Liz West splits white light in “Our Spectral Vision” into pulsing vertical prisms which change colour as the visitor moves around them, creating a wide variety of tones derived from the seven basic colours of the humans spectrum, noting that this is a human perspective – some animals see more; some see less.
“Colour and Vision” at the Natural History Museum charts the 565-million year journey through the eyes of 350 specimens from the Museum’s collections, ranging from fossils of the first organisms with eyes, 565 million years ago to beautiful birds, animals and landscapes of today.
Colour is artistic, protective, psychological and functional: human emotions are influenced by colour and there are good reasons why traffic lights are red, amber and green. Going back millennia, animals have not always had eyes enabling them to see colour, though many had photoreceptors which enabled them to discern light and dark. Life 565 million years ago was bland, monochrome and pretty boring. As animals developed, so did their eyes. A “Wall of Eyes” of 112 species of fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals shows the diversity of natural eyes, alongside a screen of changing human eyes from today.
Colour in peacocks, plants, butterflies, shells and hummingbirds are shimmering, glowing and bright, while animals have stripes, spots and changing colours to disguise and conceal them in the long jungle grasses or trees, enabling them to avoid predators. Danger in some animals like ladybirds and tarantulas is signalled by increasingly bright colours, rings and spots while different sexes have different colours for example in the diadem butterfly where the male is blue and the female is orange, and where generally the plainer sex is the one who choses their partner.
So much for animals, what about humans? Visitors are invited to place coloured markers against characteristics – predictably Danger is red and Masculinity is blue, while the exhibition ends with a multi-screen video showing different viewpoints against stunning photographs, including views from those who cannot visually see colour and have to use sound to understand colour.
A fascinating exhibition that provides an introduction to a large subject, and which should be seen before visiting other areas, in particularly the Geological Museum with brilliantly-coloured coral, minerals and stones.