Exhibition review: ‘Our Broken Planet’ at the Natural History Museum
Image credit: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum
With this free, temporary exhibition, ‘Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways to Fix It’, the dustiest of South Kensington’s museums evokes the boldness and urgency of recent climate activism to prompt visitors to reflect on their own environmental impact.
From its blunt name (which the usual suspects are certain to describe as “political”) to the colourful slogan stickers with which visitors adorn themselves, Our Broken Planet is steeped in the culture of Extinction Rebellion and similar grassroots climate movements. Paired with a handful of well-chosen artefacts from the museum unique collection, it makes for a striking bijou exhibition.
The exhibition rests largely on the contributions of the NHM’s hundreds of resident scientists, who were asked: “What is breaking the world or fixing it?” Their answers span the gamut of environmental concerns: deep sea mining; carbon-intensive agriculture; zoonoses (infectious diseases jumping from animals to humans); wildlife smuggling; plastic waste, and fast fashion. Some of these challenges are represented by a single artefact.
Some objects have a deep impact, such as a fine whale’s earwax plug (reminiscent of a memorable scene from Shrek); or examples of all British bees to have become extinct since 1800, or the skin of ‘Happy Jerry’, the somewhat ironically named pipe-smoking Georgian mandrill. However, Our Broken Planet is not an exhibition which relies on spectacle.
With the rest of the museum available on the other side of a pair of doors, this exhibition’s appeal is in the unconventional presentation of the artefacts. The NHM emphasises our relationship with each item – and the environmental challenge they represent – by, for instance, scattering burger wrappers around skulls of an aurochs and modern cow to prompt questions about our beef consumption. Would you consider alternative sources of protein? Locusts? Synthetic meat? Plant burgers? It does not stop short of directly asking visitors what changes they will make in order to help fix the Broken Planet, challenging unsustainable norms (“How much more stuff will make you happy?”). Government, industry and science are part of both problem and solution, as is each individual visitor, too.
The scientists who nominated these problems are a visible part of the exhibition, allowing for more direct messaging without the museum compromising its grand, detached neutrality as an entity. They appear in handsome black and white portraits with each exhibit, alongside quotes and voice recordings. One notable contribution is from plant biologist Dr Ana Claudia Araujo, whose ancestors were enslaved African-Brazilians forced to labour on sugar plantations; Aruajo nominated the environmental impact of sugar production.
Our Broken Planet features a limited amount of interaction and mixed media. It is small enough such that pre-teens could be taken around everything there without getting bored or tired. Thanks to the enormous breadth (if not depth) of Our Broken Planet, it could serve as a powerful introduction to environmental challenges for young visitors, leaving no doubt that these are challenges in which they themselves can play a small part in either further aggravating or resolving.
Although if you are bringing children, take them to see the dinosaurs first.
Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways To Fix It is open until 18 April 2022 in the NHM’s Jerwood Gallery. Admission is free.
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