Systema Metropolis - Mark Dion At The Natural History Museum

By Caroline Lewis | 14 June 2007
photo of two insects with lacy wings

Lacewings © Mark Dion/Natural History Museum

Caroline Lewis discovers a bit about the flora and fauna to be found around London in the Natural History Museum’s artistic celebration of Carl Linnaeus.

The Natural History Museum is exhibiting a series of installations created by American artist Mark Dion in honour of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern biological classification.

On show until September 2 2007, the works bridge the 18th and 21st centuries, the processes of science and art and the crossover between urban environments and nature. The title of the exhibition, Systema Metropolis, is derived from Linnaeus’ seminal work ‘Systema Naturae’, published in 1735, of which there is a rare first edition on show.

Linnaeus (also known as von Linné) invented the binomial (two-name) system of classifying living things. It is this Swedish scientist, born on May 23 1807, who we have to thank for the Latin name for human, ‘Homo sapiens’. As another example, his efforts also shortened the internationally recognisable name for tomato from ‘Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incises, racemis simplicibus’ to the much easier ‘Solanum lycopersicum’.

Dion notes that it was a brave move for the NHM to mark Linnaeus’ birthday with an exhibition based on contemporary art rather than a factual display about taxonomy. Systema Metropolis opens with an introduction to Linnaeus, but it is put together in a creative way, mixed in with old naturalists’ collecting equipment and rare books. You can spot an antique specimen of Cannabis sativa in one of the old-fashioned display cases here.

photo of a windowed room with sections of long grass on a table inside it

Recreated lab from Fieldwork 2. © Mark Dion/Natural History Museum

On either side of Linneaus’ original herbarium cabinet are a collection of portraits and a bust of him – this implied reverence of science or scientists is one of the key themes in Dion’s work at the Natural History Museum.

“It was a very exciting opportunity to work with the Museum,” says the artist. “I’m a great lover of natural history museums. It was very much like being a child let in the sweet shop – but they told me you can work with everything in here except the sweets.”

Instead of being given free rein to work with the collections, Dion worked with the Museum scientists and staff who make it the living research institution it is.

“The real asset of the Museum is the people, the researchers and scientists,” he says. “So I wanted to find a way to tap into that – it’s an homage to the people behind the scenes.”

And so the four installations within take us through four fieldwork ‘assignments’ in which Dion and a team of staff from the Museum gathered samples from the microcosm of life in four parts of London, using scientific methodology and illustrated with video journals of the studies.

The first, carried out at Highgate, Brompton and East Finchley Cemeteries, turned up various creepy crawlies on the graves of three famous figures. Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave was popular with centipede-like creatures, while Karl Marx had quite a few snails and spiders living on him. Biologist Thomas Huxley’s grave had attracted more than one type of woodlice.

In Fieldwork 2 you’ll see some turf taken from around the Olympic Park development. Placed under bright lamps in a recreated scientist’s office, they’re likely to look less perky in a couple of months.

photo of a man in a polytunnel with a mound of rubble on one side of him and glass jars on the other

Mark Dion in the polytunnel. © Mark Dion/Natural History Museum

The next Fieldwork involved an electric car being driven along the A40 with flypaper attached to a screen on its roof and number plate to collect flying insects. Stopping at regular intervals to remove insects, the video footage shows members of the team picking off the squashed bugs with tweezers.

Indeed, as most of these flies, beetles, wasps, aphids and other specimens were rather disfigured from colliding with the vehicle, the only way to identify most of them accurately was by looking at their DNA. One interesting point highlighted by this is the race being run by scientists and taxonomists to record the genetic characteristics of as many species as possible. This database of DNA can then be used in conservation, even of species as yet unknown or unnamed.

Some of the spoils of the final Fieldwork, from the River Thames, are on display in a polytunnel. Here, human artefacts and the animal kingdom collide, with far more deflated footballs and plastic bottles, all sorted and assembled, than fish, eels, mud snails and crabs.

More interestingly, the study turned up the fifth ever seahorse found in the river, and lots of pieces of broken clay pipes thrown out from riverside pubs by 17th and 18th century smokers.

Many art projects that try to emulate the language and imagery of science fall far from the mark, but Dion, admittedly fascinated by this modern paradigm, succeeds by playing a humble role, giving the stage to the researchers themselves, their methodologies and workspaces.

“Where Linnaeus democratised the study of plants, so Mark Dion popularises the appreciation of and fascination with nature,” says Bergit Arends, contemporary arts curator at the NHM.

“Through Dion’s gentle questioning of how science works, we have been allowed to reconsider ourselves and to play.”

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