Looking at Past Habitats Through a Modern Lens

A collection of more than 1,400 photographic plates, rediscovered in the Natural History Museum collections, has led to an innovative artistic collaboration with Museum scientists funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK.

Photographed by ecologist and botanist Sir Edward James Salisbury, former director of Kew Gardens, the plates document British plants and habitats between 1910 and 1935. They are a potentially unique resource for investigating environmental change over the past century.

The Museum invited visual artist Chrystel Lebas, CCW Foundation, Time-Based Media, to collaborate with Kath Castillo, a field biologist at the Museum, to research the collection. Together they tracked down and photographed the same habitats and plant communities that Salisbury recorded almost a century ago. The project engages with environmental change, particularly in the Scottish landscape and Norfolk, creating new understandings of the artistic and scientific gaze onto the natural environment and its representation. The film documenting the research was made by Sally Weale, and was produced by the Natural History Museum. The film was released to coincide with COP21.

The research was presented at the Royal Geographical Society-International Conference of Historical Geographers 2015 in Field experiments: collaborative practices in art and environment, titled ‘The Salisbury Archive Re-Viewed: observing environmental change in British Landscape’ with Dr. Mark Spencer (Senior Curator, British and Irish Herbarium, Natural History Museum, UK).

Lebas’s conference attendance was supported by the CCW Graduate School Staff Fund.

Top image: Still, courtesy of the Natural History Museum in London

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