Oxford University Museum of Natural History Photograph by Scott Billings

John Holmes, Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture in the Department of English Literature, has been working closely with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and international partners to bring the sciences, arts and humanities together in natural history museums. 

Professor Holmes said ‘When the first natural history museums were founded in the nineteenth century, the arts played a key role alongside science in interpreting the natural world. We tend to think of the arts and science in different boxes, but our work with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History has shown how visual art, poetry and music can play a key role in helping people to feel for themselves the beauty and vitality of nature and to confront the impact humanity is having on the rest of the living world.’ 

A new exhibition, co-curated by Professor Holmes, has opened at the Oxford University Natural History Museum to celebrate its 160th anniversary. Called ‘Truth to Nature’ in honour of one of the museum’s founders, the Victorian art critic and environmental campaigner John Ruskin, it reveals how the art and architecture were used to teach science when the museum was founded, and how the museum has returned to the arts today to help inform and motivate the public about climate change, biodiversity loss and disease. To accompany the exhibition and a new book on the museum, Professor Holmes has recorded a series of illustrated podcasts telling the extraordinary story of the museum’s origin in a unique collaboration between academic scientists and Pre-Raphaelite artists. 

Coinciding with ‘Truth to Nature’, the University of Birmingham and the Oxford University Natural History Museum are jointly organising an online conference from 9-13 November for Symbiosis, a new international network of museums and universities established in 2019 to develop and promote the role of the arts and humanities in natural history museums.  Symbiosis: Art and Science in Natural History Museums and Collections is free to attend. Registered to attend. 

Confirmed speakers include representatives of leading museums in Paris, Pittsburgh, Rio de Janeiro, Copenhagen, Porto, Strasbourg and Vienna, as well as writers, artists and researchers. They will discuss natural history museum architecture and design, palaeoart, and the role of the arts in addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene within museums. The conference aims to k a wider public discussion of how the arts and sciences can come together to inspire a deeper understanding of and care for the natural world.