Nature, Camera, Action! – more thoughts on the National Media Museum’s temporary exhibit

Ever wondered how we’ve come to know so much about animal and plant behaviour? Ever watched David Attenborough wander round the rain forest interspersed with macro (close-up) shots of a fly’s wing and thought “How do they do that? How do they know?

Well, Nature, Camera, Action is the exhibition for you. It’s only on til the 12th, so if you haven’t managed to get over to the National Media Museum in Bradford yet you’d better get your skates on!

The Structure of the Exhibition

A short video that introduces the spirit of the exhibition.
A short video that introduces the spirit of the exhibition.

‘Nature, Camera, Action!’ is spread over two galleries on different floors of the museum, each addressing a slightly different angle of the main message – more on that later!

The physical structure is similar to the rest of the museum’s spaces, using partitions and angles to portion out space in the open-plan galleries, making your journey through feel like an exploration, with new discoveries around every corner.

Gallery structure
A view of the first section of the first floor gallery – this section is devoted to the challenges of aerial and ornithological photography.

As Lewis mentioned in his post, the exhibition is very case-light, relying more on media, labels and interactive experiences. This image shows a section of the first gallery, which is devoted to the challenges of aerial and ornithological photography. It’s a good example of the style the museum is using – you can see a few cases, bright images on the walls, explanatory text (often written directly onto the fabric of the building) and numerous video installations demonstrating the camera techniques used.

The first gallery – located on the first floor of the museum – deals with the challenges of professional wildlife photography, both still images and video. Before you even enter the gallery proper you are confronted by a partition wall blocking your view of the exhibit, onto which a short video (pictured above) is projected, allowing the museum to make an introduction and set the tone. The video can pretty much be summed up as “Animals are amazing – look at all the things we can do to get images of them!” – this ties in with the key message I think I’ve identified, which again I’ll talk about in just a minute.

The transitions between the various sections of the first gallery.
The transitions between the various sections of the first gallery.

As you can see, the partitions are brightly colour-coded to give a sense of different areas and of moving between discrete but connected concepts.

The different sections in this gallery are devoted to:

1) Aerial and ornithological photography (as pictured above), including drone cameras and high-speed photography that can be slowed down to show events that are usually too quick to perceive;

2) The challenges of filming on plains and in safari conditions, including transporting kit, the dangers of predators, and camouflaged cameras used to get close to shy creatures;

Tortoise-cam! Everyone loves tortoise-cam.
A camera disguised as a tortoise, used to get close to feeding animals without disturbing them or changing their behaviour.

3) Underground and nocturnal photography, including probe cameras and night vision;

4) Polar and other low-temperature conditions – there’s also a section on underwater challenges here, but the colour-coding was so similar I wasn’t entirely sure if it was meant to be a separate section;

5) Macro and close-up photography, mostly of insects and other minibeasts.

The rest of the exhibition continues in the next gallery upstairs. The museum connects the two by use of vinyl decals up the stairs:

Follow the butterfly!
Decals used to guide visitors around the different levels.

The upper gallery is an extension of the exhibition, showing how wildlife photography can be undertaken at home with minimal equipment, and encouraging visitors to make their own images. During the early part of the exhibition’s life (school holiday time) workshops were run allowing children to make their own photographic equipment and use it, playing with light, shadow and other settings. This sadly isn’t running anymore, but there are lots of give-it-a-go displays still up, including one that lets visitors focus a  digital camera to take their own macro images of provided insect specimens.

These are very sturdy cameras!
A hands-on display allowing visitors to try out digital cameras

Key Messages

As I saw it, the message of the whole exhibit was one of wonder in nature and technology and how they intersect. I’d sum it up as “Animals and plants are amazing, and using some very special equipment we can get mind-blowing images and sound that we can use to learn things that would otherwise be a mystery we didn’t even know we needed to solve…” (Gallery 1)

“…But you don’t need all this equipment to do your own investigation and wildlife photography. All you need is good observational skills and an enquiring mind. Give it a go, and see what you learn!” (Gallery 2)

It’s very much a ‘family’ exhibition, as others have noted before, but in the very best sense – there’s plenty to engage the small children, but it’s not at all superficial or dumbed down, and adults can easily learn things that your average interested layman would find eye-opening.

One good feature is the wall text – if you were to go round reading every label it could come across a little text-heavy for some people, especially children, but the main points or questions are picked out and emblazoned across the walls in large, easy to read letters and in terms that late KS1/KS2 children could easily read themselves.

Liontext
Interesting points are picked out of the small text and emblazoned across the walls in simplified language.

Interactivity – and my favourite exhibits!

Those of you who’ve had much contact with me will feel no surprise when I say that the interactive aspects were those I found most interesting! I felt this exhibition did really well educationally, creating something for all ages.

It was nice to see that the National Media Museum is really living up to its name – it’s not just a museum of media, it’s a museum that uses media deftly and engagingly in its displays. Video and sound effects are blended seamlessly into the more concrete exhibits, and it never feels forced or like they are using technology for the sake of it. This was one of the best multi-media displays:

Underground bunny Underground

While narration played in the background, videos showing activity inside burrows were played in windows set into a display made to look like a warren.

Several of the sections in the downstairs gallery had incredibly immersive activities that really put the visitor in the position of the camera operator and brought home the challenges and the wonder of capturing these images. It’s really hard for me to choose a favourite, but I’m going to pick the tunnel you can just see in the picture above.

I was small enough to enter this particular exhibit and experience it for myself – unfortunately, larger adults may be denied the fascinating journey!

Here’s a video of the set-up of the tunnel.

The tunnel was full of twinkling lights from odd directions, and burrowing-type sound effects played through tiny speakers so you wouldn’t be able to hear them from outside. The constricted space, darkness and use of media was particularly evocative of the challenges and experience of the camera operator, and I think really got across the exhibition’s message of the amazing things people do to learn about nature, and encouraging people to try things for themselves and get involved.

Oh, and to add into the theme of keeping your eyes open – look who pops up at the end of the tunnel to reward an observant eye!

Surprise toad
Surprise Toad!

The other displays were also very interest, but obviously I couldn’t pick them all!

In the aerial section there was another great intersection of physical exhibit and media use – the ‘vulturecam’ (a drone camera constructed as a bird) hung from the ceiling, and beneath it was projected a loop of footage taken from a birds-lense view. While I was looking at this exhibit a family entered, and their two-year old swooped onto the projection with whoops of delight, spreading his arms and legs and practically bathing in the image! If any museum exhibit provokes that kind of reaction in a visitor I think we must count it a success.

The Vulture-cam suspended from the ceiling.
The Vulture-cam suspended from the ceiling.

A short video of the Vulture-cam exhibit (sans two-year-old!).

Multi-layered Exhibition – Always More to See!

The Vulture-cam exhibit also brings me to another theme of the exhibition that I really enjoyed. As a family exhibit it was already designed to work on many levels of comprehension, but it also went that little extra step forward to actually practice what it preached. Wildlife photographers, as I mentioned above, have to keep their eyes open and their minds curious, and this exhibition promoted those qualities in the visitors. Some aspects of the exhibition were not spoon-fed; there was no giant sign pointing to the Vulture-cam high up in the ceiling and shouting “look, this is something you need to see”. At several points the museum relies on provoking the visitors’ curiosity instead of using a prescriptive didactory style – you see a flash of colour or movement, and you flit across the room to see what is happening; your ears twitch and you hare off following an interesting sound. It’s a really clever approach that I think rewards a repeat visit – you could go round this exhibition several times and always notice something slightly different or learn something new.

The very best example of this is in the second gallery. It was part of the camera workshop that I mentioned at the beginning, but now functions as a sort of ‘Easter Egg’ extra for eagle-eyed visitors.

First you see an unassuming wall sign, quite hidden now in a corner of the educational area:

A clue hidden away on the wall.
A clue hidden away on the wall.

If you keep this in mind, follow your footsteps around the gallery, and above all keep your eyes open, you’re rewarded with the unexpected sight of these little guys hidden in rafters and above exhibits:

Magpie Owl Woodpecker

There’s also (as the green label above states) an interactive exhibit that changes with audience participation, something I find particularly exciting considering we’re starting to design our own exhibits!

A large digital screen is used to display a slideshow of images and videos sent in by the general public. This is located next to an exhibit of wildlife photography through the 20th century, making the visitors and ex-visitors feel like they can really be part of not just the exhibition but also a larger wildlife community.

Context Images

My Favourite Label

Let’s start by putting it in context with the introductory label to the second gallery:

The introductory label to the second gallery.
The introductory label to the second gallery.

This I think really articulates the message I pinpointed above, and leads me onto my specific label choice. You might recognise this one – it’s the instructions for the macro give-it-a-go exhibit I featured way back in the first section!

Close-up of the label to the hands-on camera exhibit
Close-up of the label to the hands-on camera exhibit

I’ve picked this one because it takes the technology aspect of the previous gallery and uses step-by-step instructions to prove how accessible wildlife photography and observation can actually be. Judging by the enthusiasm with which a nine-year-old and his mother descended on the display, and the huge array of photos and videos on that participatory screen, I’d say it’s definitely working!

Visitor Reactions and Comments

Being there on my own, and a friendly sort of person, I struck up lots of conversations with other visitors and got some of their reactions. Here are some comments that stuck with me:

“I like how there’s something for most ages, and it’s really hands-on to encourage kids to be interested in stuff and learn about nature. I think it would be better for kids that are a bit older though because she can’t read. Maybe they could make some cartoons or do a tour to help young kids understand it or something?”

Young local woman with four-year-old girl.

“We came with the grandchildren during the holidays and they loved it, but there was so much that we didn’t get to see, so we thought we’d come back when it was quiet. I didn’t know most of this either, so it’s really interesting.”

Female half of older couple from Wakefield.

“I took some of the photos on the screen. I really like that sort of thing – I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Blue Peter, but when you’re a child you’re encouraged to send in your artwork and letters, like your contribution matters. When you grow up, most of the time it feels like if you’re not a professional then museums and galleries don’t care. I think this one’s usually different, and that’s why I like coming here.”

Male half of couple.

“I’ve got a bug box at home and sometimes I get really interesting creatures coming to it. I’ve got photos of lots of kinds of bees. There are loads more sorts of bees than people think. I might do this when I grow up and work with David Attenborough. He’s really cool.”

Nine-year-old boy with family.

“This sort of exhibition usually runs during the school holidays. The museum likes to alternate between ‘family’ ones and more serious ones so that they can cater to everyone. I think it’s a real shame that some of the bigger more famous exhibitions go to the Science Museum in London first, even when they use our archive material heavily. It’s really important for towns like Bradford to have major cultural events going on here, offering opportunities to everyone, not just the London elite.”

Gallery assistant, male, mid-fifties.

“BIRDY!”

Two-year-old with three generations of his family, having just fallen in love with the Vulture-cam exhibit.

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