Symbiosis is an interdisciplinary network set up to research and develop the role of the arts and the humanities in natural history museums and collections.

Natural history museums have a rich history of drawing on the arts to interpret nature, incorporating natural forms into the design and decoration of their architecture, and collecting natural history paintings and illustrations alongside their specimens. They investigate life on Earth and shape our perception and understanding of nature, but they are also embedded in political and social systems, reflecting cultural values and contributing to their transformation. Their collections thus reflect the entangled global history of the natural sciences.  We aim to uncover this history and to use it to spark new collaborations between museum professionals, researchers and artists to enhance the interpretation of natural history in museums today.

With the loss of habitats and ecosystems around the world and the unprecedented changes to our global environment brought about by human activity, the role of museums in highlighting the condition of the natural world has never been more vital. At this crucial moment, the arts have a key role to play in attracting wider audiences to museums, in inspiring us to enjoy and value nature, and in posing questions which science cannot answer alone. At the same time, the humanities are crucial for reflecting on the institutional histories of museums and their social and political role in an ever more rapidly changing world, and on the history and aesthetics of natural history itself.


Main image: Frieze by Johannes Benk in the dome of the NHM Vienna © NHM Vienna (photograph: A. Schumacher)

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