From a distance, the dense river of insects surging up the walls and ceilings of Wollaton Hall is pretty creepy. But take just a few steps closer, and you’ll be rewarded with an astonishing surprise: the swarm is comprised entirely of ceramic bugs, each hand-made and unique. The thousands of pieces are an installation by artist Anna Collette Hunt, who draws on natural history and fairy tales to create her gorgeous, unsettling environments.
“Stirring the Swarm” began in 2012, when Hunt was invited to create a solo exhibition in the Nottingham Natural History Museum, which occupies a former manor house in Nottingham, England. Hunt tells mental_floss that, at first, the idea was a bit overwhelming. “It was such a large space,” she said, “and I didn’t even have a kiln or a studio!”
Casting about for inspiration, Hunt took a behind-the-scenes tour with the museum’s curator of taxidermy. “She took me around this labyrinth that is their collections warehouse,” Hunt says. “We had to squeeze past headless or damaged taxidermy animals, and all the specimens had plastic bags over their heads. There were jam jars of noses and a drawer of glass eyes.” The overall effect was unnerving.
After the tour, Hunt continued to the entomology room where she had what she describes as a peculiar sort of daydream. “It was late afternoon and the golden sunlight was flickering on the entomology cabinets—and it looked as if the pin-speared specimens were waking up! And this wondrous idea flooded into my mind, the tale of a entomology collection waking up, and smashing out of their time capsules and soaring off into the night.”
Hunt began to draw strange, hybrid insects, all with butterfly wings. She consulted an entomologist, who helped her create Latin names for each imaginary species. Hunt created models and molds of each species, and a team of assistants helped her cast and glaze them. Because Hunt envisioned the insects as native to the museum, she chose colors from the manor’s interior and even transferred some of the building’s wallpaper into their wings.
Hunt didn't forget the way she felt while looking at the museum's stuffed animals. She also recognizes their value. “The thought of the act of killing in this way makes me feel ill,” she says, “and I’ve had to reflect greatly on this, as I use museum collections for lots of my research. It’s too late [for these animals], but transforming them into exhibits at museums seems like the correct honor for their sacrifice. I think the museum specimens are treated with respect and can bring joy and knowledge to thousands."
As a tribute to the real insects pinned to boards in entomology collections around the world, Hunt added a trickle of gold to some of her insects’ bodies.
The exhibition ultimately comprised more than 10,000 insects, bursting from glass cases, climbing the walls, and clinging to the ceiling. After the show closed, Hunt took several thousand bugs on the road for a touring show. The rest remained in Wollaton Hall as a permanent display to startle and amaze museum-goers for years to come. Hunt’s studio is still producing bugs and sells them in an online shop.
Although her work in the museum is complete, Hunt’s passion for natural history burns on. “I have so much … wonder for this world,” she says. “The soil, the sea, the stars, and our expanding universe. The biodiversity of animals and plants, fungi, moss—our world is just a miracle, and I am awestruck.”
All images courtesy of Anna Collette Hunt