Today’s post is written by Liz McIvor and inspired by the exhibition Animal Attraction. It’s one of the summer exhibitions aimed at families and younger audiences at Bradford Industrial Museum in 2016.
The display feature objects taken from the Social History and Natural Science collections of Bradford Museums and Galleries, and explores some of the themes of our interest in animals in history.
Running alongside, is another exhibition running is ‘Beastly Machines’, a kinetic sculpture show by Johnny White. White’s sculptures look at aspects of modern life and things happening in the world, using animals as the vehicles to tell the story.
The idea of using animals to convey meaning goes back thousands of years to when humans first began to use imagery to tell stories and leave clues about their society, experiences and beliefs.
In the pre-industrial age, when the majority of Europe’s population were illiterate, news and events were explained in songs, stories and pictograms. Using animals to represent humans and the way they behaved was common because everyone understood how certain animals behaved and what particular animals had come to represent. Even in the modern fantasy novels by GRR Martin and the Television show ‘Game of Thrones’, the medieval culture of animal badges of noble households helps people work out who belongs where.
In medieval Europe, if a story was told involving a snake, the audience would know to expect that it might be misleading, that it was not to be trusted, being familiar with the bible story of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden which was responsible for leading Adam and Eve astray.
Over the centuries, certain animals became the symbols for human behaviour and this was continued by the use of pictures of them to do everything from ensure recognition, to selling products, as well as making jokes about famous people in satirical cartoons.
By the 19th Century, education was available to a much larger section of society and there was less need to use imagery as message, but the use of animals to explain human behaviour continued in stories and products aimed at children and has endured to this day. Traditionally, it has been easier, and less hard-hitting to give children messages through the behaviour of animals than people. Many children’s books and TV programmes still feature animal characters to explain difficult ideas to children in a sympathetic way. This is known as anthromorphism
When some of our favourite and long-lived stories were first written down, the use of animals was really more about making the stories more frightening than comforting.
The story of Red Riding Hood was first published in France by Charles Perrault in 1697 but was in a book called ‘Some moral tales from long ago’. The wolf in the story was common in Europe in the Middle Ages and in England until the 14th Century, and generations of people had associated it with danger, long after the last wild wolves in the UK disappeared. Later the story was printed in hundreds of languages with colour plates and made a household favourite by Jacob and Wilhelm ‘The Brothers’ Grimm.
In the original story of Red Riding Hood, ‘Red’ is a young woman, not a child, and is warned not to ‘stray from the path’ and by talking to the wolf (who represents a dangerous stranger) she is ‘devoured’ by the wolf, and not rescued by a brave Woodsman. Even her Red Cap / Red Cloak is a symbol of ‘falling from the virtuous path’. Gradually the story was adapted and changed for younger children so that Red became a little girl and the Woodsman saves her and Grandma in the end, but the moral of the story remained…don’t trust strangers and heed your parent’s advice!
Enjoyment and familiarity of children’s stories involving animals and the popularity of ‘improving’ toys like wooden Noah’s Arks meant that as children grew into adults, they too retained a nostalgic fondness for representing culture and society through their relationship with animals, both the ones they encountered in everyday life such as working animals and pets, but animals in faraway places too.
As a result, Victorian and Edwardian interest in animals hit an all time high with the ease of travel and access to specialist literature and photography. Visits to zoos were made easy by public railway and cheaper passage overseas to countries governed under British Imperial rule. Circus brought exotic animals to towns and rural areas, also often by train, and companies exploited these interests by using all sorts of birds and animals in marketing every type of product from shaving soap to polish for the fireplace.
Scientific interest went beyond visiting zoos, and it became fashionable to study animals in anatomy classes, to see examples of creatures and fossils from around the world preserved in museums and universities, in order to try to understand and explain a new, modern world and how it came to be. As a result of this widespread passion, and the controversy it would eventually lead to in debate over scientific versus religious interpretation and belief, local authorities began to collect specimens of animals in order to allow working class people to ‘improve themselves’ through scientific interest.
The first collection of these public specimens in Bradford were housed at the Mechanics Institute Library (later the site of the University of Bradford) opened to the public in 1879. Both students and local amateur enthusiasts were encouraged to hold meeting to discuss scientific studies and go on field trips to examine plants, insects and other wildlife.
The Bradford Scientific Association worked closely with both the Mechanics Institute and the newly opened Cartwright Hall Museum and Art Gallery to publish a series of articles in the early 1900’s about aspects of the natural world and in 1907 they published a ‘census’ of animal life to be found in the Airedale Region.
One extract from an essay published by A Whitaker in July 1907 about ‘Bats, their senses and habits’ included the following:
The old idea that Bats are BIRDS, however, dies hard, and many country people are still firm believers in it. It is not long since I was talking to a gentleman, otherwise, shall I say..quite intelligent, who remarked
“Its amusing, what mistakes people make, isn’t it? D’you know, I was talking to a fellow last night who actually thought bats were a type of bird, and would hardly believe me when I told him that Scientists really classed them among the INSECTS”.
I hardly dared correct him, so I quietly agreed that it was amusing what mistakes people make!
Animal Attraction is open until 13th November 2016
See our website for a programme of themed events