This exhibition tells the story of the boring beasts that have changed the world: the mundane creatures in our everyday lives including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice. These animals are rarely represented in natural history museum displays. They are not special enough. People would rather see dinosaurs, dodos and giant whales. The Museum of Ordinary Animals gives these commonplace creatures a chance to tell their stories. It begins by asking where ordinary animals came from, followed by the exploration of the themes of Ordinary Animals in culture, in science and in the environment.
I visited the The Museum of Ordinary Animals on the same day as heading to the Can Graphic Design Save Your Life exhibition at Wellcome Collection. A stones throw away from each other, both newly opened, and both small enough to not be entirely museumed out, it made sense to see the two. Both concerning entirely different topics, it was fascinating to see both in the space of a couple of hours.
The Museum of Ordinary Animals, curated by Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby, opens up the collection to a wholly different narrative that natural history collections are presented. Since the renaissance curiosity cabinet era, natural history collections have existed to exhibit the most curious of animals and the most exciting of species. Collections such as the one held by the Grant Museum in University College London are perceived as a space for awe, wonder and amazement. The Museum of Ordinary Animals appears to be the opposite of that, yet it isn’t.
Focussing on ‘ordinary’ animals doesn’t sound like it would be the most fascinating of topics, of course the animals that are on display are the types of animals you see on a regular basis in farms and even in your own homes. But, key to the exhibitions success is the thematic discussion of the importance of these animals, the threads that tie them to our society makes them anything but ordinary.
One particular theme that interested me was the exhibition’s section on recognising controversy, and how we have impacted the natural world around us – often to it’s demise. This section covered eugenics, animal cruelty, and selective breeding. While our worlds would be an entirely different place without domesticated animals, and while it is uncomfortable to recognise the damage we have done to the animal world, The Museum of Ordinary Animals doesn’t shy away from that. The display stems domestication back to its roots, when wolves were first introduced to nomadic societies in a symbiotic relationship, eventually looking at the sheer damage that selective breeding has caused to species such as Pugs. Linking to the devastating results Darwinian thinking has caused to both the animal world, and the human world when adopted by the Nazi party in the 1930’s, the exhibition highlights the chaotic connection that humans and animals hold.
However, aside from that rather difficult section, the rest of the exhibition maintains a sense of humour throughout, acknowledging the rather bizarre relationship that humans and animals have, as well as the curious world of seemingly ordinary animals.
Overall, The Museum of Ordinary Animals certainly encapsulates the “boring beasts that changed the world” in a human way. In putting the spotlight on the animals that are so often ignored by both natural history museum curators, and the visitors themselves, the exhibition recognises the enormous impact that these species have to our planet. As well as being humorous, enlightening and absorbing, The Museum of Ordinary Animal offers a new way to see the animal kingdom and questions our place at the top of it.
21st September to 22nd December 2017. Free admission.
Grant Museum of Zoology. University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT.