‘What is an animal?’ It seems like it should be an easy question, something most of us learnt the answer to in primary school. Or at least we thought we did. At First Animals, Oxford University Natural History Museum’s new exhibition, this apparently simple question is revealed to be not so easy to answer after all.
The exhibition takes the visitor back in time to an unrecognisable underwater world, home to the planet’s first ever animals. The curators have brought together more than 60 well-preserved fossils from around the world for this purpose. The first gathering of its kind, each item is hundreds of millions of years old.
Most of the fossils on display hail from a time of immense evolutionary change known as the Cambrian Explosion, a short – in evolutionary terms – period of 20 million years which took place more than 500 million years ago (a few come from the even earlier Ediacaran period). It was during the Cambrian Explosion that the Earth experienced a huge increase in new life forms, many of which laid the foundations for the body plans of all subsequent animal life or, as appealingly written in the exhibition: ‘the planet transformed into a slithering, swimming, scuttling place’.
It’s the sheer weirdness of some these creatures that makes the question of what an animal actually is so difficult to answer. For one thing, the very earliest fossils don’t contain animals at all but instead record the fleeting movements of creatures deemed by scientists in the field to be animals. Others look much more like plants, for example Charnia, a leaf-like fossil from the Ediacaran period. How scientists extract meaning from what, to the laymen, can look like a rock with a pattern on, may at first seem baffling. Luckily, accompanying text and video interviews help illuminate the logic behind these interpretations.
Many of the other fossils are more discernible, with clear creatures imprinted onto the stone. Wormy things, fishy things, even pineapple-like things – it’s these remarkable fossils that really convey the explosion of life during this period in Earth’s history and the variety of forms and structures that developed, ultimately leading to the type of animals we know today.
The stars of the show come from the Chengjiang fossil site in southwest China and were loaned to the museum via a partnership with Yunnan University. At 518 million years old, the site is one of the most important in the world for understanding early life, with around 200 species so far identified, including many soft-bodied creatures which are unknown elsewhere. The remaining fossils hail from Mistaken Point World Heritage Site in Newfoundland and Sirius Passet Lagerstätte in Greenland.
A certain amount of imagination does help when it comes to this subject and happily the exhibition steps in to assist. One of the most engaging features is the interactive Cambrian Diver installation, which allows visitors to explore a virtual Cambrian ocean, zooming in on digital reconstructions of the earliest animals. In order to create this feature the curators admit they exercised some artistic licence when it came to colour and movement – but it feels as though it’s paid off. Being able to visualise these creatures makes the subject matter, which can at times be complicated, extremely accessible instead. The display also compares each creature to a modern-day equivalent that plays a similar role in today’s ecosystem, be it a suspension feeder, a predator, a swimmer, etc.
In addition to the main exhibits, First Animals also includes pieces of original artwork that provide a more creative perspective on the earliest animal life. Scattered throughout the museum, the artists worked with research scientists to create individual prints which relate to the different fossils on display. Bold and beautiful, the pieces also help the visitor visualise these long-gone creatures, although their distance from the main exhibit detracts a little from this purpose.
Ultimately it’s not easy to bring a subject like this to life, based as it is on ancient rocks and academic theory. The curators here have done an excellent job and the small scale of the exhibition makes it manageable – these are exhibits that require a lengthy ponder. Best for adults and young adults, First Animals is certainly must-see for fossil enthusiasts, but also fascinating for anyone interested in the origins of animal life.
First Animals is on display from 12 July 2019 – 24 February 2020 and is free to enter. Find out more here. The Oxford University Natural History Museum was founded in 1860 as the centre for scientific study at the University of Oxford and the Museum now holds the University’s internationally significant collections of entomological, geological and zoological specimens.
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