M is for…Monsters?

Uh oh: some monsters seem to have found their way into our latest exhibition. Don’t panic, though. The exhibition in question explores what it means to be human; in this post Muriel Bailly explores what (or who) monsters really are and how different they are from us, if at all.

If you have visited An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition recently, you may have seen the drawing below entitled Three Monsters in the “F is for Fear” section. Maybe, like me, you were a little surprised by this caption? Personally I find these little creatures rather cute. I looked at them carefully and didn’t feel a single shiver. Definitely not monsters to me.

Three monsters, 1668.

Three monsters, 1668.

So why do creatures that were labelled “monsters” in the 17th century, probably feared and hated by many, appear sweet and pleasing to the 21st century viewer? Have monsters changed so much; if so, what do our present day monsters look like?

In any given culture monsters have been synonymous with excess, aberrant behaviour and being different. The theme of monsters and mystical or unnatural beings can be found everywhere from ancient civilisations to contemporary cinema and television.

In Roman and Greek mythology, monsters are both the origin and the limit of the world. The Titans (gigantic, patricidal and fans of anthropophagy) were the children of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky) and ruled the world in the Golden Age. They were led by Cronus and were eventually overthrown by a new generation of gods, called the Olympians, led by Zeus. With this new generation came the world as we know it. Thanks to the tricks played on Zeus by the Titan Prometheus, human kind obtained fire and nourishing food, benefitting it greatly. These events, known to us through Hesiod’s Theogony, are echoed in many mythologies from the Far East and Scandinavia.

Cronus, Goya. © Museo del Prado, Madrid

Cronus, Goya. © Museo del Prado, Madrid

In Homer’s Odyssey Ulysses encounters numerous monsters on his epic return home. Venturing to remote parts of the world he is confronted by the Cyclops Polyphemus, the Sirens, the whirlpool Charybdis and the six headed monster Scylla, among others. He is only safe when he finally reaches his beloved Ithaca. Centuries later, Pliny the Elder (1 BC-1 AD) in his Naturalis Historia describes Greece as being the centre of the world whilst Egypt is at its periphery. The latter was known as a land where half animal and half human creatures lived. In both Homer’s and Pliny’s work monsters are the physical representation of the limit of civilisation.

Ulysses [Odysseus] and the Sirens. Etching by P. Aquila.

Ulysses [Odysseus] and the Sirens. Etching by P. Aquila.

 Cultures without monsters?

Pliny’s description of Egypt with its half animal/half human inhabitants could be a reference to its gods. While Greek and Roman gods were anthropomorphic, Egyptian gods were hybrids with both human and animal features, such as Anubis the jackal-headed god of the afterlife. These hybrid gods, who may have been perceived as monstrous or grotesque in the western world, are very common in Eastern mythology. The Hindu god Ganesh is an elephant-headed deity and one of the most worshiped in the Hindu pantheon. Although it might be too much of a shortcut to say that Eastern cultures do not have monsters, it is fair to say that their association between monstrous appearance and monstrous identity is less automatic.

Anubis tending a mummy. Tombs of the Kings, Thebes.

Anubis tending a mummy. Tombs of the Kings, Thebes.

The status of monsters changes radically with the arrival of monotheist religions. The most famous monsters of the Old Testament (common to both Christianity and Judaism) are the Leviathan and Behemoth mentioned by Job 40 and 41. While in polytheist cultures monsters seem to be an aberration of nature, in monotheism monsters are creatures designed by God with a purpose. It was said that at the time of the Apocalypse God will prove his supremacy by killing the monsters in the ultimate victory of good against evil.

Job rides the leviathan in front of a grotesque procession of demons and tormentors.

Job rides the leviathan in front of a grotesque procession of demons and tormentors.

 Monsters classified

The first attempt to identify and record all existing monsters happened in the Middle Ages with an anonymous publication from 9-10th centuries, entitled All Sorts of Monsters. The monsters are classified according to their nature: book I is dedicated to anthropomorphic creatures; book II to elephant, lions, whales and other wild, large animals; and finally, book III is entirely dedicated to snakes.

In 1559, in his last and most famous work, Histoires Prodigieuses, Pierre Boaistuau attempted to record all monsters from “freaks of nature” to extraordinary beings from mythology. He sailed to England that winter with a copy of the book, yet to be published. He hoped to offer it to Queen Elizabeth I, newly installed on the throne. Although we do not know how the Queen reacted to this peculiar book, we know that the book stayed in England. A copy is available at Wellcome Library.

Portrait of two monsters. Histoires prodigieuses, 1560.

Portrait of two monsters. Histoires Prodigieuses, 1560.

 Renaissance: monsters with reason

The development of scientific and medical knowledge during the Renaissance shed new light on “monsters”. The work of Ambroise Paré, a French barber surgeon who served kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, illustrates this change. Paré makes a distinction between “real monsters” (existing individuals living with a deformity) and monsters from mythology and religion.

Focussing on the former, he looked for a rational and medical reason for their unusual appearance. The findings published in his essay Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573), argue that a child with such an appearance is the result of an accident that happened during pregnancy. Indeed, Paré suggested that a poor diet, emotional shock and domestic violence during pregnancy could all cause a deformity in the baby yet to be born.

Following Paré’s example, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a French naturalist from the 18th century, attempted a scientific classification of monsters in his monumental essay on tetratology (the study of abnormalities and psychological development). Simultaneously, the development of social sciences and psychology helped to demystify “unreal” monsters living in individuals’ subconscious and in cultural tradition.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

 The modern monster

Thanks to the development of medical and social sciences in the 18th century, “monsters” became better understood and, instead of provoking fear or disgust, society started empathising with these people. In literature, one of the most powerful indications of this humanisation of “monsters” is Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831.

As the distinction between “monsters” and the rest of society becomes more blurry from the 19th century onward, there seemed to be a new generation of monsters: one created by humans. This latter generation greatly inspired the arts. Dr Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s novel, through scientific experiments creates a creature so horrible that he cannot name it. A similar fate was encountered by Edward in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.

Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

Edward Scissorhands.

Edward Scissorhands.

So what of today’s monsters? The physical manifestation of evil in the form of some kind of deformity has taken a back seat. Just as abnormal physical appearances tend to be used to inspire (such as in The Elephant Man or Mask), a polished exterior often hides the demons today.

Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

Many of the classic monsters from the 20th and 21st centuries are savage criminals with complicated psychologies. In the Fritz Lang movie M, the child murderer Hans Beckert claims that he cannot escape himself and seems to be a victim of his own impulses. Hannibal Lecter, despite being a cannibalistic serial killer, is also a refined intellectual with sophisticated taste for the arts. Patrick Bateman is a suave and handsome Harvard educated businessman. Ghostface can be kids from school or members of your family. Dexter Morgan is your next door neighbour.

21st century monsters are often elegant, charming and seemingly “normal”. They walk among us; they are (part of) us.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: Cowrie Snuff Box

This month’s object can be seen in our latest exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, until 12 October. Found under X is for X-rated, this cowrie shell snuff box features an erotic scene. Even cowrie shells themselves used be known as “Venus shells” because of their resemblance to female genitalia. Taryn Cain tells us about the rise and fall of snuff and how its popularity resulted in the variety of the boxes used to hold it.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

We all know members of the 20% of the population who still light up a cigarette, despite the many warnings. Since smoking is considered a serious health risk today, it’s hard to imagine that only 300 years ago tobacco was seen as a health product with cigarettes only becoming a social norm around 1880.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

1714 was a year of change: it was the year of Queen Anne’s death, and saw the war of the Spanish Succession coming to an end. England was already familiar with tobacco, though its use was restricted to small pockets of the population.  Charles II was quite fond of snuff, a ground and perfumed tobacco, introducing it to his court in 1660. In 1665 the College of Physicians declared the smoking of tobacco a cure for the plague; a risky tonic to take considering matches were not to be invented for another 160 years.

Despite its regal and apparent medicinal properties, tobacco needed another three decades to finally gain in popularity. In 1702 the Allied Naval forces delivered to England at least 50,000 pounds of snuff taken from the Spanish treasure fleet, which soon elevated its use to a social necessity. From then on no gentleman would be seen in public without his snuff and many ladies were keen to indulge too.

A gentleman visitor offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

A gentleman offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

This avid use of snuff predictably birthed a new fashion accessory: the snuff box. Originally a small, hinged box to protect the quality of the snuff, it quickly became a fashion statement. In 1781 it was written that a well-dressed man should have a different snuff box for every day of the year, advice some genteel men took literally to heart. Popular dandy, Lord Petersham, would only use each snuff box once in 12 months, while George IV owned 700: one for every day and evening. Visit Wellcome Images to see a selection of historic snuff boxes.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, snuff boxes became more personal. Erotic images began to appear on the insides of the boxes, either openly or hidden in secret cavities. Most showed a couple engaged in sexual activity, but nudes were also popular; generally a mistress or sometimes a wife. Occasionally the images were even accompanied by music.

Though the keeping of erotica was a private matter, Henry Wellcome managed to acquire one of these lewd items to add to his collection, allowing us to have it on display in the museum today. Snuff boxes were generally made of fine materials, such as porcelain and tortoiseshell; ours is no exception, being a cowrie shell and silver creation. The image inside is of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt. For a long time chastity belts were believed to have originated in the Middle Ages as a means for men to control their wife’s sexuality. We now know they were an 18th century invention which, if used at all, were more likely to prevent sexual assault than protect a lady’s fidelity.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman's chastity belt.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt.

Cowrie shells come from cowries, a diverse species of nocturnal marine snails living in tropical environments, feasting on algae, corals and sponges. The shell in our collection came from a humpback cowrie, which can be found in shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific. Both the inside and the outside of cowrie shells have a beautifully polished appearance due to a layer of calcium carbonate crystals secreted by the mantle; it was this porcelain-like exterior which ensured the cowries would never have a peaceful life. Like tobacco, cowries have had a long history with humans, being used variously for medicine, divination, fertility and, primarily, as money.

As currency, cowrie shells are one of the oldest in the world, at times being more valuable than gold. They were first used in China during the 2nd century and were still being used in Africa during the 19th century. They were an ideal choice for money, being consistent in shape, difficult to obtain in inland areas, easily transportable and, crucially, difficult to forge. While mostly used as currency in Africa and Asia, Europe began trading cowrie shells in the 15th century to obtain slaves for the slave trade. The use of shells was eventually overtaken by metal currency.

By the 19th century snuff began to fall out of favour as interest in cigars grew. After the death of George IV in 1830 the demand for imported cigars had grown massively, while matches and hand rolled cigarettes were increasingly available. As the Victorian era began, snuff boxes bore the brunt of the changing market. Many of them became obsolete short of becoming a collector’s item. Erotic snuff boxes suffered most of all due to strict Victorian morals, with few avoiding destruction by embarrassed families. It was said that George IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, melted down most of his enormous collection in order to make more socially acceptable jewellery for herself.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Comics and illustrations

Drawings, sketches and comics have all, at least once, crossed the path of science and medicine. Often used as a way of communicating and educating, the illustrated history of science is fascinating, surprising and mostly gruesome. Muriel Bailly takes a look.

Comic strips trace their history back to the 19th century in Europe and as far back as the 13th century in Japan. Over the last century the diversity of comics and graphic novels has grown hugely and covers almost any genre you can think of. Over the past decade or two, comic books have (arguably) benefitted from the exposure of their film adaptations as well their mention on popular TV series such as The Big Bang Theory. We even published a post about Marvel’s X-Men recently.

Using drawings or other visual representations to tell a story is a form of communication that goes back to our prehistory. Palaeolithic caves have been discovered with images ranging from abstract symbols to clearly identifiable animal and, more rarely, human representations, and are still being interpreted by archaeologists and scholars today. Egyptian hieroglyphs could be seen as an early form of comics, using long strips of symbols and drawings to tell stories.

Weighing of the heart by Osiris, god of the Egyptian Underworld.

Weighing of the heart by Osiris, god of the Egyptian Underworld.

One of the most impressive early attempts to tell a story through graphic representation is the Trajan’s column in Rome. Almost like an epic comic strip, the bas relief runs along the 30m (98ft) high column celebrating the emperor’s victory in the Dacian Wars. If that seems a little over the top, it’s worth remembering that using images was a way to ensure that everyone could access the information, even illiterate sections of the population. It is for this very reason that Bibles were often illustrated during the Middle Ages.

The Apocalypse: antichrist has Enoch and Elijah beheaded.

The Apocalypse: antichrist has Enoch and Elijah beheaded.

Until the first widespread use of photography in 1839 (thanks to Louis Daguerre), drawings and sketches were the common way to document events and research. In the world of medicine and science it’s important to mention the anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. The high status of the artist allowed him to conduct dissections in Renaissance Italy at a time when it was still highly controversial. From his studies of anatomy he produced over 200 detailed drawings, including the first scientific drawing of a foetus in utero. Despite the astonishing progress of technology and medical imagery, da Vinci’s drawings are still used today to teach medicine and anatomy thanks to their accuracy and level of detail.

Leonardo da Vinci the anatomist .

Leonardo da Vinci the anatomist .

Drawings and paintings also helped document the outbreak and development of major infectious diseases in a time before photography. Physicians and anatomists made accurate drawings and sketches of patients to map the exact appearance and development of diseases. An astonishing compilation of medical drawings covering cancer, smallpox and venereal diseases, to name a few, can be found in Richard Barnett’s recent publication, The Sick Rose.

Early pustules of smallpox.

Early pustules of smallpox.

Drawings and illustrations have been used as a tool to quickly and easily spread news and ideas for a long time. The Illustrated Police News in London, for instance, was one of the first British tabloids launched in 1842. The journal made great use of drawings and sketches to report domestic violence and social crimes. It encountered a large success for its coverage of Jack the Ripper’s murders which traumatised the whole of London in 1888. You can see a copy of the Illustrated Police News on display at the British Library in the brilliant Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition (on until 19 August).

Although it might make us smile today to see such important news reported in comic form, sketches are still crucial for police investigations despite the huge advancement in forensics science. Forensic sketch artists help to identify suspects by interviewing eyewitnesses and victims and reconstructing a crime scene from the evidence. Reporting bad news using comics and cartoons can make it more bearable to hear and, rightly or wrongly, distance readers to the topic.

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Cartoons and comics are also used to talk about sensitive and taboo subjects such as sexual orientation or sexually transmitted diseases. It’s not uncommon to find leaflets illustrated with cartoons in hospitals all over the UK explaining aspects of diseases and treatments to patients, especially children. Public health posters and pamphlets are common too: the high profile of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s alone led to thousands of posters being produced. The Wellcome Library’s collection of over 3000 AIDS posters reflects the importance of illustration in health education, as well as the evolution of both style and content over time as attitudes towards HIV/AIDS began to change.

A personified penis wearing a condom in bed.

A personified penis wearing a condom in bed.

Scientific publications also use comics to share their theories, including the Science Tales books by Darryl Cunningham and Graphic Medicine. We also recommend you check out Helix, a digital comic book story about DNA, its history, discovery and evolution, and what the future of DNA brings.

At Wellcome Collection we have been enjoying using illustration as a means to engage with our followers for almost a year now, thanks to the very talented Rob Bidder. Rob draws your stories and confessions every fortnight in our Medicine Now gallery for #CuriousConversations as well as in our Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

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Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Colliding Worlds 7: The future

Wellcome Collection recently hosted Colliding Worlds, an event exploring the extraordinary research of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, in the thought-provoking context of a conversation with curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. From astronomy and ecological disaster to science fiction and advice to young scientists, watch the exchange below. 

We’re also publishing excerpts of the conversations that led to this event in a seven-part series. In our final Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich speaks to Martin about the future and asks him what advice he’d give to a young astrophysicist.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

We know a lot about architects’ unrealised projects but we know very little about scientists unrealised projects. Do you have unrealised projects, dreams, projects which have been too big to be realised, unwritten books you want to read, to write?

Martin Rees

Obviously the most exciting things to happen in the next 25 years will be new concepts that no one’s thought of yet. It’s the unpredictable part that will be most exciting, but nonetheless there are many areas of science and technology where there is a big gap between what we would like to be able to do and what we can afford to do.

One can see this in any science where we’d like to have much bigger and more sensitive experiments than we can afford. And in technology we would like to proceed faster with new transport systems, with space exploration and so forth – but the gap between what can be done and what actually happens is going to get wider.

Manned spaceflight is one example of this. Between 1957 when the first Sputnik went up and 1969 when Neil Armstrong made his ‘one small step’ on the moon, developments was extremely rapid. Had that pace been sustained there’d be footprints on Mars long before today. But the impetus was lost because the original motive had been politics – superpower rivalry — not science. Another example is supersonic flight, We once had Concorde. But there was no social need and no economic demand, so it went the way of the dinosaurs. Of course, if you are an architect then there are certainly many buildings you would like to design, many cities which your’s like to improve or build anew. But you have to accept that there’s no realistic prospect of that happening in one’s lifetime. There’s always a big gap between aspirations and achievements – between reach and grasp. And of course that’s a good thing because otherwise we wouldn’t be driven onwards.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Maybe very last question would be Rainer Rilke wrote this wonderful little book which is an advice to a young poet, what will in 2014 be your advice to a young scientist or to a young astrophysicist.

Martin Rees

I think it’s important in science to enter a field where new things are happening — either new observations or new experiments or new techniques or instruments — because if that’s not happening then you will be trying to solve the problems that the previous generation failed to solve. And if you’re not cleverer than them you won’t succeed. So it’s best to pick on a subject where you will get a chance to apply techniques or analyse data that the older guys never had a chance to. So you don’t have to be cleverer than them to make an impact. Also, you must pick a topic matched to your talents – not trivial, but not too hard either. Obviously there’s a temptation to work on one of the most important problems — the origin of life or a unified theory of physics, for instance. As the great Peter Medawar reminded us, scientists who fail to solve problems beyond their competence earn, at best, ‘the kindly contempt reserved for utopian politicians’ — and they won’t get much satisfaction. But what you should do multiply the importance of a problem by the probability that you will solve it and maximize that product.

Be sure to read the rest of the series.

Colliding Worlds 6: A fair inheritance

Wellcome Collection recently hosted Colliding Worlds, an event exploring the extraordinary research of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, in the thought-provoking context of a conversation with curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. From astronomy and ecological disaster to science fiction and advice to young scientists, watch the exchange below. 

We’re also publishing excerpts of the conversations that led to this event in a seven-part series. In our sixth Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich asks Martin how science can help to provide a fair inheritance to future generations.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

You conclude your book From Here to Infinity by saying “In today’s runaway world, we can’t aspire to leave a monument lasting a thousand years, but it would surely be shameful if we persisted in policies that denied future generations a fair inheritance.” You were President of The Royal Society until a few years ago, what do you think is that institution’s role in providing future generations “a fair inheritance”.

Martin Rees

I think science is clearly going to be an important part of the solution to most social problems. To address must of this century’s challenges, we need to think internationally and also to think long-term. But that is a problem for most politicians, for whom the urgent always trumps the long-term and the parochial always trumps the global. Politicians want to please their own electors — and please them before the next election.

This is a structural problem with all attempts to address the most serious problems —providing food and energy for the world and controlling technology. I think scientists make special contribution because science and technology are crucial to meeting these challenges, and they are more far-sighted than the average person in forseeing the implications of their work. Their crystal ball is still, however, very cloudy!

Also science is the one truly global culture. As I say in my book, protons and proteins are the same all over the world and everyone looks up at the same sky wherever they are in the world, it’s universal. Scientists have a tradition of transcending political barriers – even in the depths of the Cold War there was strong and often benign contact between the physicists in the Soviet Union and in the West – so scientists are a special international community, and this perhaps gives them a special opportunity and a special commitment to doing what they can to address these problems.

It’s crucially important that we are prepared to think in a longer-term because issues like transforming to a low-carbon economy, and feeding nine billion people sustainably will depend on science. But it will take more than 50 years to achieve these goals – to transform our infrastructure — and we need to think that far ahead. And we need to care about the long-term future. We’ve got to avoid any discrimination on grounds of date of birth: we should surely value the welfare of someone born today just as much as the welfare of someone who’s now aged 50. That means we need to take precautions to ensure that lifestyles in the later part of this century will be sustainable. We are not doing this enough. It’s sad that even though we have much broader horizons in both space and time than our ancestors did, and we don’t have such immediate hazards to face, we are reluctant to plan very far ahead.

There’s, somewhat ironically, only one context where people think a long way ahead and that’s in deciding how to dispose safely of radioactive waste, when they talk seriously about whether it will be in a repository that is safe for ten thousand years. But they won’t think seriously about how we are going to keep the lights on fifty years from now or whether we will avoid causing dangerous climate change. Scientists can perhaps be more activist in campaigning to ensure that these long-term global issues don’t fall too low on the agenda.

However, scientists have to be modest. They’ve got to realise that all these political questions have a scientific dimension but they are not just scientific. They have to discuss these questions in terms of economics and ethics and politics as well, and in those arenas scientists have no special expertise. So what we need is socially engaged scientists who are prepared to raise public consciousness of long-term issues and who are prepared to engage with the public and the politicians. We all want to ensure that we navigate the century safely – but it’s going to be a bumpy ride because of the unpredictability of new technology.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

A cat among the collection

In honour of #MuseumCats (head over to Culture Themes to find out more), we’re taking a look through Wellcome Collection’s clowder of cat-related material: from scientific accounts to historical satire; from safe sex posters to Henry Wellcome’s very own felines. Follow us on Twitter for a cornucopia of kitty caboodle. Meanwhile, Russell Dornan tells us about some of the ways cats are represented in our collection.

A cat running. Photogravure after Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.

Henry’s Cats

It seems fitting to start this post with the very cats owned by Sir Henry Wellcome, especially as they had a mansion all to themselves next to Regent’s Park in London. Although he didn’t live with them all the time (preferring to stay in a hotel in Portland Place) he was an attentive owner who recognised his cat’s very particular needs.

Henry Wellcome's cat, Pip, with one of her kittens.

Henry Wellcome’s cat, Pip, with one of her kittens.

As an “archetypal cat owner, with the eccentricities to match”, Wellcome made sure Pip and his other cats were well looked after whether he was there or not. He left detailed instructions and all the relevant phone numbers or addresses their caretaker might need. Read more about Wellcome’s pampered pets in the Wellcome Library’s post.

An example of Henry Wellcome’s holiday care instructions for those looking after his cats.

An example of Henry Wellcome’s holiday care instructions for those looking after his cats.

In the wider collection, cats are represented in many guises and for many different reasons. This post aims to give you a taste of these and to illustrate the variety of ways cats have been portrayed across our collections. We’ll be sharing more of these on Twitter.

Black Cats

Depending on where you are in the world, a black cat may still inspire a superstitious reaction (both good and bad). In Japan black cats are considered lucky; this is the case in Scotland, where they also symobolise prosperity. In the rest of the UK and some parts of Europe, black cats are deemed lucky if they cross your path from left to right; however, beware if they pass from right to left as this is a terrible omen. Others took it even further, saying that a black cat walking towards or away from you, or entering and then leaving a ship all carried their own meanings.

Some British soldiers used black cat amulets as good luck charms during the First World War as they were considered by some to provide good luck and protection against illness and danger. Many soldiers were based on the Western Front, where conditions in the trenches could seem hopeless. The men had seen friends killed in action, been close to death themselves and felt they had little control over their survival. Spanish soldiers in the late 1800s wore more literal amulets with the inscription ‘Détente, bala!’ – ‘Stop, bullet!’

This black cat amulet was carried for protection and good luck by a British soldier during the First World War.

This black cat amulet was said to have been carried for protection and good luck by a British soldier fighting during the First World War.

Paper amulet in the shape of a black cat. England, 1914-1918.

Paper amulet in the shape of a black cat. England, 1914-1918.

Witchcraft

For USA Today, the aptly named feline geneticist, Dr Leslie Lyons, says “I think most superstitions about cats came from people’s fear of them. They’re uncanny animals. They’re aloof, but then they suddenly appear and startle people. They’re also great climbers and can jump three or four or five times their own heights. It’s surprising and maybe frightening for people to see them on the ground and then suddenly up on the wall. Also their eyeshine is interesting and strange – their eyes have a reflective layer that is dramatic in darkness.”

Is their sometimes unsettling presence to blame for cats being seen as or linked to unholy creatures? One theory for the strong historical dislike towards black cats and, subsequently, cats in general is their association with witches and witchcraft. Black cats were thought to be the familiars of witches or cunning-folk, assisting them in their practice of magic and were often killed as a result. It has been said that simply owning a black cat was an offence punishable by assault or even death.

Big black cats howl as naked witches ascend into the night, by T.A. Steinlen.

Big black cats howl as naked witches ascend into the night, by T.A. Steinlen.

In around 1232, Pope Gregory IX supposedly issued the Vox in Rama condemning a form of devil worshipping. Part of the ritual described included the worship of a diabolical black cat known as the “master”, leading to the vilification of black cats across Western Europe for centuries. Although the Pope may not have directly condemned black cats nor ordered their extermination, claiming they were used in devil-worshipping rituals may have led some people to fear and kill them.

Whatever the reason for their persecution, some argue that the massacre of cats across Europe in the Middle Ages played a big part in the Black Death: with a dramatically reduced population of mousers, rats carrying the infected fleas were able to spread further and faster, rendering the plague even more catastrophic. It is still unclear whether or not the Black Death was spread by fleas via rats or whether it was spread from person to person (or a combination of both). Either way, it’s an interesting thought.

Science

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is a book by Charles Darwin, published in 1872. In this book, Darwin looks at the animal origins of physical human characteristics when displaying emotions. It is also an important landmark in book illustration. Several of the plates in the book feature cats exhibiting various behavioural responses, such as “terror” or “affection”:

“We will now turn to the cat. When this animal is threatened by a dog, it arches its back in a surprising manner, erects its hair, opens its mouth and spits. But we are not here concerned with this well-known attitude, expressive of terror combined with anger…”

Illustration of cat terrified at a dog from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

Illustration  from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

“Let us now look at a cat in a directly opposite frame of mind, whilst feeling affectionate and caressing her master; and mark how opposite is her attitude in every respect. She now stands upright with her back slightly arched, which makes the hair appear rather rough, but it does not bristle; her tail, instead of being extended and lashed from side to side, is held quite stiff and perpendicularly upwards; her ears are erect and pointed; her mouth is closed; and she rubs against her master with a purr instead of a growl.”

Illustration from The Expression of the  Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

Illustration from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

Cats also featured in the studies of Eadweard James Muybridge (1830 – 1904). Muybridge was an English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion and early work in motion-picture projection. His work contributed substantially to developments in biomechanics and is still used as a reference by artists, animators and students of animal and human movement.

A cat running by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.

A cat running by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.

An animated version f Muybridge's cat photographs.

An animated version of Muybridge’s cat photographs.

The extensively illustrated and rather large book of osteology, Osteographia, by William Cheselden (1688 – 1752) was published in London in 1733 and features life-like skeletal poses of  animals alongside the illustrations of human bones and skeletons. A landmark in anatomical illustration, Cheselden chose the poses of the skeletons himself and was involved in every stage of its production. Read more about this extraordinary work and the man responsible for it over at The Public Domain Review.

The skeletal structure of a cat shown in fright and a dog in attack mode. Osteographia by William Cheselden, 1733.

The skeletal structure of a cat shown in fright and a dog in attack mode. Osteographia by William Cheselden, 1733.

For more awesome cats from museum collections all over the world, follow the conversation on Twitter where we’ll be sharing more from our collection too. And for suggestions of the best cats in art history check out this list and see if you agree.

Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection and has a black cat called Kubrick (below).

Colliding Worlds 5: Unrealised science

Wellcome Collection recently hosted Colliding Worlds, an event exploring the extraordinary research of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, in the thought-provoking context of a conversation with curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. From astronomy and ecological disaster to science fiction and advice to young scientists, watch the exchange below. 

We’re also publishing excerpts of the conversations that led to this event in a seven-part series. In our fifth Colliding Worlds post, Martin tells Hans Ulrich about the unrealised projects of science and the importance of scientific citizens.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

You’ve mentioned that there are two big unrealised projects, not only in your work but in contemporary science in general. Could you tell me about them and how you see them unfolding in the 21st Century?

Martin Rees

The first is an attempt to unify the physics of the very small, the quantum world, with the physics of the very large — the domain where Einstein’s theory of gravity holds sway.

Normally we get on very well without this unification because if you’re a chemist you have to apply quantum theory but you don’t need to worry about the gravitational force between two atoms in a molecule because it’s very small. On the other hand if you are an astronomer you need to consider gravity but you don’t need to worry about the quantum fuzziness in the orbits of stars and planets because that effect is tiny because the masses are so large. But to really understand the beginning of the universe, a time when the entire universe was squeezed to microscopic size, clearly we need a theory that can relate gravity to quantum effects, a so-called unified theory. Until we have such a theory we won’t really be able to understand why the universe is expanding the way it is and why it’s got the properties and ‘mix’of ingredients that it has.

But there’s one very important point that some ‘popular’ writers overlook. Even if we some day discover this unified theory, it won’t be any direct help at all to 99% of scientists because they’re are engaged with studying very complicated things — things that are neither very small nor very large but which have layer upon layer of structure, in particular living organisms. Of course we humans are the most complicated things we know about in the universe, and it’s an unending challenge to understand that complexity. So it really is the biologists who face the toughest challenge – not particle physicists, not astronomers.

A familiar analogy I’d like to give is with a game of chess. Suppose you’d never seen a game of chess being played before. By watching people play you could figure out what the rules are – that the knight moves in a jagged way, bishops move diagonally and so on. But learning how the pieces move in chess is just a trivial preliminary to the absorbing progression from being a novice to being a grand master. By analogy, learning the basic laws of physics is like knowing the rules by which matter and forces interact. But even when you understand those rules fully, even when we have a unified theory, that’s still just the beginning of understanding how those rules play out in the complex world of living things and the environment that we humans inhabit. So the biggest challenge of all is to understand complexity.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

In your book From Here To Infinity, you talk about the scientific citizen and about the necessity of collaboration between lay people and scientists. It’s interesting, at the moment we are working on a solar airplane project with the artists Sehgal and Eliasson and the Danish solar technology by Ottesen and only this one problem needs a combination of aerodynamics, of design, of solar technology; of inventors, of artists. I suppose for all big questions of the 21st Century, it needs a bringing together or a pooling of disciplines, a pooling of knowledge.

Martin Rees

To address many of the challenges, both intellectual challenges and practical challenges, we need to combine the expertise of different branches of science. One of the occupational risks of scientists is that they become so sharply focused on one particular topic that they don’t realise it is part of some bigger picture. We often need broad interdisciplinary attitudes and collaboration.

Something that ‘s extremely encouraging is a consequence of the computer revolution. It has done two things. First, it has allowed us to do simulations, virtual experiments in the virtual world of a computer, which can supplement real experiments. Aeronautical engineers can now compute the flow of air over an aerofoil without necessarily having to do an actual experiment in a wind tunnel. Astronomers of course can’t do experiments on stars and galaxies in the real universe, and therefore benefit hugely from doing ‘experiments’ in the virtual world of computer simulations.

Another by-product of the information technology age is the internet, which has allowed far more people to participate in science. Before the internet there were a few sciences, like botany, where amateurs could make a contribution. But now anyone with a computer and access to the internet can download huge data sets in astronomy, in environmental science or in microbiology; they can analyse the data and look for patterns themselves. This mass effort by amateurs will surely speed up the development of science, and that’s necessary because the rate at which the information is being gathered is getting so large that the few professionals can’t handle it all.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.