Though highly-trafficked by tourists, Yellowstone National Park is one of the last intact ecosystems on the planet. And its pristine wilderness makes the park a mecca for wildlife. In celebration of the area's ecological diversity, the National Museum of Wildlife Art was erected in the nearby hills of Jackson Hole, WY, where it stands like a frontier fortress of golden cobblestone, overlooking the National Elk Reserve, where between 5,000 and 7,000 elk gather each winter.
The museum's prominent art collection is dedicated not to the genre of wildlife art, as its name might imply, but rather to a broader range of wildlife in art that spans the art history spectrum. The collection includes bird stones from 2,500 BC, as well as work by major contemporary artists like Georgia O'Keefe and Andy Warhol, the latter who is the focus of a current exhibition, Andy Warhol: Endangered Species . "The relationship that we have with these other creatures on the planet is very long and diverse," Curator Adam Harris tells Creators. "This desire to create art about the animals around us is not limited to our culture, it's cross-cultural, it's a global phenomenon."
One of the most interesting aspects of the museum's collection is its visual narrative of shifting ideas about ecology and biology. An upcoming exhibition of John Gould's hummingbird illustrations represents the pragmatic approach of wildlife in art through science. "Gould is an example of both the art and the science," Harris elaborates. Gould's illustrations of Darwin's finches were a major contribution to the theory of evolution at a time when Enlightenment and Romanticism converged, according to Harris, "creating an emphasis on art that was both accurate to the creature's habitat and natural behaviors but also beautiful." Gould's hummingbird illustrations will be shown in tandem with an immersive soundscape installation entitled, A Day in the Life of a Hummingbird, by contemporary sound artist Thomas Rex Beverly.
As the collection progresses chronologically, you see American depictions of wildlife in art become less scientific, leaving behind the Enlightenment, and more emotionally charged, as in Romanticism. Hopes of a "new frontier" come through in art like Thomas Worthington Whittredge's 1875 painting of deer drinking from a still stream. This type of imagery was indicative of manifest destiny and the promise of unexplored land during the 19th century.
However, as colonization expanded, themes of ravaged land and wildlife became apparent in art, such as a 1905 painting by N.C. Wyeth entitled How Many Millions, One Can Only Guess, which addresses the massive slaughtering and depopulation of bison at the time. "You can trace how art reflected national thinking and feeling about the West and North America as this amazing resource that immigrants came to exploit," Harris explains, referring to the pioneering settlers. "Another interesting way to use the collection is to show how perceptions change over the course of time due to historical events. Animals reflect national policies. They are not an apolitical topic."
Through this lens, the National Museum of Wildlife Art inherently bends to the social and environmental convictions of a given time period. Their upcoming exhibitionof work by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartorehighlights the devastation of species diversification as a result of climate change. In his series entitled Photo Ark , Sartore has challenged himself to photograph the 12,000 species currently in human care across the planet—a sort of visual counterpart to Bernie Krause's work in sound ecology and audio recordings of the decline in species diversity.
Both projects speak to the same central message: we are losing the life that has long been at the center of our artistic and creative musings since cavemen drew on walls. As Jon Mooallem suggests in his book Wild Ones , "America's wild animals have inhabited the terrain of our imagination, just as much as they've inhabited the actual land. They are free-roaming Rorschachs, and we are free to spin whatever stories we want about them. The wild animals have no comment." Through its exhibitions, curation, and permanent collection, the National Museum of Wildlife Art unearths the vast and lingering imprint of wildlife on an ever-evolving humanity, giving voice to the importance of animals outside of our imaginations as well as within.
For more information about exhibitions and programs at The National Museum of Wildlife Art visit their website.