Animals: Art, Science And Sound At The British Library

Animals: Art, Science And Sound At The British Library ★★★★★

By M@ Last edited 14 months ago

Last Updated 20 April 2023

Animals: Art, Science And Sound At The British Library Animals: Art, Science And Sound At The British Library 5
Animals, art science and sound at British Library

"Cheese mites!"

Not the words with which we expected to open, but they won't be quickly forgotten by anyone visiting this delightful new exhibition at the British Library.

This is a show that explores how our planetary companions have been documented over the centuries, drawing on the Library's vast archive of books, magazines, video, ephemera and sound recordings. It spans some 2,000 years, from an ancient Greek account of bonking dogs, to some mesmeric microscopic footage of tardigrades tumbling like champs through their aquatic environment.

A sign saying animals with images of some below at the british library

It's a real joy to see some much-reproduced images "in the flesh" for the first time. An original print of Robert Hooke's iconic Micrographia is, of course, on show. That famous flea looks ready to jump out of the page, such is the intense detail of the polymath's pen. Elsewhere, you'll find — in full-colour original size — the birds of Audubon, the insects of Maria Sibylla Merian and Henry III's Tower of London elephant drawn by Matthew Paris.

An elephant drawn by Matthew Paris in the time of Henry III at British Library

So much will be familiar to anyone with half an eye on history, but it's the little surprises that come with every turn that really put a grin on the face. A 17th century illustration of some red squirrels frolicking apocryphally in India; an LP of humpback whale song, which holds the record for the largest single pressing of a commercial record; the first x-ray of a fish; and the first, hilarious drawing of a monkfish:

A fish with a monk's head, which was someone's idea of what a monkfish looked like

Like a zoological Crystal Maze, the show is divided into four zones: darkness, water, land and air. Much of the exhibition is told in a traditional, no-nonsense way. Well-displayed exhibits, clear labels and minimal multimedia intrusion. The occasional video screens are well placed, with that beguiling tardigrade footage, and the 1903 short film called Cheese Mites (billed as a documentary, but arguably the first horror movie).

Do take time to listen in to the various sound recordings. Beside those haunting humpbacks, there's much to intrigue. I was particularly taken by the call of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which sounds exactly like one of those early 'Pong' video games.

An exhibition at the british library about animals
Image courtesy The British Library

The ivory-billed woodpecker is (probably) now extinct. But records of its song and appearance held at the library ensure that its memory lives on. The ongoing value of sometimes ancient records is the strongest theme to come out of the exhibition. Drawings made centuries ago are useful to scientists looking for signs of evolution of long timespans, for example. The show concludes on scientific study, with three short videos about ongoing research and conservation.

Animals: Art, Science And Sound is a solid exhibition, perfectly paced, science-based and historically laced. This is nature, well-read in tooth and claw; an octopus's garden of animal depictions and recordings. And you'll never look at cheese the same way again.

Animals: Art, Science And Sound is at the British Library 21 April to 28 August 2023. Entrance fees apply. The accompanying events programme includes musicians Cosmo Sheldrake and Cerys Matthews. Families might enjoy picking up one of the free trail maps, which includes games for younger children inspired by the exhibits.

All photographs by the author, unless otherwise stated.