As visitors enter the new Natural History Museum exhibition, Colour and Vision, they are presented with a series of thought-provoking questions on the floor alongside Our Spectral Vision, artist Liz West’s colourful prism installation:
- How did vision evolve?
- Do all animals see the world as we do?
- Without an eye to see it, does colour really exist?
- What is the benefit of colour?
- What does colour mean to you?
...to which the answers would appear to be: quickly, no, sort of, plentiful, and, of course, highly subjective.
The exhibition bravely attempts to comprehensively answer these questions through a brief yet thorough exploration of the evolution of vision – in humans, other vertebrates, and other organisms – as well as looking at the benefits of colour in the natural world.
Pre-vision, the world was a much less colourful and diverse place. It wasn’t until the end of the Precambrian Eon, roughly 565 million years ago, that ‘image-forming eyes’ began to emerge. But when they did, the change happened quickly. In what is commonly known as the ‘Cambrian explosion’, the evolution of simple photoreceptors into what we would recognise as eyes led to a rapid growth in the so-called ‘tree of life’, with branches dividing and new species appearing, readily adapted to this brave new world. Astonishingly, it’s a process which could have taken as little as half a million years.
However, vision wasn’t shared around equally – even though around 96 per cent of current species have eyes – since not all creatures have the necessary rods and cones to see colour as we understand it. In what is undoubtedly one of the strongest components of the exhibition, the point is stressed that not only do we see the world differently from dogs, insects, or any number of other animals, but that what we understand as the ‘visible spectrum’ is in fact a complete human construct. There are, of course, many wavelengths perfectly visible to other organisms but that we are simply unable to see unaided.
The interactivity and vibrancy of the exhibition is exactly what the Natural History Museum needs for this type of subject. Using a sliding screen, visitors can experience different views on the world from the perspectives of giant clams, geckoes, or dragonflies among others. There is also a crab-spotting game (is your eye better than that of a pollock?) and the opportunity to share a photograph of your own eye among thousands of others.
Squeamish about eyes? Then stay away from the Wall of Eyes, a collection of over 100 dissected eyes from different fish, reptiles, amphibians and other organisms. Of course, this being the Natural History Museum, it sensibly utilises its archive of wildlife specimens – creating an overwhelming array of different colours and pigments across a wide variety of birds, frogs, insects, shells, and even large mammals. It feels a little old-fashioned to be staring at animals stuffed inside jars, however it at least allows the museum to make the most of having inherited all these specimens over the decades.
It also enables the NHM to display clearly exactly why colour eventually became such a crucial characteristic in the animal kingdom – to camouflage oneself from danger, to warn of your toxicity, to attract a mate. Whereas mandrills and birds-of-paradise flaunt their colours to increase sexual attraction, many spiders, frogs, snakes and others are covered in bright colours to warn potential predators of the venom contained within. Of course, wonderfully innovative species such as hoverflies, ladybird spiders and eastern coral snakes are all examples of animals using colour to mimic their poisonous contemporaries, when in reality they have none. Specimens of all such creatures definitely enhances these points.
The exhibition also cleverly reminds humans of our position within this ecological palate, including the statement that ‘as a species, we are relatively plain. We have no stripes and no neon. We do not shimmer, we do not shine. It falls on us to invent a relationship with colour’. Intimate films act as a tribute to this, a love letter to how colour – at least that we can actually see – enhances our world.