Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens is the oldest public museum outside of London. The Museum’s holdings of natural science and natural history artefacts originated in 1810, and include the collection of Edward Backhouse (1808-1879), a Victorian philanthropist and Quaker.
Nicola Maxwell’s project, acquired into NGCA’s collection in 2015, was the result of a year-long photographic investigation into Backhouse’s archive in Sunderland Museum’s collection. It took the form of a trail of images stationed throughout the City Library and Arts Centre, leading to a collectors’ editioned book that visitors could handle themselves, as if an exhibit or precious and rare specimen.
Maxwell examines the Victorian desire to classify and order the natural world around us. Each of the photographs reveals a natural specimen in extraordinary, oddly hyper-real detail. Each is presented against a plain, stark black or white ground akin to a veil or velvet cloth, under a strongly raking light that throws the objects into relief as though they were highly tactile sculptures. It is almost as though Maxwell’s camera had brought back to life a series of 150-year old species.