I’ve been in London for about a week, and spent two days at the Grant Museum. As someone who is interested in scientific illustration, I was pleased to see one of the volunteers, Janet, drawing specimens there. I chatted with her and we seem to have a lot in common, with both of us loving natural history from an early age and being inspired by illustrated non-fiction books parents had bought us. She suggested I come in and draw one afternoon, so that’s what I did.
Central and South American ornithology is my main interest with regards to Ornithology, so I chose some parrot specimens to draw. A full skeleton and a macaw skull. I have seen live parrots in the wild and seeing the bones, stripped of flesh and colour was a new way of looking at the specimens. For one thing, bone has it’s own sort of colour. It’s not just white. It’s made up of several creams, yellows, browns and greys. I think most people do not notice this sort of thing unless they look very closely at the specimen, which brings me to my thoughts on representation below.
The Grant have a new interactive way to get the public to think about their exhibits. There are several tablets throughout the museum, each with an open ended question which the visitor can answer by typing his/her opinion in. One of the questions asked the public what they thought an accurate portrayal of an animal as a specimen was. Is a taxidermied animal still considered that animal? Is it just a representation like a drawing? Do representations have anything to teach us?
My answer is of course they do. Whether they be replicas, stuffed specimens or illustrations. Some taxidermied animals have not been stuffed or posed in an accurate way. Even if this is a misrepresentation of the animal, we can use these specimens to show people how the creature isn’t supposed to look, and how taxidermists of the past, (who had no access to the internet and resources we do) would have pictured the animal.
As for drawing, I think it brings out far more detail than a photograph can. Drawings can be used to supplement exhibits and explain things in detail to an audience. It can make people look at an object in a new and different way. The more we can find out and learn about an object, the better.