Bringing Natural History Art to Life: Installation Artist Uses BHL to Create Fantastic Worlds Through Immersive Artworks
Imagine stepping into a world teaming with dazzling biodiversity. Everywhere you turn, colorful birds perch amidst exotic blooms, glimmering butterflies and energetic hummingbirds flit from flower to flower, shimmering serpents wind their way through a jungle of foliage, and an array of mushrooms add color and dimension to the forest floor.
This world, seemingly alive with biodiversity, is composed not of flesh and blood, but of ink and paper. It is a world brought to life from the imagination of Berlin-based American artist Clare Börsch using illustrations and photographs sourced mainly from open access collections like the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and painstakingly cut and arranged into a marvelous, three-dimensional ecosystem. Within this Biodiversity installation of collaged nature art, a wondrous world awaits.
Beneath this enchanting beauty, however, lies a graver message—a warning—for this installation is also a commentary on the biodiversity and climate crises facing our planet today.
“Humanity has wiped out 68% of all our planet’s biodiversity in just the last 50 years,” says Börsch within her video for the Biodiversity installation. “My latest artwork and video shares a message of love, urgency and hope. Love for our planet, our future selves, our children and future generations. Urgency, because climate change is upon us and the predictions of what to come are dire. And Hope, because there is still a narrow window of time to act and there is still so much we can save.”
With a background in public policy, Börsch has been a full-time artist for the past three years. Having lived in Brazil, the United States, Italy, Honduras, Argentina and Germany, her personal experiences with nature are global and diverse. Installation collage art allows Börsch to bring together flora and fauna from around the world to create an environment that reflects this global perspective and immerses the viewer within this incredible diversity through the use of historic naturalist imagery. This same imagery can also be emblematic of the threats facing this biodiversity.
“As I use naturalist imagery from 1900 and earlier, many species in my artwork have already vanished or are vanishing,” shares Börsch in her artist statement. “This adds a layer of ecological urgency to my work.”
Much of the naturalist imagery Börsch uses for her installations is sourced from BHL. The BHL Flickr, which contains over 240,000 images extracted from publications and archival materials in the Library, allows her to easily browse and download high resolution materials for her own artworks.
“Discovering BHL has transformed the scale and complexity of my installations,” asserts Börsch. “The archive is an incredible resource and allows me to really execute and realize the ideas I have.”
Over the past year, as many of our partners have transitioned to a telework environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve focused on projects to improve our collections remotely—including building our image library on Flickr. Since March, we’ve uploaded over 75,000 new images to the BHL Flickr, all freely available for download and reuse. The growing collection offers an ever-expanding source of inspiration for everyone, including artists like Börsch, to explore.
Börsch takes full advantage of this wealth of imagery, using the BHL Flickr daily. She is especially appreciative of the curated collections, which facilitate discovery around particular topics. In the future, she’d love to see the images enhanced with more geographic information, allowing her to search for species by specific ecosystems, and information on each depicted species’ status, such as whether it is extinct or endangered.
“I create immersive installations so that others can join me in being moved by the beauty of our planet,” asserts Börsch in the artist video for Biodiversity. “2020 has been hard, but I think the grief we feel is a symptom of our love, of an ecological awakening. Our grief reminds us that we are connected in our humanity, that one group’s suffering impacts us all, and that we are connected to our shared and finite home, our planet.”
BHL’s open access collections not only empower the work of scientists striving to study and conserve biodiversity, but they also allow everyone to explore the wonders of nature—to help develop a connection to our planet that galvanizes us to action. Artists like Börsch breathe new life into the work of naturalist artists from centuries past and allow us to experience the beauty they captured in new ways. This art—old and new—is a powerful reminder of what we have…and what we stand to lose.
“In twenty years from now, I do not want my art to be a memorial for everything we could have saved,” asserts Börsch. “I rather want it to inspire change and action today.”
In keeping with this aspiration, within the artist video for Biodiversity, Börsch suggests actions that can have a positive impact on the environment, such as choosing greener transportation options and eating locally. Supporting organizations whose work empowers science and conservation, like the Biodiversity Heritage Library, is another way that you can make a difference today.
Our planet’s biodiversity is experiencing unprecedented declines, with at least one million species currently threatened with extinction , but there is still time to act. Together, we can build a better future for our planet and every species that calls it home, ensuring that Earth’s ecosystems remain as wondrous and diverse as those born from Börsch’s imagination.
 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. (2019). Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’. Available at https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment.