Sir David Attenborough's giant elephant bird egg features in new Museum of Zoology exhibition

The Breaking Point exhibition features artwork by Elspeth Owen, Mella Shaw and Jayne Ivimey.

The University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology's new Breaking Point exhibition features artwork by Elspeth Owen, Mella Shaw and Jayne Ivimey. - Credit: Elspeth Owen, Sophie Mutevelian, Jayne Ivimey.

An original giant elephant bird egg belonging to Sir David Attenborough forms part of a new exhibition launching next month in Cambridge.

The University Museum of Zoology's latest exhibition features artworks from three artists plus the enormous egg from the extinct elephant bird, on loan from broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. 

HARVEST by Mella Shaw.

HARVEST by Mella Shaw forms part of the summer exhibition Breaking Point at the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge. - Credit: Andrew Norman

The summer exhibition – entitled Breaking Point – explores the fragile nature of the world through a series of artworks made from a material that is also fragile: ceramics.

Three artists – Elspeth Owen, Jayne Ivimey and Mella Shaw – will be exhibiting their work, all inspired by the natural world, among the museum’s skeletons, preserved animals and taxidermy specimens.

All three have a strong interest in the environmental movement and create ceramics that seek to engage, provoke and stimulate discussion about our relationship with nature and our impacts on it.

Jack Ashby, the museum’s assistant director and one of the exhibition’s curators, said: “Our natural history collections tell the story of hundreds of years of environmental change, and the artworks in our Breaking Point exhibition do the same thing in a different way, using a naturally fragile material.

"Putting this exhibition together with these three incredible, thoughtful artists, and our colleagues in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, has allowed us to use the fragility of fired clay to explore ecological decline, ecosystem collapse and environmental change and uncertainty – some of the biggest challenges the world is facing right now.

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"Placing the sculptures in and amongst our own animal specimens really heightens this point.”

One of the artworks – by Cambridge-based Elspeth Owen – is a large clay egg which will be displayed together with Sir David Attenborough's elephant bird egg.

Making-Do by Elspeth Owen.

Making-Do by Elspeth Owen. - Credit: Elspeth Owen

The elephant bird egg was rebuilt by Sir David Attenborough from scattered fragments of shell found while he was filming BBC’s Zoo Quest to Madagascar in 1961.

The species was among the largest birds to have ever lived, reaching around three metres tall and weighing up to 450kg – more than triple the weight of a large ostrich. They were driven to extinction by the end of the 1600s.

Here is a video of Sir David Attenborough rebuilding the egg in the exhibition.

With a long-established studio in Grantchester, Owen has scattered the shards of a second ceramic 'egg' through the museum’s displays, as a reminder of how easily everything breaks, and how often there is a chance rebuild and mend.

Making-Do by Elspeth Owen.

Making-Do by Elspeth Owen. - Credit: Elspeth Owen

Jayne Ivimey has sculpted the 67 species of British birds which now make up the county’s 'Red List' of threatened birds.

These are birds that have suffered a severe decline of at least 50 per cent in the breeding population and at least 50 per cent reduction of the UK breeding range.

Red List 9 by Jayne Ivimey

Red List by Jayne Ivimey. - Credit: Jayne Ivimey

Ivimey’s ceramic birds replicate the delicate specimens of bird skins in museum collections and will be displayed alongside them.

Mella Shaw’s installation, titled HARVEST, explores the impact that single-use plastics are having on our oceans.

She has formed dozens of fish and 'plastic' containers out of clay, highlighting that without drastic change, by 2050 there is predicted to be a greater weight of plastic in the oceans than fish.

HARVEST by Mella Shaw.

HARVEST by Mella Shaw. - Credit: Sophie Mutevelian

Clay has been used to produce disposable items for millennia. Made of terra cotta – literally 'baked earth' – when discarded it is naturally biodegradable.

By contrast, the production of single-use, disposable materials which are not degradable is having a devastating effect on our planet.

HARVEST by Mella Shaw.

HARVEST by Mella Shaw. - Credit: Sophie Mutevelian

The exhibition is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and was created in partnership with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI). 

CCI’s John Fanshawe, who co-curated the exhibition, said: "Working closely with our friends at the Museum of Zoology always provides an opportunity to innovate and discover new ways of exploring links between nature, conservations and the arts.  

"Encountering work made by contemporary artists in and around the museum displays throws a different light on the collections, and on the artworks, and creates new ways of seeing both.  

"Conservation scientists and artists share a deep concern for nature, and clay, as a malleable natural material that fires to hard form provides a perfect medium through which to reflect on form and function, on breakage, recycling, and loss, as our contributing ceramicists have demonstrated so wonderfully.”

Breaking Point: Fragility in clay and nature runs from July 7 to October 3, 2021.

Red List 7 by Jayne Ivimey.

Red List by Jayne Ivimey. - Credit: Jayne Ivimey

The exhibition is located throughout the museum and entry is free. For latest opening hours, visit www.museum.zoo.cam.ac.uk/visit-us


When is the Museum of Zoology open?

From July 20, 2021, the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge will be open Tuesday to Sunday (provided government restrictions allow).

No pre-booking or ticket will be required. For up-to-date opening hours, visit www.museum.zoo.cam.ac.uk/visit-us

Until July 20, the museum is open three days per week – Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Entry is free via a timed ticketed system.


About the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge

The museum holds over two million specimens, including giants such as whales, elephants, giraffe, an ice age giant ground sloth, as well as many insects, birds, fish, molluscs and corals. 

Some specimens have been collected by Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle voyage and the museum also displays one of the world’s most complete dodo skeletons. 

A major new British Bird Gallery opened in February 2020, displaying over 200 species of British birds, each of them displayed amongst their natural habitat.  

The Museum of Zoology had reopened its doors in 2018, after a five year, £4.1 million redevelopment – including almost £2 million of funding raised by National Lottery players.

For more, visit www.museum.zoo.cam.ac.uk


Red List 8 by Jayne Ivimey

Red List by Jayne Ivimey. - Credit: Jayne Ivimey

Red List 11 by Jayne Ivimey

Red List by Jayne Ivimey. - Credit: Jayne Ivimey

Red List 10 by Jayne Ivimey

Red List by Jayne Ivimey - Credit: Jayne Ivimey


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