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Honor Harger's Perspectives on Treasures of the Natural World

Photos: ArtScience Museum
Today, many problems with socio-politics are placed on the radar globally. Yet less is said about the potential mass destruction in our environment that will inevitably cause us harm.

For the first time ever, artefacts from National History Museum in London are being shown in Southeast Asia. Treasures of the Natural World is hosted by ArtScience Museum in Singapore, and promises to take visitors on a voyage of discovery, through the centuries — from the Enlightenment of the 18th century, through to the present day, showing how pioneering explorers, collectors, and scientists revolutionised our understanding of nature.

Perhaps what is most interesting about this exhibition to us isn't the ability to peek into the past, but the focus on our actions that affect nature's offering. Towards the end of the exhibition, science and technology are introduced as means to offer solutions for our fast depleting environment. 

We speak to Honor Harger, Executive Director of ArtScience Museum on setting up Treasures of the Natural World:

Honor Harger's Perspectives on Treasures of the Natural World

by SAND Magazine

January 07, 2018

What prompted ArtScience Museum to put up the exhibition?

ArtScience Museum is one that explores the intersection between art, science, culture and technology. It is the combination of these fields of sciences and humanities that gives us the tools that we need to tackle the big systemic challenges the world faces, and the destruction of our natural world, the encroachment into our natural world by urbanization. The rapidly growing human population is a topic that is quite dear to our hearts, and we come back to issues around conservation, wildlife protection, the environment and climate change very often in our work. 

Treasures of the Natural World is an exhibition that shows how our understanding of the natural world has evolved throughout the last 300 years. How we’ve come to understand the natural world is something which is ancient that goes back many millions of years — and that’s an understanding that has been developed through studying the treasures which are on show at the museum right now.

It seems extraordinary to us today to think that when the Natural History Museum was founded, the science of geology, paleontology, minerology didn’t exist.
A lot of very learned and well-respected people thought that the earth was only a few thousand years old.
It was through the study of the fossils which were in the collections of people such Sir Hans Sloane and coming to understand that our earth has had these vast geologic areas and animals which once lived and don’t survive till today that we started to see the natural world in quite a different light.
For us to be able to tell that grand story of the creation of the earth, the evolution of species on the planet, and cast a glimpse into the future about fate of the natural world was pretty important to us.

How would you describe the synergy between ArtScience Museum and The Natural History Museum in coming together to present Treasures of the Natural World?
ArtScience Museum is only seven years old and it is a real privilege for us to work with one of the world’s great museums — one that’s over 250 years old and has a collection of over 80 million priceless specimens.

Both Natural History Museum and ArtScience Museum have our strengths and unique approaches to telling stories through exhibitions. The presentation of Treasures of the Natural World brings together the interests, passion and styles of both institutions.

Of course, at the heart of the exhibition are these extraordinary treasures, over 200 of the Natural History Museum’s star objects. These are the objects that people travel to London to go and see. The fact that the Natural History Museum was prepared to go on a journey with us, to allow these objects to leave the UK for the first time, and in some cases to leave the museum for the first time, to be shown in Singapore, was a real act of trust and faith on their side and we’re enormously grateful for their collaboration.

We had to tell stories through these treasures. We had to tell an epic story about the creation of the earth, the evolution of the natural world on earth, and also to highlight how the natural world might evolve in the future. To do that, we had to work together as institutions.
We had to bring a distinctive approach to visual design, which ArtScience Museum has honed over the years as a museum, together with the enormous scholarly expertise of the scientists and curators at the Natural History Museum.
It was important to us that the show was accessible to visitors, and that includes children. So we made sure that there was a whole journey that children could go on within Treasures of the Natural World that enabled them to explore in their own way. Participative educational activities that allow visitors to understand Treasures of the Natural World at their own pace. Adding that treasure hunt route for children was something that was important to us and I think the Natural History Museum has seen how that kind of curatorial approach can really add dynamics and inspire their shows.

How does a partnership of such help people understand more about our world and cultures?
I think what this partnership shows is that our understanding of the natural world is in constant flux, it is evolving all the time. We have come to understand that the Earth is an ancient 500 billion-year-old planet by looking at artefacts that belong in the collection of the Natural History Museum. We didn't know that without those artefacts. Those artefacts have really pushed our understanding of the planet and everything that lives on it.

Bringing those treasures out of where they are stored within the rich archives of the Natural History Museum has allowed us to use them as storytelling devices. We can start showing how the evolution of our understanding of the natural world is in parallel to the story of how trade is developed between nations over the past 300 years and how the economies have developed through endeavours to explore new lands such as New Zealand, Australia and the Americas.

We can sort of see the interconnectivity between our understanding of how Nature has evolved and how we as people have evolved through this show.

How do you view your existence and relationship with regards to the natural world?

In Singapore we live in a highly urbanised environment and it's often easy to forget that actually we are part of nature. We are not separate to or other to nature. We are animals and we are living in ecosystems. 

I think what would be a wonderful outcome for us or for visitors exploring this exhibition is to help them understand that. We often say that one of the things we love people to do after seeing this exhibition is to go to MacRitchie Reservoir or Sungei Buloh wetland reserve and see nature in action and understand that the rich, complex ecosystems that we have in Singapore and more widely in Southeast Asia are unique and fragile. They won't remain unless we all take an active role in looking after them. We certainly hope this exhibition raises awareness about the fragility and impact of the natural world.

ArtScience Museum has always been a purveyor of exciting features and exhibitions across various genres and installation types. How do you view your and the museum’s role as an educator in a fast-paced urban landscape like Singapore?
The reason why ArtScience Museum is interested in this intersection is that we think is at the crossroads where these areas meet is where we see new ideas, innovation in motion and we might get glimpses of how the future might be shaping up. We take that mission seriously and we do see that as our role in the country.

Singapore itself is going through a constant change. It is evolving so fast, with the landscape is transforming around us all the time. And I think that makes our visitors extremely open-minded about how the future might be shaping up and what their place might be within that.

We really like crafting those scenarios and propositions whether they are through our permanent exhibition, Future World, or past temporary exhibitions such as HUMAN+ and Big Bang Data or through our public programmes. All of which ask questions about the future, about the cities, about the natural world all year round.


More art and conversations here
More about Treasures of the Natural World here



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