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Bringing together art, science and conservation in Cambridge



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In the latest in our monthly series with Cambridge Conservation Initiative, Dr Julia Grosse explores its Arts, Science and Conservation Programme.

The Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s vision is a diverse world in which nature and society thrive.

Our international work spans conservation research, education, policy and practice with collaboration and innovation at the heart of our community’s ethos. The Arts, Science and Conservation Programme was established in recognition of the impact that artists can contribute across all aspects of our conservation work.

Since the opening of our home at the David Attenborough Building in 2016, the programme has collaborated with a wide variety of writers, poets, dramatists, painters, sculptors ceramicists, and others, many of whom have taken up residencies in the building, working alongside the CCI community to inspire new ways of engaging with conservation.

Our most accessible artworks form part of the building itself. The slateworks created by Ackroyd & Harvey are to be found on the south wall of the Museum of Zoology and the east staircase on Corn Exchange Street. As well as being beautiful in their own right, they also create habitat for wildlife; bat boxes are hidden high up in the depiction of a walnut tree in Slate Wall South, and the crevices in the slate attract spiders and insects.

The inspiration for the work came from a black walnut tree in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden (which was originally located on the New Museums Site where the David Attenborough Building now stands). Ackroyd & Harvey continue to be inspired by nature and the climate emergency and are currently exhibiting Beuys’ Acorns, featuring 100 live oak trees at the Tate Modern.

Slate Work South by artists Ackroyd and Harvey. Commissioned by the University of Cambridge in 2016 for the creation of the Cambridge Conservation Institute Campus and refurbishment of the Museum of Zoology, the work was inspired by a walnut tree. Picture: Toby Smith (49933314)
Slate Work South by artists Ackroyd and Harvey. Commissioned by the University of Cambridge in 2016 for the creation of the Cambridge Conservation Institute Campus and refurbishment of the Museum of Zoology, the work was inspired by a walnut tree. Picture: Toby Smith (49933314)

The RSPB’s cultural campaigner, Matt Howard, a former CCI poet-in-residence, believes the impact of the programme extends far beyond the initial collaboration, with the experiences gained rippling into future work.

He explains: “Some of the poets that we brought in have gone on to have award-winning collections and within those collections are poems that are triggered and spurred by the conversations we had in the building.”

Currently displayed in the foyer of the building (and visible from the east podium level) the Hooke Biodiversity Bell is the most recent piece to come to CCI.

Created by and on loan from the musician and sculptor Marcus Vergette, the bell was cast at Taylor’s Foundry in Loughborough from a mould carved from Portland limestone. Its bronze surface is covered with fossil remains. Throughout human societies bells have served to celebrate, mourn, and warn of change, and the Biodiversity Bell invites thought about species loss and extinction.

Installing art isn’t always just about hanging pictures! We needed a crane to lift the Biodiversity Bell into position in the foyer of the David Attenborough Building. Picture: Sophie Busch (49933306)
Installing art isn’t always just about hanging pictures! We needed a crane to lift the Biodiversity Bell into position in the foyer of the David Attenborough Building. Picture: Sophie Busch (49933306)

Those visiting the British coast this summer may be lucky enough to spot some of Marcus’ other works. The Time and Tide Bell project has seen him work with coastal communities to install special bells that use the changing tides to chime warnings of the rising sea levels. Since the first bell was installed in Appledore, Devon in 2009, others have been installed around the country, each with its own characteristics influenced by the local geography.

The Biodiversity Bell at the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge. Picture: Sophie Busch (49933310)
The Biodiversity Bell at the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge. Picture: Sophie Busch (49933310)

From an early stage, we have been collaborating with the Museum of Zoology to host exhibitions alongside their internationally significant collections. Until October, you can visit ‘Breaking Point – Fragility in Nature and Clay’. Three artists – Mella Shaw, Jayne Ivimey, and Elspeth Owen exhibit work inspired by the natural world among the displays in the museum. All three artists have a strong interest in the environmental movement and create ceramics that seek to engage, provoke, and stimulate discussion.

With artworks placed in and amongst the cases of taxidermy, skeletons and specimens in jars, visitors will be able to see the Museum’s collections in a new light. Throughout the exhibition, the fragility of fired clay as a material is explored in a context of ecological decline, ecosystem collapse and environmental change and uncertainty.

Endangered species and extinction have been the inspiration for several of our collaborations. Engraver and printmaker Beatrice Forshall worked alongside the CCI partners including University of Cambridge, the Red List Unit at IUCN, TRAFFIC, BirdLife International and Fauna & Flora International. Her work focused on a series of species that are threatened by global trade, ranging from the iconic Black Rhino, at risk because of trade in horn, to far less well-known species, such as the Tanzanian Whip Scorpion which is widely collected for the pet trade.

Also inspired by the IUCN Global Red List, our ongoing collaboration with Ackroyd & Harvey brought Seeing Red.. Overdrawn to CCI. Members of the public and conservationists connected with the David Attenborough Building were invited to make their mark by over-writing with indelible pen the name of one of the species, drawing attention to it, and bringing it to visibility.

Susan Attenborough overwrites the Long-beaked Echidna, one of the species named for her father, Sir David Attenborough. Picture: Cambridge Conservation Initiative (49933312)
Susan Attenborough overwrites the Long-beaked Echidna, one of the species named for her father, Sir David Attenborough. Picture: Cambridge Conservation Initiative (49933312)

The role of the arts in nature conservation is wonderfully expressed by Abhisheka Krishnagopal, who is also currently undertaking CCI’s masters in conservation leadership. With many years of practice at home in India, Abhisheka is adept at combining her experience as an ecologist and artist to find ways of communicating biodiversity conservation that transcend cultural and language barriers.

Abhisheka says: “Art has the ability to touch people’s hearts and make them feel deeply. That for me is very vital. Only when they feel deeply about something will they make a promise to protect it.”

The Museum of Zoology is open year round, and the slate works on the building are also accessible. Breaking Point is open until October 3.

Visit the website to find out more about the many artists who have been involved in the Arts, Science and Conservation Programme (ASCP) and where they are exhibiting.

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