The entrance to the Colour and Vision exhibition takes us through ‘Our Spectral Vision’, a beautiful light installation designed by British artist Liz West, in which light from every hue in the rainbow shines from seven special, colour-filtered glass prisms, bathing you in a cocktail of colour. Demonstrating the enormous significance and beauty of colour in our lives today, it’s a great introduction to the history of sight.
The story begins about 565 million years ago, with life before that existing in permanent darkness. Colour and Vision explores how the evolution of eyesight – which began as little more than an ability to detect gradations in light, using primitive, photosensitive ‘eyespots’ – is intimately related to the development of the carnivorous impulse. Living a squelchy, stationary existence, the simple organisms that once graced the Earth would have had little use for sight, but once the perpetual predator-prey struggle began to unfold, the eye would become the organ that would make all the difference in the world. Amongst the more than 350 rarely seen specimens on show are some of these visionary pioneers of sight, including the 508 million-year-old fossil arthropod, Sidneyia inexpectans, its hemispherical, highly reflective eyes perched on a protruding antenna proving that these early creatures stalked and ate one another using the relatively new power of sight.
Eye expert (not his official title) Dr Greg Edgecombe says: ‘Colour is so fundamental to the way we see the world that it is hard to imagine life without it, but that world exists for many animals – even for some that have eyes that can form an image. Museum scientists use the fossil record and genetic tools to document the earliest eyes, reconstruct the evolution of colour vision, and learn about the genes that produce pigments.’
‘Eyes and a brain sophisticated enough to process an image and see rays of light as colour are a profound evolutionary advantage and are vital for survival. Eyes that enable an animal to form an image have evolved six times over 565 million years. These six branches of the tree of life represent nearly all of the animal species ever to have lived on Earth.’
Moving on from the initial evolution of sight, colour introduces itself into the picture, moving from the world of darkness and light. With an array of taxidermy specimens – sort of the museum’s calling card – the exhibition explores the variations that have been taken in the evolution of sight, examining the differences in colour-detecting cone cells on offer across the vertebrate kingdom in particular (did you know, for instance, that colour blind humans have basically the same cone-makeup as a bulldog?).
Halfway through the exhibition, a magnificent, if slightly unnerving, ‘Wall of Eyes’ display blinks out at you, a combination of rows upon rows of more than a hundred eyeballs from the museum’s stores and striking close-up photography of eyes from across the animal kingdom. In the centre, three LG TVs (the museum’s official partner-sponsor) display images of human eyes, which can be submitted by anybody on social media – a bespoke LG photo booth sits at the exhibition’s entrance, with visitors encouraged to take a snap of their eye and submit it.
As the popular riddle goes, if a tree falls with nobody to hear it, does it make a sound? If there are no eyes to see it, does colour exist? In the case of colourful organisms, it seems it did, with colourful markings not just benefiting organisms aesthetically in their attempts to attract mates or warn off predators but also structurally, as in the case of some colourful shells, whose exteriors may be hardened by their appearance.
This is part of the striking iridescence section, which explores pigmentation in animals such as peacocks and birds of paradise, which have long frustrated artists with their impossible-to-replicate plumage. Tiny structures in feathers, shells or sometimes skin reflect light, causing a shimmering, multi-tonal effect like oil on water. Besides the more obvious insects in this section, including various species of butterflies, the exhibition also ponders on the strange, underappreciated beauty of creatures from moths to beetles.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the exhibition concerns the phenomenology of colour, though this is the most neglected – that being said, this is a museum of science and nature, after all, so it’s to their credit that they have branched, however slightly, into this area. An interactive wall map of human qualities (including femininity, danger and fertility) invites us to attach coloured slides, indicating how we feel emotionally towards each. It’s the film in the next room which concludes the exhibition that really carries the weight, sending us out into the world not just educated on the science of sight but inviting us to reflect and contemplate on our relationships with colour as human beings, with emotions, cultural attitudes and a sense of beauty. The Natural History Museum tells us about the resonant qualities generally perceived in colours – pink is considered a calming influence; green promotes inventiveness and imaginativeness; and yellow is seen as the happiest colour. Speakers in the film, however, introduce multiple perspectives, with a sufferer of synaesthesia speaking of his ability to hear colour, and how red, as the colour with the lowest frequency, and therefore, signifies to him peace and calmness, so at odds with the general societal perception which treats red as a colour of alarm.
Poignantly, the film lingers on many unsolved questions in our understanding of both vision and colour. While we can deduce the evolutionary process in so many cases, and understand, for instance, why and how creatures may use colour to camouflage themselves, warm themselves, protect themselves or attract a mate, there remain many instances in which we just don’t understand the purpose of colour. On this note, we leave the exhibition with the question of colour as much a mystery as when we began.
Colour and Vision opens at the Natural History Museum on July 15th, running until November 6, 2016.
Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, UK, +44 20 7942 5511