Sebastião Salgado photographs of nature are undeniably beautiful, but they also portray a typical Western gaze.
By James Polchin
When it opened in the spring of 1881, critics described London’s Natural History Museum as a “true Temple of Nature,” exhibiting the “beauty of Holiness.” Such terms refer to the museum’s architectural character as much as its collection. Its central hall rises with cathedral-like force, with its Romanesque arches covered in terracotta tile reflecting a yellowish light that emanates from rounded, stained glass windows. Standing there today, amidst stuffed bears and dinosaur bones arranged to inspire awe and fear, the space still feels more religious than scientific.
The museum also conjures an idea of nature that is firmly rooted in 19th century notions of its spiritual force. When the museum was built, London’s skies were often sooty gray, the city’s buildings covered in a patina of grime of industrial expansion. The holy light of the museum illuminates an idea of nature as a spectacle to behold, displayed in all manner of flora and fauna, of fossils and taxidermy, gathered from the far reaches of the imperial empire and posed under glass. It also offered another story of England’s revolution: one of solace and wonderment, of God’s hand in the world, and, most acutely, of nature’s role as a spectacle of pleasure and inquiry for modern man. At heart of the museum’s origins is this curious paradox: preserving an idea of nature’s history just as nature was increasingly being ingested in the maw of industrialization.