To protect our planet we first need to be reminded to love its beauty
When the Victorian artist and scholar, John Ruskin, opened the St George’s Museum in Sheffield in 1875, he wanted the collections to inspire people to see ‘what is lovely in the life of nature’. In nineteenth century industrial Sheffield, Ruskin championed how an appreciation of nature in turn nurtured the humanity within us.
Ruskin’s world has changed radically in the past 150 years, yet his concerns about the lessening of people through mechanical labour, international expansionism, and indiscriminate damage to our environment still seem relevant.
In his 1872 lecture from The Eagles’ Nest series, Ruskin says; ‘We shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise, generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth: - the most cruel in proportion to their sensibility, - the most unwise in proportion to their science. No people, understanding pain, ever inflicted so much: no people, understanding facts, ever acted on them so little’. When Ruskin wrote these words he was fearful for the things he saw vanishing.
Today our recognition of the pain we inflict is more acute than ever and our scientific understanding of the impact of our actions has significantly increased. What remains unchanged, for now, is our ability to act to make our world better.
Last October, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared a climate change emergency warning of catastrophic consequences for the lives and livelihoods of people throughout the world. Calls for climate action are making headlines around the globe. Activists are mobilising on an international scale, with groups like Extinction Rebellion making their mark in cities from Sheffield to Sydney.
From vanishing polar ice caps to lost species, we are reminded that the time to act and make change is running out. Against this backdrop it seems strange to talk of the new Millennium Gallery exhibition, John Ruskin: Art & Wonder. Yet to take steps to preserve our planet we need to be reminded to love it in all its beauty and complexity. Ruskin tells us that art can help us to see past the surface of things and touch a deeper reality. Be it the delicacy of a botanical study or the light in Turner’s depiction of a foggy Venice, art inspires us to value the natural world by bringing us closer to it.
At the back of exhibition gallery is a wall of hand-coloured prints from John James Audubon’s Birds of America series. Produced between 1827 and 1838, these prints take your breath away. Of the 13 birds depicted though, half are now endangered.
Audubon was captivated by the beauty of these birds, but he was also an insatiable hunter. While he worried about the risks of depleting the bird population, the fact he made it his life’s work to hunt them down in order to draw them is inescapable.
So much of the city’s historical natural science collections contain species now extinct or endangered. Like Audubon, many collectors in the late 19 th and early 20th century had the admirable intention of celebrating beauty in nature, but in seeking to understand and appreciate these creatures they contributed to their demise.
Last week, whilst in the museums’ stores I was caught by the beady eyes of two huge Golden Eagles, perched together on a high shelf and wrapped in plastic. My colleague Alistair, Curator of Natural Sciences, told how Golden Eagles once roamed the skies above what is now Sheffield. In the interests of education, these birds were probably shot to order and purchased for the city in 1925. They are a physical metaphor for the casual exploitation of nature in our collective past, and an important reminder not to repeat the same mistakes.
The Ruskin exhibition made me think about how the world changes and what it is to see beauty and to hold things close. As individuals we control very little, yet the time has come to focus our attention on what we value and how we care for our wild spaces. Whether we take to the streets, take responsibility for our own consumption, grow our own food or volunteer to redistribute it, we must make change happen.
The natural world is in a constant state of change, yet if we do not act our generation, even more than that of Ruskin, risks being remembered as the most unwise, the last generation with the ability to question our cruelty and the last generation with the potential to act in a way that can change things for the better. Without action, the only place we’ll be able to see much of our wildlife is in a museum.