Image NH.H.44 courtesy of the Horniman Museum and Gardens

Matthew Nicholson

Object: The Horniman Walrus
Location: Horniman Museum

The Horniman Walrus ‘most likely came from the Hudson Bay area of eastern Canada and was first seen in London in the “Canada” section of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in South Kensington in 1886’ (Horniman website).

It misrepresents the animal it purports to represent – ‘it lacks the skin folds characteristic of a walrus in the wild’ (Horniman website) – this misrepresentation is the result of human ignorance: Over one hundred years ago, only a few people had ever seen a live walrus, so it is hardly surprising that ours does not look true to life. This is probably why it remains one of the most popular exhibits on display in the museum today’ (Horniman website).

The Horniman Walrus is a ‘legal object’ because it objectifies the objectification, the (mis)representation, of nature by international environmental law. Global climate law, for example, conceptualises the earth’s atmosphere as a collection of tradable commodities, dividing it into ‘carbon credits’ or, in the language of Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Agreement, ‘internationally transferred mitigation outcomes’. Ubiquitous praise for the productivity and potential of global carbon markets (see for example the World Bank) ignores the fact that those markets do not offer a ‘true’ representation of the earth’s atmosphere; the gases which form the atmosphere are not like shares traded on a stock- market but humans have made them so, hence their ‘popular[ity]’ with investors. In a similar vein, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (1973) facilitates and regulates trade in endangered species, ‘popular[ising]’ animals as tradable commodities in order to conserve them.

In these, and many other ways – consider the Stockholm Declaration (1972) and its language of ‘natural resources’ and ‘man[‘s] … special responsibility to safeguard and wisely manage the heritage of its wildlife and its habitat’ (see Stockholm Principles 2 and 4) – international law engages with nature, with the earth, as thing or commodity.

If, then, ‘The Horniman Walrus’ is not a Walrus, the earth’s environment, as exhibited for

sale by international environmental law, is not the natural environment:

‘After the Fall … the appearance of nature is deeply changed. Now begins its other muteness, which is what we mean by the “deep sadness of nature.” Speechlessness: that is the great sorrow of nature … Because she is mute, nature mourns.’
(Walter Benjamin, ‘On Language as Such and on the Language of Man’ in Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings eds., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 1 1913-1926, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004, 62, 72-73).

A focus on objects, on the materiality of something like ‘The Horniman Walrus’, hints at a turning away from law’s structural formality; at a way of moving beyond the all-too-common technique of laying law’s normative structure over the natural, the material, the earthly and of seeing existence only through that normative structure.

If law all too often seeks to ‘say’ what is, a ‘Pop-Up Museum of Legal Objects’ ‘merely show[s]’ (see Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin tr., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, 460 [N1a, 8] – ‘I needn’t say anything. Merely show’). That is as much a benefit, from a critical, socio-legal perspective that seeks to represent the world, as it is a limitation from a normative, positivist, control-oriented perspective that seeks to ‘tell’ the world what it is and how it should be through law (on representation and control see my article ‘Walter Benjamin and the Re-Imageination of International Law’, (2016) 27(1) Law and Critique 103).