Unlimited: Katie Walters responds to The Herbert's Daltry Collection

A box of moth sculptures lying open on a worktop next to real preserved moths from The Herbert's Daltry Collection

Over the last few months, we’ve been introducing the 10 local artists awarded micro-commissions as part of our Reform the Norm partnership with Unlimited.

In our latest guest blog, we’re getting to know Katie Walters – a performance poet and founder of disability arts organisation Radical Body, who has been experimenting with sculpture-making for their commission, inspired by a rarely seen collection at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

My initial project proposal for Reform the Norm was to spend some time exploring The Herbert’s natural history collection and create an artistic response to what I found there. So when I first applied I actually had no idea what I was going to make, or even what art form I’d be working with. I wanted to make something that was fully informed by the collection, so I didn’t want to make any decisions before I visited.

I was given a whistle stop tour of the collection to help me narrow down my ideas, and found a lot of amazing items in the stores. There’s a mummified cat, which I was very taken with, and dozens of beautiful bird specimens.

But after I visited the storeroom, I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to work with the Daltry Collection, which is just drawer after drawer of British moths, all beautifully preserved. It’s a big part of what makes The Herbert’s collection so special; it contains over 15,000 specimens of British moths and insects, and its scientific value is immense.

I feel very lucky to have seen them, because a condition of their donation to the museum was that they would never be publicly displayed, to maintain their scientific significance. Of course it’s really important to preserve that scientific value, but for me, there’s something very strange to me about the idea of all these moths and butterflies hidden away where nobody can see them, to try and make them last forever. Moths are so delicate, and they lead such short lives. Preserving them perfectly removes, I think, some of their inherent “mothness.” It turns them from animals into things.

I think that being temporary, dying and disintegrating is an important part of what makes a moth. I thought it would be interesting to turn that on its head and make a display of moths that are intended for the public to see, and which are ultimately intended to be broken.

The moths I have created are all based on real specimens that can be found in the collection and are as accurate to life as I could make them, including the size. While they are probably not as fragile as real moths, I intentionally made them fragile. Usually when visual art is displayed, there is a sign that tells you not to touch. But these moths would come with a sign that says feel free to touch. I made them for people to look at and touch and eventually destroy. I don’t feel that the piece is finished yet, and it won’t be until we can make that happen.

The Herbert has an amazing natural history collection, but people don’t necessarily know that because it’s thought of more as a space for art, so I thought it would be really interesting to use one to draw attention to the other, and to give people a chance to learn more about a quiet but important local collection.

I’ve always absolutely loved museums, and natural history collections in particular. Some of my earliest memories are of the blue whale sculpture in the Natural History Museum in London. Since I was a kid, I’ve been totally obsessed with that whale.

Last year I started doing some research on the sculpture, and I learned that it’s not at all scientifically accurate. It was built getting on for a century ago, and it was actually built at a time when we had no idea what a whale looked like when it was alive. We only ever saw them when they were beached or hunted, so the sculpture is based on that.

But even though it’s not a great representation of a blue whale, it’s an excellent representation of how humans saw whales at a specific moment in time. It got me thinking about how natural history collections can tell us as much about humans as they do about animals.

Part of the thinking behind this project was to consider how subjective museum displays can be. Usually museums try to present their natural history collections as objectively as possible. But of course, museum collections and displays are curated by people who have all sorts of unique personal perspectives, and intentionally or not, the decisions they make over what to display (or not display!) and how to display it, are going to be informed by those perspectives.

I don’t think that’s a problem; I think it’s actually really exciting! But I do think we need to be honest about it.

When we present the information in museums as fundamentally objective, members of the public lose some of their power to interpret things, to develop their own perspectives, and to respond emotionally to what they see. Natural history belongs to all of us, and I honestly believe that everybody has something of value to say about it, if they’re given the opportunity.

Making these sculptures has been a major departure from my usual practice in more ways than one. I work primarily as a poet and theatre-maker, and while I have been making visual arts as personal projects for my whole life, it’s not something I’ve ever done in a professional capacity before. Even with those personal projects, I’ve never really made sculptures, or worked much on a small scale.

It was also really refreshing with this project to be able to spend some time not thinking about disability. Most of what I do combines art and activism; it’s about “reforming the norm” for disabled people in the arts. I spend a lot of time pushing for change and making art about that. For example, with Radical Body, the company I co-founded in 2019, we’re trying hard to find ways of using livestreaming and telepresence technologies to create access to performance opportunities for people who struggle to leave the house.

That kind of work is really urgent and socially important, and I find it super-rewarding, but it’s also deeply personal and kind of exhausting. So for this project it was nice to return to some of my more high-concept and academic background, and to make something playful, which is reforming the norm by creatively challenging the status quo of public spaces like museums.

Ultimately my hope is that the sculptures I’ve created will be able to be displayed publicly somewhere where people can touch and interact with them. Sadly while there are still strict rules about sanitising surfaces and reducing unnecessary touching that’s not possible, but watch this space – maybe a few months down the line, you might be able to come and visit them!