15th June 2007 — 2nd September 2007
commission commemorates the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl
Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist whose principle legacy to science is a
system that divides living things into groups based on their physical
characteristics. Linnaeus later created a straightforward method for
the naming of species, still in use today, that reduced cumbersome
monikers to simple two-part classifications, known as binomials.
Being a sucker for archaic museums I was overjoyed to find myself walking into a dimly lit room with a distinct old-fashionedness about it. In a series of mahogany display cases Mark Dion has arranged objects liberated from the museum's storerooms. To titillate naughty schoolchildren, one contains an opened volume with pressed specimens of tobacco and cannabis leaves mounted on thick pages. Another shows copies of Linnaeus' books, including 'Systema Naturae', from which the exhibition's title is derived.
The detailed handbook provided on entry explains that the items in the third case date from Victorian times, reflecting the enthusiasm for nature study that the likes of Linnaeus, and later, Darwin, had given rise to: how-to-do-it booklets, microscope slides, shell collections, magnifiers, secateurs, vented boxes for keeping insects alive in and packets of pins for skewering them on. The wall behind the cases is papered with browned botanical engravings and hung with portraits of the botanist, butterfly nets and spades and, on a plinth, a Persil-white bust of the man in Roman garb, smiling benevolently from the middle of a colourful animal-vegetable-mineral still-life arrangement.
On the other side of the wall sit Dion's four fieldwork projects, which he undertook with a team of experts and helpers. The first was at the future Olympic site. There is a room, with large windows, a simulacrum of an office with rectangular boxes of wild grass and weeds. This, we are told, is invasive vegetation. A TV screen shows Mr Dion holding a lump of sod aloft, scrutinising it thoughtfully like a large hotdog. A museum chap is seen pressing plants and mounting them in a room, much in the way that Linnaeus must have done. Creepy crawlies found in the earth are discussed, along with plenty of statistics. I press my nose against the glass to see more, but many of the details of the room are tantalisingly out of reach.
Next. One of those electric cars with a sticky tape covered screen on the roof. We can see the journey in the TV screen in the back window of the vehicle. This fits with Linnaeus' ecological leanings. Mr Dion is in the passenger seat with a butterfly net. Even at 40 mph, most of the insects are crushed to oblivion. DNA testing to the rescue. Flies, beetles, aphids and wasps, we learn. Another room, all white this time, like a portacabin. On the whiteboard is a description of the journey in cod victorianspeak.
On the walls, giant photos of the invertebrates, intact versions. On the table, technical equipment, more stuff we can't quite make out and on the glass sliding door something scientific, but it's backwards so we don't know what it says.
A tannoy blares: "Saffron, please make your way to the main hall by the large dinosaur where Vanessa is waiting for you" Next. Material that has been collected from the Thames is arranged in a polytunnel. A mountain of dirty polystyrene, a pile of tatty footballs, jars of eely looking things, and a rather sweet collection of identical yellow plastic ducks, and dozens of plastic bottles, all classified, within, again, the trappings of a laboratory. This time the obscured view doesn't grate. The detritus is beautifully softened through the thick plastic. The film shows collecting and scrubbing of the objects. Fish and a rare seahorse are found and returned to the river. The film shows a lot of talking though, and as I can't lip-read I feel I'm missing something.
The last lab is not enclosed. A wooden balustrade keeps us at bay. The desk is piled , again, with equipment and books. A stand-up blackboard but it's perpendicular to us so we can't read what's on it. Earth, air and water have been dealt with. Now it's the turn of homo sapiens. Dion has taken his team to three Victorian cemeteries which could yield many fine personalities to knit the elements together. At East Finchley samples are taken from evolutionary theorist Thomas Henry Huxley's grave, which fits, though the connection is left hanging. On the monitor Dion affects a Sherlockian pose with his magnifying glass. He's also plumped for Emmeline Pankhurst and Karl Marx and it takes an age for the penny to drop. The rise of women and revolutionary social architecture in society? Marx in particular seems rather over-optimistic. Dion is clutching at straws. He's spread his project too thinly. There's less to it than meets the eye, drowning in piles of his artfully positioned paperwork. Something's missing, and I'm starting to fantasy-complete the job myself.
What about Francis T.Buckland? Natural historian. Anti-evolutionist. Scourge of Darwin. Author of 'Effects of valerian on skunks' A Daily Mail firebrand of his time. Or Faraday, father of electricity and benzene, and all the ecological paradoxes they've resulted in. Subterranean myself, homebound on another relic of Victorian industry, surrounded by discarded freepapers, a photocopy of Highgate's funerary celebs on my lap, I suddenly alight upon it. The everyman for our paranoid 21st century worldview. Adam Smith, criminal mastermind, genius of disguise, and, here's the clincher: inspiration for Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty.
Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD