Wellcome Collection shows transgenic goat and rat bred to prefer alcohol in exhibition exploring humans’ perceptions of animals
What links an African clawed frog once used as a human pregnancy test, a transgenic goat bred to produce super-strong silk and a rat whose preference for booze may have helped Finnish alcoholics?
All three have gone on display at a new exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection alongside art works which include roadkill taxidermy and a film that tells the true story of a man who kept a pet tiger in his New York apartment.
The show, which mixes art, science and natural history, aims to explore how humans see animals, how we value them and what consequences that has for the world around us.
The frog, goat and rat are all exhibits from a small organization based in Pittsburgh called the Center for PostNatural History, which collects organisms that have been intentionally altered by humans.
The centre’s founder, Richard Pell, whose background is in the arts, created it nearly a decade ago because he was interested in getting behind lurid headlines around genetic engineering and synthetic biology.
“What I found was that it was already so rife with politics it did not need another provocateur, it needed some context and when I went looking for that context, just for my own benefit, I couldn’t find it.
“It wasn’t in natural history museums, it wasn’t in zoos, it was blazing across headlines in very provocative language but there was no place where I could wrap my head around it and think ‘What does it all mean?’ I realized I could help to fill that space.”
Pell said he initially went into it with a “leftwing, activist” perspective but has found the subject much more nuanced. There are seldom good-bad answers.
He now has a collection which includes the rat, bred by the Finnish government to help develop a drug program to tackle public health problems. It was a product of generations of breeding by scientists who only chose rats which, presented with bowls of alcohol and water, would always go for the former.
The frog on display was used from the 1930s as a pregnancy test, after the British zoologist Lancelot Hogben discovered that injecting urine from a pregnant woman would stimulate ovulation within hours.
The goat, called Freckles and represented by its skull, was bred with spider genes so it could produce spider silk in its milk that could be used for armor, fishing line or as human cartilage replacement.
Pell said he was not trying to tell people what they should think about the animals. “What I want is for everyone to wrestle with this stuff. I want everyone to wake up at 3am and think about this in a new way… like I do.”
Other exhibits in the show include Phillip Warnell’s film installation Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air which tells the true story of Antoine Yates who lived in a high-rise New York apartment with a full-size tiger called Ming and an alligator.
There is also a first edition of Carl Linnaeus’s 18th-century work System of Nature, in which he attempted to organize the three kingdoms of nature into animal, vegetable and mineral.
On the floor of the galleries are three taxidermy animals, a fox, badger and owl, the work of Canadian artist Abbas Akhavan. All animals are posed to look dead with the badger only a few feet from a Victorian diorama of cute, smiling foxes at play.
“I think people are potentially going to find it much more shocking,” said the show’s curator, Honor Beddard. “I guess the question is: what is the difference?”
Making Nature: How We See Animals is free at the Wellcome Collection 1 December-27 May.