Breaking Point – Fragility in Clay and Nature

8th July 2021

The University Museum of Zoology ‘s new summer exhibition opens Thursday 8th July, featuring artworks from three artists plus an original giant extinct elephant bird egg belonging to Sir David Attenborough.

The exhibition, created in partnership with CCI’s Arts, Science and Conservation Programme (ASCP), explores the fragile nature of the world through a series of artworks made from a material that is also fragile: ceramics.

Three artists, Elspeth Owen, Jayne Ivimey and Mella Shaw will be exhibiting their work, all inspired by the natural world, among the Museum’s skeletons, preserved animals and taxidermy specimens. All three artists have a strong interest in the environmental movement and create ceramics that seek to engage, provoke and stimulate discussion about our relationship with nature and our impacts on it.

Jack Ashby, the Museum’s Assistant Director and one of the exhibition’s curators said, “Our natural history collections tell the story of hundreds of years of environmental change, and the artworks in our Breaking Point exhibition do the same thing in a different way, using a naturally fragile material. Putting this exhibition together with these three incredible, thoughtful artists, and our colleagues in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, has allowed us to use the fragility of fired clay to explore ecological decline, ecosystem collapse and environmental change and uncertainty – some of the biggest challenges the world is facing right now. Placing the sculptures in and amongst our own animal specimens really heightens this point.”

CCI’s John Fanshawe, who co-curated the exhibition, said, ‘‘Working closely with our friends at the Museum of Zoology always provides an opportunity to innovate and discover new ways of exploring links between nature, conservations and the arts. Encountering work made by contemporary artists in and around the museum displays throws a different light on the collections, and on the artworks, and creates new ways of seeing both. Conservation scientists and artists share a deep concern for nature, and clay, as a malleable natural material that fires to hard form provides a perfect medium through which to reflect on form and function, on breakage, recycling, and loss, as our contributing ceramicists have demonstrated so wonderfully.”

One of the artworks – by Cambridge-based Elspeth Owen – is a large clay egg which will be displayed together with an enormous elephant bird egg on loan from Sir David Attenborough. The elephant bird egg was rebuilt by Sir David Attenborough from scattered fragments of shell found while he was filming BBC’s Zoo Quest to Madagascar in 1961. The species was among the largest birds to have ever lived, reaching around three metres tall and weighing up to 450kg, more than triple the weight of a large ostrich. They were driven to extinction by the end of the 1600s. Owen has scattered the shards of a second ceramic “egg” through the Museum’s displays, as a reminder of how easily everything breaks, and how often there is a chance rebuild and mend. Here is a video of Sir David Attenborough rebuilding the egg in the exhibition:

You can find out more about the artists and the exhibition on the ASCP page here

Opens Thursday 8th July (pre-booking required for visits before 20th July)

Entry is free via a timed ticketed system with 30 minute slots.

Until the 20th July 2021 the University Museum of Zoology is open three days per week – Thursday / Friday / Saturday.

From 20th July 2021 it will be open Tuesday – Sunday and no pre-booking or ticket will then be required. (assuming that government restrictions allow).

Image: Mella Shaw HARVEST 2018 Image ©Sophie Mutevelian

The exhibition was supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.