Change of Perspective: Interview on the exhibition “All of Nature”

The exhibition deals with the question of the extent to which we can meaningfully order our ideas about nature and represent them as images. Photo: Collage with images from the exhibition © UE students


Can nature be captured as a whole? How does evolution fit on a sheet of paper? These are the questions that exhibition organisers from the Museum der Natur Hamburg, together with researchers and students from the University of Hamburg, have explored for the special exhibition “All of Nature”.

On 29 November 2022, the exhibition opens with many reproductions of historical and current maps, with pictures and diagrams from Europe and integrated exhibits from the permanent zoological exhibition at the Museum der Natur Hamburg. In an interview, exhibition organiser Anne Merker from the Museum der Natur Hamburg of the Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change (LIB), art historian Prof. Dr. Frank Fehrenbach and science historian Dr. Dominik Hünniger, both from the University of Hamburg, reflect on the interface between scientific and artistic representations of nature from different perspectives.

Who should definitely see the exhibition?

  • Anne Merker
    The exhibition is not only aimed at people interested in nature, but at everyone who is curious and wants to look at nature, art and the history of science from a different perspective. We work with many pictorial representations from the fields of biology, natural history, geography and art, and visitors are invited to detect similarities and changes in the representations. They can playfully order nature in their own way and find details in the big picture. Above all, the exhibition is meant to inspire further thinking. At the end of the exhibition, everyone has the opportunity to pass on their very own view of “All of Nature”.

Art history students were involved in selecting the exhibits for the exhibition – were there any surprises for you here?

  • Prof. Dr. Frank Fehrenbach
    I was positively surprised by the impartiality with which art history students dealt with decidedly “non-artistic” images, for example the plaque that accompanied the Pioneer space mission or the diagrammatic representation of the Earth’s ages. Here, following modern image science, there really seems to be little fear of contact any more.

What criteria do we use to classify the diversity of nature?

  • Dr. Dominik Hünniger
    The criteria are and were as diverse as nature and people themselves. The exciting thing is to find out what people at certain times and in certain places intended with the order they chose in each case? What does this say about their relationship to nature, diversity and people’s place in it? We explore these questions in the exhibition and want to encourage people to discover the mechanisms and ideas behind the orders.

And to what extent do we humans manage to order our ideas about nature in representations? Where do we reach our limits?

  • Prof. Dr. Frank Fehrenbach
    Pictorial representations allowed us early on not only to record what we saw, but also to fix relationships between bodies on the surface, for example in the 40,000-year-old first cave paintings associated with hunting. As soon as these pictures operated with fixed frames – which came much later – they became a “tableau” that promised a high degree of order. At the same time, tensions and hierarchies, i.e. dynamics between the things of nature, can be illustrated in the limited picture field. It becomes more difficult when pictures are to depict temporal progressions or developments. But there are very interesting solutions that deal productively with our visual expectations. On the other hand, when it comes to depicting “All of Nature”, pictures always help us to realise what has to remain “outside”. Paradoxically, the limits of images also indicate their ability to draw attention to the other and the unlimited.

What approaches are there in the modern natural sciences to represent nature as a whole? Have the forms of representation changed?

Anne Merker
Forms such as lists, tree diagrams and maps are still used today to visualise connections in nature. Like the Tree of Life in our exhibition, there are many approaches to uniting all known life in one diagram to investigate the development of life and to describe the relationships between living and extinct organisms. However, our scientific and technical methods, as well as the amount of research data generated, have expanded enormously. Ever faster computers process huge amounts of data and complex natural phenomena can be simulated and digitally visualised in three dimensions.

Why has the tree been used as an organising form for centuries?

  • Dr Dominik Hünniger
    The tree was mainly used to represent kinship relations. In Europe, this tradition comes from feudalism. Nobles had to be able to prove that they and their descendants were entitled to rule because they were descended from certain families. The word descent also contains the word trunk. The tree, its trunk, roots and branching branches were appropriate word and image comparisons for relationships.

There has always been a correlation between nature and art, natural science and artistic representation. To what extent does art help to explain the inexplicable beyond mere representation?

  • Prof. Dr. Frank Fehrenbach
    A distinction between pictorial representations and art, as difficult as it is to determine, may help here. In the discussion of nature, also in the scientific discussion, pictures offer the advantage of taking a look at many details at the same time, of creating an overview.
    In addition, diagrammatic images in particular enable the spontaneous, insightful depiction of relationships between different data, bodies, elements, etc. Artistic representations are characterised by the fact that something in them resists the pure “conveyance of information”. They are ambiguous, enigmatic, often refer to their being made, even to other images. (Think of Rembrandt’s “Alchemists” in the exhibition.) In this way, they fire the imagination of the viewer much more strongly, also of natural scientists.
    One of the concerns of our exhibition is to show how the “artistic” always intrudes even in apparently purely factually oriented diagrammatic representations. This can be seen in the multitude of creative decisions that form the basis of every representation, i.e. the distribution on the surface, the drawing of boundaries, the use of colour (or lack thereof), the thickness of the lines, the directionality. But the “artistic” is also evident in the conventions of representation that apply to each period – and the multitude of innovative graphic solutions that break through these conventions.

What are the essential caesuras in the representation of the whole of nature? Does digitalisation help us to gain a better overview today?

  • Dr. Dominik Hünniger
    In our exhibition, we mainly try to show the continuities. When you look at pictures comparatively, the first thing you notice are many similarities and traditions that have endured for a long time. Perhaps what changes most frequently are the techniques of representation and the altered possibilities that have arisen through the use of new media and new modes of production. The opportunity that digitised objects, texts and images offer us is to take new perspectives. Through enlargements and direct comparisons, we notice details that we cannot discover with the naked eye. Basically, however, this is not entirely new either. Magnifiers or magnifying glasses and the like have long been instruments used in both the production and viewing of images.

How can a museum depict “All of Nature”?

  • Anne Merker
    Natural history museums depict nature and its interrelationships in three-dimensional space. Like pictures and diagrams, museums are limited in their representation. Curators make a selection and set regional and thematic priorities. In order to convey the contents in a vivid way, museums also resort to scientific abstractions such as tree diagrams, circles or maps. Unlike static images, however, museums can interact with visitors beyond mere observation: They are places of learning and participation, an interface between research and visitors.


The exhibition

The exhibition “All of Nature – Forces, Order, Limits” (30.11.22-27.8.23) was created as part of the activities of the DFG Research Group “Imaginaries of Force” at the University of Hamburg in cooperation with the Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change (LIB). Students from the University of Hamburg prepared the content of the exhibition in two seminars and supported the choice of exhibition objects. Part of the special exhibition are interventions in the permanent zoological exhibition of the Museum der Natur Hamburg.

More information HERE


  • Prof. Dr. Frank Fehrenbach, University of Hamburg, Department of Art History, Co-spokesperson of the DFG Research Group “Imaginaries of Force”, Tel.: +49 40 42838 1325; e-mail:
  • Dr. Dominik Hünniger, University of Hamburg, Research Fellow of the DFG Research Group “Imaginaries of Force”, Tel.: +49 40 42838-4988; e-mail: DOMINIK.HUENNIGER@UNI-HAMBURG.DE
  • Anne Merker, Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change (LIB)/ Museum der Natur Hamburg, exhibition conception, Tel: +49 40 238317-926; e-mail: A.MERKER@LEIBNIZ-LIB.DE


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