Animal Kingdom – Two by Two

Today’s post is by Michelle from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are each sharing our passion and  interest in the museum and its objects.

For more about the collections at Manchester Museum, please visit the Curators’ blogs.

Animal Kingdom: Stereoscopic Images of Natural History

The animals came in two by two …

Something magical is happening this summer at Manchester Museum. The new exhibition, Animal Kingdom: Stereoscopic Images of Natural History is set to transport visitors into a world of wonder, in the same way as they were in the nineteenth century when stereoscopy was a fascinating new technology.

Animal Kingdom
Sheep – Bristol Museum. Image by Jim Naughten, from ‘Animal Kingdom’.

The exhibition, curated by Rachel Petts, displays ‘stereoscopic’ photographs of natural history specimens by the artist Jim Naughten alongside objects from Manchester’s own collection, including primate skulls and bird taxidermy. What appear as two near-identical images placed side by side are works of art in their own right, but the real beauty is when they are viewed through the stereoscopic lenses – the image is enchantingly transformed, transporting the viewer into a new dimension …

As the eyes relax, the two figures come together to produce a third image, but rather than being in two dimensions, this one is magically elevated out of the flat surface, as a three-dimensionally embodied specimen.

Ok, in reality, there is a considerable amount of science behind the magic that brings these objects to life. Stereoscopy was a technique developed in the 1800s; the stereographs are created by taking two photographs of the same object from slightly different angles, this recreates the way that each eye sees an object from a slightly different angle in natural vision. Therefore, when the images are presented simultaneously, one to each eye using a stereoscope, the images converge giving the central, combined image the illusion of 3D depth, in the same way that the brain understands depth perception with solid objects.

But from the complexity of this technology comes the simplicity of Jim Naughten’s work.

Animal Kingdom 2
Spider Monkey – Grant Museum of Zoology. Image by Jim Naughten, from ‘Animal Kingdom’.

Two by Two

Jim Naughten is a photographic artist, living in London, who has always had a passion for natural history, and a creative eye for historical context. His transformations through binocular vision reflect the twofold visions of this current exhibition.

Naughten’s stereoscopic creation not only blur the lines between two and three dimensions, and between image and object, but they also blur the boundaries between aesthetics and science, archive and exhibition, artistic and classified display, between gallery and museum spaces, image and object and ultimately what is real and what is illusion.

Animal Kingdom 3
Juvenile Chimpanzee – Grant Museum of Zoology. Image by Jim Naughten, from ‘Animal Kingdom’

The photographs are not only visually spectacular – each articulating the sculptural intricacies of the animal kingdom – but together they form a typology, echoing the traditional museological classification and display of zoology. Naughten arranges his images into; Marine, Reptile, Mammal, Avian and Primate.

In Focus

 The exhibition transfixes, transports and transforms – the viewer is at once both out of time and out of place. There is an unmistakable sense of nostalgia in the exhibition and in the stereographs themselves. Jim Naughten captures the patina of time in the faded labels and traditional typefaces, while the stereoscopic technology itself transports the viewer back into the Victorian and Edwardian age of wonder, with objects brought to life as they were to be many decades later with the advent of television.

“Viewing there photographs in stereo forces attention on a single subject, and the act of observation is necessarily a solitary one: one subject to one viewer at a time. Relative scale of the specimens becomes ambiguous and the experience is akin to being absorbed while looking down a microscope. The impression of time passing, and the word outside, momentarily slips away and an intensified consciousness takes over.”

– Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Atlantic Octopus
Atlantic White Octopus – Oxford Museum of Natural History. Image by Jim Naughten, from ‘Animal Kingdom’.

For the exhibition’s curator, Rachel Petts, its success has been in the visitors’ interaction with the space, and bringing reanimating museum collections within an aesthetic framework;

“It is great to see visitors enjoying the exhibition, especially their surprise and excitement when the 3D illusion appears. I wanted to include Natural history specimens from the Manchester museum collections to contrast with the stereoscopic images so anatomical comparisons could be made and to demonstrate the extraordinary diversity of bird bills.”

– Rachel Petts, Curatorial Assistant (Natural Sciences) at Manchester Museum

The wizardry of this type of illusion is something that appeals to everyone. As part of Manchester Museum’s ‘Big Saturday’ on 27th August, Catherine Tindsley led a magical craft activity giving visitors of all ages the opportunity to create Victotian-inspired visual illusions of their own by making Thaumatropes.  

The animals came in two by two …

… and were magically transformed and reanimated in a real life cabinet of curiosities.

Michelle Scott

Animal Kingdom: Stereoscopic Images of Natural History is open now, and runs until 31st October. Jim Naughten’s book accompanying the exhibition, including 50 beautiful stereographic images, as well as a stereoscopic viewer, is available now at the Museum Shop.

And on Thursday 22nd September from 6-8, join Denis Pellerin, from the London Stereoscopic Society, who will explore the history of stereoscopic images, and take you a trip into time and space to see for yourself how Victorians discovered a whole new world through stereoscopic photography.

For more about the collections at Manchester Museum, please visit the Curators’ blogs.

And for more about art in the museum, have a look at some of the posts by the Visitor Team;
Bludgeons and Dragons (Part 1): A Rainbow in Jars
The Gods and Their Makers
Museum Inspires Pictures at an Exhibition
See Living Worlds in 3D!

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