Breaking Point – Fragility in Clay and Nature,

Museum of Zoology 2021

CCI’s Arts, Science and Conservation Programme was delighted to collaborate with the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Zoology in 2021 on Breaking Point – a ceramics exhibition inspired by the natural world.

Three artists – Mella Shaw, Jayne Ivimey, and Elspeth Owen exhibited work inspired by the natural world among the displays in the Museum of Zoology. All three artists have a strong interest in the environmental movement and create ceramics that seek to engage, provoke, and stimulate discussion.

With artworks placed in and amongst the cases of taxidermy, skeletons and specimens in jars, visitors were able to see the Museum’s collections in a new light. Throughout the exhibition, the fragility of fired clay as a material was explored in a context of ecological decline, ecosystem collapse and environmental change and uncertainty.

About the artists

Mella Shaw

Mella Shaw’s installation, titled HARVEST, explored the impact that single-use plastics are having on our oceans. She has formed dozens of fish and “plastic” containers out of clay, highlighting that without drastic change, by 2050 there is predicted to be a greater weight of plastic in the oceans than fish. Clay has been used to produce disposable items for millennia. Made of terra cotta – literally “baked earth” – when discarded it is naturally biodegradable. By contrast, the production of single-use, disposable materials which are not degradable is having a devastating effect on our planet.


With a background in anthropology and a former career in museums and galleries, Mella makes clay objects and installations that address reoccurring environmental themes of balance, tipping-points, fragility, and loss.


Jayne Ivimey

Jayne Ivimey has sculpted the 67 species of British birds which now make up the county’s “Red List” of threatened birds – those that have suffered a severe decline of at least 50% in the breeding population and at least 50% reduction of the UK breeding range. Ivimey’s ceramic birds replicate the delicate specimens of bird skins in museum collections and was displayed alongside them.


Based in Norfolk, Jayne creates a range of works that depict the natural world.  Having spent seven years working on bird conservation in New Zealand, much of her recent work includes references to birds and the challenges they face.

Elspeth Owen

One of the artworks is a large clay egg which was 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 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.

Below is a video of Sir David Attenborough rebuilding the egg in the exhibition.


With a long-established studio in Grantchester, near Cambridge, Elspeth’s work has been shown worldwide, and is held in the permanent collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


“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.” John Fanshaw

The exhibition was open 8th July to 3rd October 2021

Further information about the exhibition and the University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology can be found here: