Sunday, February 19, 2012

Exhibition: Art by Animals at the Grant Museum

Digit Master by Bakhari (Chimp, Saint Louis Zoo, Mossouri)

The Grant Museum of Zoology is currently exploring the influence that animals and humans have on each other through it's 'Humanimals' season. Through a series of lectures, discussions, workshops, films and exhibitions they aim to explore crossovers between the human and animal world. Their exhibition Art by Animals held at the museum itself is part of this series.

The advertising for this exhibition claims that the exhibition has art by elephants and chimpanzees placed "...alongside animal specimens and historical documentation" and that it explores "why some animal creations are considered valuable and creative, while others are dismissed as meaningless."

I found this exhibition deeply disappointing. The artwork was dotted around the museum, hidden amongst the normal exhibits. There wasn't very much of it and I don't feel it flowed together to make any cohesive story or argument.

However, this topic is very interesting. The painting to the left (sorry about the reflections) was painted by an elephant. It looks very impressive at first glance. But the elephant was given a lot of training to produce this flower, and was guided
by its keeper who was sitting on it at the time giving pre-programmed tugs and pulls.

Also, the Grant museum itself is very fun and if you like taxidermied animals and things in jars then I recommend it.

Flower pot by Boon Mee (Elephant) 2011, Thailand

Art by Animals is part of the Humanimals Season at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology (Rockefeller Building, University College London, University Street, London, WC1) and runs until the 9th of March: Monday to Fridays between 1 and 5pm. There’s a special Saturday opening 11am to 4pm on 10 March. Admission is free. Visit for more information

Friday, July 8, 2011

A problem of classification: The platypus

Platypus by Frederick Nodder published in Naturalist's Miscellany 1799

The continent of Australia caused all kinds of excitement and problems for naturalists in terms of classification of the animals living there. Explorers and settlers encountered animals entirely new to them. One of the most famous and controversal was that of the platypus. This animal was so bizare and difficult to classify that at first experts back in Europe suspected it of being a hoax. Chinese and Japanese taxidermists were famous for their skills at creating non-existant creatures by sewing together peices of different animals. See the case of the Fiji mermaid hoax for more details of this practice.

In 1798 the Governor of New South Wales John Hunter made possibly one of the first observations of the platypus by a European. He saw an Aborigine spearing 'a Small Amphibious Animal of the mole kind' in a lake near Sydney. He obtained this strange animal, preserved it in spirits and sent it back to England.

This sample reached Newcastle in 1799 and was recieved by Thomas Beswick. Beswick wrote in his General History of Quadrupeds (1800) that 'it appears to possess a three fold nature, that of a fish, a bird and a quadraped, and is related to nothing that we have hitherto seen.'

The naturalist Dr. George Shaw also obtained one and published an illustration of the animal by Frederick Nodder in the Naturalist’s Miscellany. According to Ann Moral in Platypus this was the first published depiction of the platypus. [1] Shaw gave the animal the name Platypus anatinus. This was from the Greek platypous meaning flat-footed and the Latin anatinus meaning duck-like. Although officially this name was later changed the term 'duck-billed platypus' stuck.

Shaw regarded the platypus specimen he had with suspicion. He wrote that:

...of all the Mammalia yet known itseems the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblanceof the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadraped… I almost doubted the testimony of my own eyes…

Hunter was not alone in his suspicions, other naturalists were doubtful and the surgeon Robert Knox also felt it was likely to be a Chinese creation.[2] However, this did not stop people from trying to place the platypus in with the other classifications of animals. It was problematic as it seemed to stretch across several categories. It had a bill (like a duck), it layed eggs, yet also fed its young with milk.

Musing on how such a creature came to exist Hunter formed the theory that it was the result of ‘a promiscuous intercourse between the different sexes of all these different animals’. Gradually as more specimens arrived in Europe from Australia the suspicions about its origins were lifted and increasing focus was placed on trying to classify it. In 1803 Etienne Geoffrey St-Hilaire coined the term ‘monotrome’,meaning ‘one hole’ and placed both the platypus and echidna a class of his creation called ‘monotremata’. This was based on both animals having a single cloacalchamber. They are still in this category today.


[1] Moyal A, Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World, Allen & Unwin. 2002

[2] Anon, Duckbilled Platypus,, last checked on 08/07/2011

All quotes from Chapter 1 of: Moyal A, Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World, Allen & Unwin. 2002

For more infomration also see Ritvo H, The Platypus and the Mermaid: and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination, Harvard University Press, 1997

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book review: 'Through a window' - Jane Goodall

Goodall J, Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, New York, 2000

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to stalk a group of Chimpanzees for 30 years then Jane Goodall's Through a Window is the book for you. It gives a moving insight into the dedicated and groundbreaking work of Goodall in Gombe, Tanzania. In it she charts thirty years of observing the behaviour and social structure of chimpanzees. It is extremely accessible and a jolly good read.

This book gives an intimate insight into the chimpanzee community that Goodall so entwined her life with. As readers we follow the real-life dramas of birth, death, learning, war and love. It follows on from the famous In the shadow of man which traced the first 10 years of the community. In Through a window Goodall updates the story. She creates portraits of several of the key chimpanzees (Figan, Gigi, Gilka, Melissa, Jomeo and more), following their struggles for power and a place in the community. As well as this she focuses in particular on key relationships between the chimpanzees, including between mothers and daughters and sons and fathers.

There is also a significant portion of the book taken up with the importance of preserving areas for chimpanzees in the wild. Goodall imparts the message that we should all feel shame and horror at human exploitation of them. This is an important message and Goodall is skillful and getting it across in an engaging and heart-wrenching manner.

In through a window is a wonderfully entertaining book, with compelling information on chimpanzee behaviour. I strongly recommend it to all.

(See the Jane Goodall Institute if you're interested in reading more on Goodall's work)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Exhibition: Louis Wain's cats at the Brent Museum

The Brent Museum in Willesdon Green (London) is currently running a wonderful exhibition of Louis Wain's cat illustrations. It's called 'Communicating through cats: The art and mind of Louis Wain', and is open until the 29th of October. I popped in on Monday to have a gander. It's being held in a fair-size room next to the main museum (which itself is situated inside Willesdon Green library). There are a reasonable number of Wain's illustrations and paintings spanning his career. They nicely illustrate his experimental approach to style in his work and there are well-balanced information boards about the work and Louis Wain throughout.

A cat in "gothic" style. Gouache by Louis Wain, 1925/1939.
Louis Wain was a celebrated illustrater and was famous for his depictions of cats in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century. He started sketching cats at the sickbed of his wife to amuse her, inspired by their pet cat Peter. At first his sketches remained true to life but as his work progressed he began to anthropomorphise his subjects. It was these sketches of cats acting out human scenes that made Louis Wain's name. The first published drawing of anthropomorphised cats was A Kitten's Christmas Party in 1886. However, in this the cats are still on all fours and do not have the very human-like expressions that developed in his later work.

What Louis Wain is now most famous for is perhaps his mental illness and eventual incarceration in mental asylums. He continued to draw and paint his beloved cats in these asylums and in the '60s and '70s some of his more experimental images were used as proof of his mental decline.

A cat standing on its hind legs.

One of the things I liked most about the exhibition was the balanced way it dealt with these theories about Wain's cats and his mind. It pointed out that the series of illustrations used to prove this theory were not in fact dated and therefore it is inconclusive to use them as proof of mental disintergration over time.

A large collection of Louis Wain's art is normally held at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive and Museum. Whilst the exhibition is still on at the Brent Museum I highly recommend you go and see it. Especially if you love cats.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chimpanzee tea parties

Chimps' Tea Party Newsreel, British Pathe

Chimpanzee tea parties used to be a popular form of entertainment in zoos. These 'parties' involved dressing the chimpanzees in human clothing and having them sit at a table whilst their keepers served them food and drink. To enhance the theme the drink was even served out of giant teapots. The public payed for the privilage of watching. These parties were held in the summer time and were very popular. The public enjoyed watching the chimpanzees antics and it was remarked that they acted like children'. In a recent BBC Radio 4 program (which I have unhelpfully forgotten the name of, I will update if I can find out) an expert pointed out that the reason the chimps acted like children was that in chimp terms they were children. The chimpanzees that got used were only a few years old. After they have gone through puberty it can be harder to control chimpanzees, they are especially reluctant to have tea parties on demand.

The first tea party was served in London Zoo in 1926. [1]

Interestingly, it was argued that by observing chimpanzee tea parties useful information could be determined about natural chimpanzee behaviour. An article in The Times in 1931 stated:

It is of psychological interest that almost any young chimpanzee learns table manners in a few days, partly by imitation of his or her fellows and partly by seeming to try to understand what the keeper wishes done. There are individual differences in quickness, as Darwin pointed out in the 'Descent of Man'... [2]

The tea parties at London zoo as an attraction continued until 1972, when animal rights concerns caught up with the zoo and they were stopped.

[1] Henninger-Voss Mary J., Animals in human histories: the mirror of nature and culture, Rochester, 2002, p.281
[2] Anon, The Times, 5 December, 1931
, as quoted in BBC Home article 'The Chimps Tea Party'

The history of animals

The history of animals is a largely neglected subjected.

The academic Nicolaas Rupke wrote that "the place allotted to animals in human society is to a certain extent a mirror to our beliefs and values." [1] The fact then that in our historical accounts the stories of animals are largely silent is significant. It suggests, at best a forgetting, skimming over and at worst a deliberate erasure of animals from historical analysis. Having said so I must acknowledge that this is a rather unfair statement. There are many historians who at present are very interested in addressing this historical blank. Also, histories involving animals do exist (Keith Thomas' Man and the Natural World [2] is an excellent example of such). However, there is no comprehensive resource exploring the history of animals (that I am aware of).

I am starting this blog as an informal way to collate my research into the history of animals. I plan to cover an extremely wide range of time periods and topics. In the future I may hone in on a particular area of interest, who knows.

So, lets go and explore the history of animals....

[1] Rupke N, Vivisection in historical perspective, Guildford, 1987, p. vii
[2] Thomas K, Man and the Natural World, St. Ives, 1983