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Cambridge's Museum of Zoology mixes art, science, animals and a dead lion on the lawn

An exhibition of artworks by one of the world’s leading naturalists is taking place at Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology.

The exhibition, which started on Friday (May 17), is a showcase for the work of Jonathan Kingdon.

Exhibition - Evolution as Inspiration - artist, Jonathan Kingdon at the Museum Of Zoology. Picture: Keith Heppell. (11055484)
Exhibition - Evolution as Inspiration - artist, Jonathan Kingdon at the Museum Of Zoology. Picture: Keith Heppell. (11055484)

Mr Kingdon was born in Tanzania in 1935 and lived and worked in East Africa for many years.

As well as being one of the world’s greatest naturalists, he has developed a wealth of artistic practices which seek to explore and explain some of the hows and whys of animal evolution.

Through his artworks, he proposes answers to questions such as why the zebra is so strikingly striped, how certain groups of birds evolved to show such a diversity of forms, and why vultures’ heads resemble rotting flesh.

This exhibition of sculpture, paintings, ceramics and drawings offers a biologist’s effort to understand key evolutionary questions.

The exhibition includes a series of Mr Kingdon’s anatomical drawings, and the casualties that provided him with cadavers to dissect and draw have been, directly or indirectly, victims of the crisis that the richest mammal fauna in the world faces in Africa. Constrained by the rapid expansion of lands occupied by livestock and people, many species are in freefall and face uncertain futures.

Mr Kingdon conducted some 400 dissections, and around 30 of the drawings he produced are displayed in the cases among the museum’s skeletons and taxidermy of the species that inspired them.

The major part of the exhibition showcases Mr Kingdon’s work to communicate how animals’ external appearances have evolved.

Exhibition - Evolution as Inspiration - artist, Jonathan Kingdon at the Museum Of Zoology. Picture: Keith Heppell. (11055436)
Exhibition - Evolution as Inspiration - artist, Jonathan Kingdon at the Museum Of Zoology. Picture: Keith Heppell. (11055436)

He explained: “There is a basic logic in an animal’s anatomy beneath the skin, and this is also true for the animal’s external appearance.

“Animals’ patterns can be scientifically analysed, and I am interested in exploring this, using techniques more typically employed by artists rather than through words and graphs.”

The works are accompanied by Mr Kingdon’s personal reflections on decades of experience with these animals in his own words – from the aardvarks and primates he would encounter in his childhood gardens, to the wild creatures he experienced on the dissection table.

He added: “This big male lion was given to me as a very fresh corpse after dying of disease. It was dumped on my lawn, and I had to lift him up. As I threw him over my shoulders, all the air in his lungs came through his throat, and there was a tremendous roar in my ear. I dropped it and leapt back in shock, but of course he was stone dead.”

Jack Ashby, the museum’s manager and one of the exhibition’s curators, said: “The Museum of Zoology is the perfect place to have worked with Jonathan Kingdon to create this exhibition. The division between art and science which education seems built around today is artificial. Both are deeply creative, and both are thoroughly analytical.

“This exhibition is the perfect demonstration of this – Kingdon’s science has never been separate from his art.”

The exhibition is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and created in partnership with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI).

The CCI’s John Fanshawe, who also co-curated the exhibition, added: “Artists play a crucial role in exploring, understanding, and communicating the conservation of nature.

“CCI’s cross-cutting arts, science and conservation programme works with a growing range of artists, through exhibitions, events, and residencies, to celebrate our cultural connections and interdependencies on biodiversity.

“Throughout his life, Jonathan Kingdon has worked closely with many of the institutions and individuals in CCI. His work as an artist and writer, and his numerous books, have played an inspirational role in supporting and inspiring the conservation community worldwide.”

Sir David Attenborough, who opened the exhibition at a private event, said: “Jonathan Kingdon’s meticulous observation of wildlife over the course of his lifetime has answered many profound questions about how animals work. He has also explained his findings with dramatic and pioneering artworks that have few, if any, parallels.”

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