ArtScience Museum's newest exhibition Treasures of a Natural World is here

The Treasures of the Natural World exhibition has more than 200 objects for a comprehensive exploration into human thought of the last 200 years

The Natural History Museum in London is bringing a blockbuster show of rare artefacts, specimens and artworks to Singapore.

Featuring more than 200 objects, this is one of the largest travelling shows the 136-year-old London institution has staged.

Highlights include a page from the manuscript of On The Origin Of Species, handwritten by British naturalist Charles Darwin before the seminal text on evolution was published in 1859; an original page from Birds Of America, a rare 19th-century book featuring hand-painted illustrations of the birds from North America; as well as scientific specimens collected by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in the Malay Peninsula.

Titled Treasures of the Natural World, the exhibition runs at the ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay Sands from today until April 29 next year.

The show, which is jointly curated by the ArtScience Museum and the Natural History Museum, is divided into five parts and explores areas such as the adventures of scientific exploration pioneers and how the natural environment has adapted to human impact.

It is the result of three years of conversation with the Natural History Museum, says Ms Honor Harger, executive director of the ArtScience Museum.

Considerations included "technical, environmental and security concerns for these extremely fragile exhibits", she adds.

Working with museums such as the ArtScience Museum gives us an opportunity to think on a grand scale for special exhibitions in a way we can't do in London. It has given us a chance to tell a coherent story of the last 200 years of human thought about the world.

MR JIM BROUGHTON, head of international engagement at the Natural History Museum in London

Opened in 1881, the Natural History Museum has more than 80 million artefacts in its collection.

Some exhibits on show in Singapore had never left the museum.

They include a glass replica of an octopus, which is part of a set made for the museum in the second half of the 19th century by German father-and-son model-makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

Rendering in minute detail the colouring and physical characteristics of the octopus, the sculpture is an important record before cameras were invented.

The molluscan class of species often shrivels up and quickly loses its shape and colouring when it dies - which highlights how important artists and artisans were in the documentation of scientific discoveries back in the 18th century.

Other priceless items include an original copy of Natural History by the Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, a foundation text about the natural world in Latin that was published in Venice in 1469.

Scientific specimens collected by Wallace are also on show and are particularly poignant, given that they were amassedduring his expeditions in various countries in South-east Asia, including Singapore.

To ensure the items were handled carefully, more than 300 people from Singapore and London have been involved in the planning of the exhibition, including nine specialists from London who were in Singapore to help unbox and display each item here.

It was a complex process.

For example, it took three days for the specialists to remove the specimen of a giant ground sloth - an extinct species - from its crate and to carefully get it ready for display.

But it was well worth the effort for Mr Jim Broughton, head of international engagement at the London museum.

"The Natural History Museum, though very large, was built for a different age and, in the 19th century, special exhibitions were not something that museums did," he says.

"Working with museums such as the ArtScience Museum gives us an opportunity to think on a grand scale for special exhibitions in a way we can't do in London.

"It has given us a chance to tell a coherent story of the last 200 years of human thought about the world."


Four highlights at the exhibition

1 Artefacts of extinct animals

To help visitors understand the impact of humans on the natural environment, there are a few extinct species on display.

These include a model of a dodo bird, which is said to have been driven to extinction by the arrival of Dutch sailors on the island of Mauritius; a giant ground sloth, which weighed about 1,500kg and lived in South America until 12,000 years ago; and the sloth's predator, the sabre-toothed cat, which died out at the end of the last Ice Age.

Exhibiting the giant ground sloth and sabre-toothed cat side by side allows visitors to not only see the scale of these animals as they would have been in the wild, but also helps viewers understand how descendants of these species have evolved over time.

  • BOOK IT / TREASURES OF THE NATURAL WORLD

  • WHERE: ArtScience Museum, 6 Bayfront Avenue

    WHEN: Today to April 29, 10am to 7pm daily

    ADMISSION: Singapore residents: $13.60 (adults), $9.60 (senior citizens and children aged two to 12), family package for two adults and two children ($36.80). Non-Singapore residents: $17 (adults), $12 (senior citizens and children aged two to 12), family package for two adults and two children ($46). Tickets from Marina Bay Sands box offices or go to www.marinabaysands.com/museum.html

2 Priceless manuscripts

Besides animal, plant and insect artefacts, the exhibition also features important texts and manuscripts that are part of the library of the Natural History Museum in London.

Look out for a handwritten letter by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to a colleague, outlining theories of evolution that are similar to that of naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin's.

Also on display is a printed copy of the nearly 2,000-year-old Natural History by the Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, a foundational text in Latin about the whole of the natural world. It was printed in Venice in 1469, a few years after the printing press was invented.

3 Contributions of artists and artisans

Before cameras were invented, animals were documented by artists who painted or sculpted them.

In the exhibition are various handmade replicas of living creatures and painted pages of animals and fauna. Together, they trace the beginnings of information archival in the 18th century.

A key highlight is a painted page from American ornithologist, naturalist and painter John James Audubon's book, Birds Of America. Printed between 1827 and 1838, it contains 435 watercolours of North American birds. With only seven surviving full sets, it is also one of the rarest books in the world.

Also on display is an intricate glass replica of an octopus, which is part of a set made for the Natural History Museum in the second half of the 19th century by German father-and-son model-makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

Besides being art objects, these models were also of enormous scientific value as real specimens lose their colour when preserved in alcohol. By accurately documenting the appearance of a live octopus, the Blaschkas enabled scientists to study the species' colouration.


Contributions of scientific exploration pioneers: (Charles Darwin's handwritten notes) for his book, On The Origin Of Species (1859). ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG

4 Contributions of scientific exploration pioneers

It would be difficult to discuss natural history without mentioning the contributions of English naturalist Charles Darwin, who is known for formulating the theory of evolution. Showcased in this exhibition are some of his key specimens from the Galapagos Islands, including skeletons of a finch, mockingbird and pigeon that he studied when formulating his theories (Darwin's handwritten notes) for his book, On The Origin Of Species (1859).

Another key scientist, naturalist and explorer highlighted in the exhibition is Alfred Russel Wallace, who undertook some of his most important work in South-east Asia.

A contemporary of Darwin, the Englishman was also writing and publishing the same kinds of ideas about the theory of evolution. Some of his specimens, such as butterflies and beetles he had collected during his voyages to the Malay Archipelago, are on show in Singapore for the first time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2017, with the headline 'Bone up on nature'. Print Edition | Subscribe