very differently back then as well. We go back to the Age of Enlightenment/Reason and it was a time when the founding fathers of the Natural History Museum truly believed we could get all of human knowledge and all of the natural world under one roof and document everything.
I think we realised very quickly that the world has become a far bigger and more complicated place than we can ever document. 250 years ago, we hadn’t yet developed the modern scientific methods to help us understand the world — through exploration, observation, experimentation and criticism.
Of course, in 1753, Britain was an enormous imperial power and had connections all over the world. As time has changed, Britain now occupies a very different place in world affairs.
Personally, what are some challenges you have faced while conveying the work of Natural History Museum in various countries outside of the UK?
I think we have really embraced some challenges, while some of them require us to face new considerations. When we think of a project such as bringing Treasures of the Natural World to Singapore, one of the positive challenges for us is how we can present the collections we have in London differently in Singapore.
In London, the collection is primarily viewed as scientific specimens, and when we bring them into ArtScience Museum, an institution which tells cultural and historical stories, it gives us the opportunity and freedom to rethink the narrative behind the objects.
There's always the underlying challenge of making and relating our collection to audiences, particularly in parts of the world where the cultural reference points for the visiting audience might not be the same as those in the United Kingdom. So we have to think much more in context.
How would you describe the synergy between ArtScience Museum and Natural History Museum in coming together to present Treasures of the Natural World?
It has been a very enjoyable and creative process. We have developed a relationship with ArtScience Museum over the past three years. We test and challenge each other, thinking about the opportunities that come when two different institutions with different mindsets approach a common set of source material.
Our collaboration has enabled us to tell a very long, rich, complex story about the changing nature of human thought over time. The synergy has helped us think of new and creative ways of how we can test Singaporean audiences with different kinds of displays that they may not have seen before.
It has also made us, as a museum, think about new ways in which we can make these complex scientific ideas accessible to a very broad public.
There are two ways of looking at that. One is a very practical thing that we do — in terms of communicating content and ideas to people based around the subject matter that we have. Hence, in a museum of natural history, we can help people understand the way the planet and its life have evolved and changed through time.
People are developing important ways of responding to evidence and argument in what we are increasingly referring to as a “post-truth” world.
Through developing skills that they have in their cultural lives, the public will make more informed choices and approach the noise in their social and political lives with a much more critical mindset.
Ultimately, what is natural history to you, and how does our understanding help with the conversation of nature and the world at large?
The term “Natural History” comprises two quite difficult words, because they are not an accurate description of what we do. For many people, “nature” is something which is living, outdoors and green. “History” is a word that tends to refer to the past, to human culture and recorded time. When you put those two words together what you’re really talking about is something different entirely.
Natural history is about our planet and its life, and the relationship of everything we know that provides a context for how we as humans can exist.
It’s quite humbling when you understand how small humans are within the context of the entire world. It also makes us realise that we are very vulnerable as a species. The ecosystems and the ecological processes upon which we rely are very affected by the choices that we make.
I also feel that the evidence we find through the science and research that natural history institutions do will help us realise that perhaps the changes and choices we make in the next 10 to 15 years can be more important than the choices we’ve made for the last 200 years. And this might affect our survival in the future.