Wild at Manchester Museum. An exhibition setting out to change the world.

Sea squirts and feather stars in Lamlash Bay_Copyright Howard Wood & COAST
Sea squirts and feather stars in Lamlash Bay © Howard Wood & COAST

David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Sciences at Manchester Museum introduces us to an exhibition setting out to change the world.

Manchester Museum’s next exhibition is one of the most significant in its 134-year history.

In fact, with Wild, we’re setting out to change the world. That might seem like a particularly lofty ambition, but we genuinely believe in its potential to empower meaningful action on one of the defining issues of our generation.

The story of biodiversity loss and climate change can be overwhelming, and the scale of the problem can often leave us feeling paralysed by a sense of powerlessness.

So Wild aims to provide hope and to instil everyone with the confidence they can make a difference, no matter how big or small. In that sense, it’s as relevant for a visiting family as it is researchers and policymakers.

It prompts us to notice nature and challenges our perceptions of it, providing examples of inspiring projects from across the globe that are bringing plants and animals back from near extinction, healing the land and giving people a hopeful and happy future.

Wild aims to provide hope and to instil everyone with the confidence they can make a difference, no matter how big or small.

Ultimately it asks what kind of world we want to live in and what we are willing to do to realise that vision.

Wild carries a weight of expectation on its shoulders. As only the second exhibition in the Museum’s new exhibition hall, opened last February, it follows on from Golden Mummies of Egypt, which really captured audiences’ imaginations throughout its run.

But Wild is also hugely significant because it says so much about who we are and what we are trying to achieve.

It speaks to both elements of the Museum’s mission to build understanding between cultures and a more sustainable world. By providing visitors with an opportunity to listen to diverse voices, from Aboriginal elders to researchers and community activists, it allows them to embrace new perspectives, to challenge their own and to better understand what action they might take to protect and renew the natural world.

In its early stages of development, Wild was an exhibition focused squarely on rewilding, an approach to conservation focused on letting nature look after itself, often involving the restoration of ecosystems to a point before human intervention. Rewilding is currently having a bit of a moment in the sun and there are a whole host of exciting stories about projects across the UK that are helping to transform landscapes and boost biodiversity.

NPS / Jacob W. Frank

However, it quickly became clear to us that Wild needed to be about much more than that, not least of all because wild means different things to different people and what works in one place may not work in another.

The process of pulling the exhibition together has been so hard because everyone you speak to has a brilliant example of their favourite wild place, their special childhood story or inspiring project where wildlife is bouncing back against the odds.

To make sense of all this we have chosen some of the most inspiring ways people are making the world more wild, from community action in Manchester, to The Knepp Rewilding Project in Sussex and cultural revegetation of previously colonial land in south-west Australia by the Noongar people.

The exhibition draws on our incredible natural history collections, showcasing a rich selection of plants and animals that bring these stories to life, from the near extinct Purple Emperor butterfly now thriving at Knepp to wolves that are now making a dramatic return to Yellowstone.

Rewilding is definitely still a central part of the exhibition, but we felt we could reach more people and make a difference to more lives by exploring wild in the broadest possible sense. That way, it speaks to people’s wellbeing, it speaks to the sheer sense of joy in feeding the birds or noticing beautiful plants that other people might dismiss as weeds.

We also wanted to challenge the notions people have developed about the natural world, whether through classical art, literature or even kids’ TV programmes like Octonauts, and encourage them to view wild through different eyes.

By questioning whoas shaped our definitions of wild and who makes decisions about where and how wild is introduced, we wanted to emphasise that there are many ways in which we can all make a change. For some people, that may be as simple as noticing nature in a way they haven’t done before, for others it might mean donating to a conservation charity and, in some cases, it could be coming together with community members to take action on an issue that is important locally.

It’s important to emphasise that conservation doesn’t have to follow traditional rules. Wild highlights how people are taking a fresh look and we really hope that gives visitors the energy and power to make a difference in their own way.

Wild opens on Wednesday 5 June and admission is free. There’s something for everyone within the exhibition, from families to researchers, and the accompanying programme will include everything from music inspired by nature to wild walks around Manchester.

by David Gelsthorpe,
Curator of Earth Sciences and Lead Curator of Wild

Summer Edition

This article was originally published in the Summer Edition of the Oxford Road Corridor zine which is available to pick up for free around Manchester or download. Download
Wild
Manchester Museum | Until 1 June 2025

Wild is an exhibition that explores our relationship with the natural world and unique approaches to environmental recovery.