A while back, I discovered that Derby Museum and Art Gallery was about to open a new natural history gallery. This was exciting to me for three reasons: firstly, because I ‘collect’ natural history galleries by visiting as many as I can; secondly, because Derby is very easy for me to get to; and thirdly, because the new gallery had the incredible name of ‘Notice Nature Feel Joy’. This I had to see.
Last week, with my sister, Alice, in tow, I managed to get to the new gallery. It’s a lovely space: calm, bright and clutter-free, and full of natural materials (including, of course, the natural history collections). Alice said that it made her feel like she was in a forest.
We were also lucky enough to speak to Andrea Hadley-Johnson, who led the project to put the gallery together. When I asked where the concept came from, she explained that from the outset, the museum didn’t have a particular plan, or even a name for the gallery. All of this came from work carried out with visitors and volunteers to find out what they wanted from such a gallery, what objects they wanted to see, and what nature meant to them. Andrea explained that her background is not in natural history curating, but in shop design. Her concern was therefore to really understand how people move around gallery spaces, and to make the most of their own behaviour and interests. The process of working with visitors showed that what they valued about these galleries was the chance to stop and appreciate the interesting animals, minerals and fossils from the museum’s collections.
Thinking back now to my visit, and looking at my photographs, a couple of things really stand out for me about this gallery:
First, the layout is brilliant. The central cases are very cleverly set at quite a low height. This isn’t, as I first assumed, for access reasons, but instead to encourage people to stop and bend down to look at the objects, rather than simply glancing at things as they walk past. However, as is often the case, access and wider benefit go hand in hand — almost all of the cases are at easy eye height for even the smallest children, who I have seen struggling to see into cases in many other museums. (In fact, as this picture shows, some of the cases were so low that only small children and the most determined/flexible of adults would see them!). The layout, and other features such as bookshelves and chairs, help visitors to really settle into spending time in this gallery, this fulfilling the first part of the gallery title — to ‘Notice Nature’.
Secondly, the gallery is neither didactic nor depressing. Many natural history museums have tried to work out how to get people to learn and care more about nature, with the long-term hope that this will encourage people to be more conservation-minded. There are a couple of problems with the galleries that arise from this concern. The first is that people tend not to learn many new facts from museums, but instead reinforce what they already know, which begs the question of whether its worthwhile putting the equivalent of a textbook on the walls. The second problem is that by preaching on themes such as environmental damage or extinction, museums risk making people feel depressed and disengaged from nature. Instead, this gallery focuses on nurturing people’s positive emotional responses to nature, thus fulfilling the second promise of the title — Feel Joy!
In fact, what this gallery does best is to trust visitors to get on with making their own connections with nature. Almost everyone will have at least some knowledge of nature, and for those who really want to find out more, information is available in booklets on the cases. For everyone else, the main job is to be wowed by the variety, form, feel and beauty of the objects, and to enjoy doing so. By nurturing people’s positive connections with nature, it may well be that a gallery such as this actually does more to foster a conservation ethic than galleries that make visitors feel hopeless about the future of the natural world.
The museum’s valuing of personal connections was, I think, epitomised for me by one of the last things I spotted as I looked around the gallery — a child’s picture of a beetle, displayed in amongst the case of beetle specimens. This is the sign of a museum that really notices and appreciates its visitors, just as it wants visitors to notice and appreciate the collections.