Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Today’s ‘natural environment’ is nothing like the original

28 October, 2014 - 12:54 -- John Burton
One of the Cast Courts at the V&A.

Colour is an essential part of the world we live in, and it is important to many animals. Some species live in a world of total darkness, while others share the same sort of world as we humans (although not all humans see the world in the same colours – many have varying degrees of colour blindness). 

Yet other species live in a world coloured by ultra-violets, or infra-reds. Colours we cannot possibly conceive; we can translate them, but not apprehend them. 

As regular readers of this column will know, I am a keen visitor to museums. If I have an hour between meetings when in London, I will try and fit in in a visit to a museum. And it was while in London’s South Kensington recently that I made a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A).

The V&A was over crowded with noisy school children, so I made my way to one of the least visited galleries: the Cast Courts. Here there is a superb collection of replicas of some man’s finest creations: cathedral frontages, the whole of Trajan’s column and effigies of England’s kings and queens.

It was glancing at these latter that the idea of colour sprang to mind. They were painted, or at least the casts copied what remained of the original colouring, and suddenly looking around me at the rest of the casts, it occurred to me that looking at the ancient and medieval world today we are seeing it without colour.  

But this is not how it was. Medieval churches were brightly decorated, Greek temples were painted and ancient marbles were also painted - and had eyes. We are only seeing part of the picture, and we are so accustomed to it now that we actually disdain the original.

And it struck me that we are doing the same with our natural environment. In England what we think of as natural is far from it. We see ancient forests without giant trees, ecosystems without top predators, landscapes smothered with exotic non-native introductions. Like a cathedral that has been through earthquakes, fire and modernisation, they are nothing like the original, but still vaguely functional.

But in parts of the world where true nature exists, we have a duty to try and conserve it. That is what World Land Trust is trying to do. I personally would always like to see museums showing what the original would have looked like in full, glorious technicolour, alongside the polished marble, the statue with broken limbs. Just as I want to see ecosystems flourishing in as near a natural condition as possible.

We can do it, and we only need a tiny fraction of what the world spends on accumulating works of art. It is depressing to see the millions of pounds, euros, dollars, yen spent on broken ancient artefacts, and compare it to the pennies and cents spent on an irreplaceable natural heritage. But I still like museums.

Rant over.

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