Rewilding Heritage: A Personal Response

They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em

Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

Feral. The viscerality of this single word was enough to capture my attention, though I was sceptical of the glowing quotations from reviewers dotting the cover and blurb. I had no idea that George Monbiot’s 2013 book would introduce me to something that seemed so obvious that I was almost angry this concept was so new to me. Armed with a wealth of scientific evidence, Monbiot argues for a hopeful environmentalism that encourages the succession of native plants, the reintroduction of key parts of the food web, and the cessation of harmful landscape practices that reduce habitats to monocultures. Land that is not productive can be transformed, Monbiot argues, into a thriving, self-sufficient ecosystem that has little need for human intervention.

The rewilding movement has gained traction in recent years. Adopted by multiple organisations as a core philosophy, the term has been broadly associated with the reinvigoration of nature and the way humans think about it. In common understanding, “Rewilding is a progressive approach to conservation. It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. Through rewilding, wildlife’s natural rhythms create wilder, more biodiverse habitats.”

While Monbiot provides his own definition of rewilding, the concept is highly controversial on many fronts, with differing definitions and approaches. Even the term “rewilding” can be cause for debate amongst its supporters. Some prefer the term wilding, with its sense of forward motion and future, rather than harking back to the re- of the past.

While its effects would be (somewhat paradoxically) for our own benefit (such as less need of flood defense systems in the renewed presence of British beavers), the decentreing of the human is integral to rewilding. But this would mean letting go of the western and Biblical notion that mankind is ruler over land, sea, and air—which represents perhaps the largest obstacle to rewilding. Rewilding discussions tend to center on questions of social barriers linked to class, capitalism, and enclosure, but all with the understanding that humans and nature form a dichotomy—an idea that has its origins in the Enlightenment. Famously “the most complex word in the language”, nature has historically been considered as separate to mankind. This belief helped enforce the privatisation of common land and has gradually disconnected the average person from their ecological environment. Such land is increasingly controlled by government agencies, private landowners and those with an economic interest in agriculture.[1] As Monbiot explains, “[s]trong as the case for change may be, agricultural hegemony is so potent that to challenge farmers and landowners is almost taboo.”[2] We remain attached to the ideology of the Enlightenment.

As a heritage student, I’m interested in the role that history, and the communication of said history, can play in discussions of rewilding. Environmental history equips us with the relevant toolkit to deconstruct not only the ecological logic of the endeavour, but also the roots of its political oppositions and social obstructions. Evidence of Britain’s wild past from prehistoric excavation fans the flame of excitement for supporters of rewilding. Monbiot’s own fascination with prehistoric life, for example, seeps through as he describes how an excavation of Trafalgar Square revealed the remains of hippopotamuses, giant deer, giant aurochs, and lions. While no one is calling for the reintroduction of hippos to the UK, it is encouraging to see steps being taken around the country by organisations like The National Trust to include species reintroduction in their practices. In my own exploration of the wild history of the UK, the animal I was most captivated by was the straight-tusked elephant.

While on a placement at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon, I became aware of one of the jewels in the crown of the museum’s collections: a piece of a fossilised elephant tusk, found under Summerland Street in Barnstaple. Unearthed in February 1844, the tusk once belonged to a straight-tusked elephant from the Pleistocene era, between 2,580,000 – 11,700 years ago.

Having read about the straight-tusked elephant, and how it was present in a past UK, I was drawn to the multivocality of the artefact—the tusk can be simultanously understood as a remnant of a once majestic animal, Victorian collector’s item, a physical piece of a museum collection, evidence of Britain’s wild past, or a piece of key evidence in evolutionary theory. The human-centered narratives of the tusk represents only a small fraction of its potential lives and uses.

In a sector where preservation and conservation are key words, there is an increasing recognition that letting go of the tight control of human-centric stories over non-human assets leads to richer understanding of the world. In other words, museums rewild in their own way—and, in doing so, blurring the nature-culture divide. As museums try to reinvigorate and revitalise collections engagement, they found traction in current issues such as the climate crisis through temporary (though powerful) exhibits, and in the (re)wilding and (re)interpretation of existing collections.

For example, the Extinction Voices exhibition at Bristol Museum connects taxidermy to current environmentalist movements and the climate emergency. The Victorian tradition of the mourning veil has been appropriated to the collections on display in the World Wildlife gallery, with explanatory labels detailing the conservation status of the animal. Organised in conjunction with scientists, school children and the museum, the exhibition dares to imagine the future by using the environmental past.

The exhibition’s title is inspired by a quote by environmentalist Paul Hawken: “Nature is noisy. It walks, it crawls, it swims, it swoops, it buzzes. But extinction is silent. It has no voice except our own.” It is an extraordinarily simple way to implicate humans in the destruction of nature, while still centering the animals (or perhaps merely their remains, crafted in poses for human purposes…).

The increase of environmentally-engaged praxis in the heritage sector points towards a navigation of the tension between conservation and future, mirroring the embrace of rewilding in the environmental and climate-related fields. The brilliant Extinction Voices at Bristol Museum showcases just how powerful and urgently needed new considerations over natural history collections can be.

In the future, I hope to carry with me the ecological and historical curiosity that has been ignited by the rewilding movement. The more I learn of it, the more the concept—imperfect as it is—seems to resonate throughout the world of museums and heritage institutions.

[1] Raymond Williams, “Nature,” Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1988): 219.

[2] George Monbiot, Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 166.