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Looking at past habitats through a modern lens

A collection of more than 1,400 photographic plates, rediscovered in the Museum collections, has led to an innovative artistic collaboration with Museum scientists.

The plates document British plants and habitats between 1910 and 1935. They are a potentially unique resource for investigating environmental change over the past century.

'When I first found these slides we had no idea who they belonged to', says Museum curator Dr Mark Spencer. 'We now know that they belonged to EJ Salisbury, a botanist, ecologist and former director of Kew Gardens.'

The Museum invited visual artist Chrystel Lebas to collaborate with Kath Castillo, a field biologist at the Museum, to create modern-day comparisons. Together they tracked down and photographed the same habitats and plant communities that Salisbury recorded almost a century ago.

A record of change

One of the areas they focused on was Blakeney Point in East Anglia. Dr Spencer explains why it's important to monitor change here:

'Blakeney is an incredibly important site because of its shingle, sand dunes, salt marsh and mud flat communities. These are highly dynamic and come and go very quickly. Under climate change models they’re expected to change even more.'

Chrystel adds, 'Very early on I started using GPS coordinates to locate my images quite precisely, in case another person would be interested in revisiting them in 50 years' time and looking at the environmental changes as well.'

We hope you enjoyed this article…

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Every year, more people are reading our articles to learn about the challenges facing the natural world. Our future depends on nature, but we are not doing enough to protect our life support system.  

British wildlife is under threat. The animals and plants that make our island unique are facing a fight to survive. Hedgehog habitats are disappearing, porpoises are choking on plastic and ancient woodlands are being paved over. 

But if we don't look after nature, nature can't look after us. We must act on scientific evidence, we must act together, and we must act now.

Despite the mounting pressures, hope is not lost. Museum scientists are working hard to understand and fight against the threats facing British wildlife. 

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