Animal Imagery and Meaning – Implications for Conservation
Posted on December 15, 2011
Paper presented at:
Reading Nature: Cultural Perspectives on Environmental Imagery
Universitad Complutense Madrid
Abstract (download published paper here)
In a modern, urban culture, animal representations are central to the development of human-animal relationships. This paper examines the role of artistic approaches to animal representation in changing people’s perceptions about animals and creating a culture that is sympathetic to conservation efforts. We question the effectiveness of traditional approaches to animal and ‘wildlife’ representations as conservation tools suggesting that the current visual culture in conservation represents an outdated and counter-productive dichotomy of conflict between the Human and the Natural. We also challenge the widespread assumption that didactic communication of scientific and technical information represents a better way than the use of artistic approaches to enhance popular support for conservation efforts.
Our discussion is underpinned by empirical research in which we documented the changes in visitors’ perceptions of animals after viewing an exhibit of fine art photographic animal portraiture mounted at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Empirical methods have not previously been used to examine the impact of animal portraiture on animal meaning. Using a Personal Meaning Map, we found that visitors to the exhibit emerged with a substantially changed perception of ‘the animal’ and that feelings related to the need for conservation efforts were enhanced. The findings support our hypothesis that appropriate artistic approaches to animal representation can change perceptions of animals, have an influence on human-animal relations and enhance conservation efforts.
We argue that in a post-modern world, the visual, communication and educational cultures surrounding environmentalism and conservation should change from cultures that are dominated by scientism and didactic education to cultures that embrace free learning and are more attuned to the emotional and psychological drivers of people’s motivation to act. We also raise questions about the role of zoos and captive animals in creating animal-human relationships on which successful conservation efforts can be built.