We spoke to Natalie Hough, creator of the ‘Ethical History Museum’, about her work, why she went vegan, and her love for wildlife
Natalie Hough makes charming animal-inspired objects out of reclaimed wood, and sells them under the name The Ethical History Museum. A committed vegan, Natalie has been donating 15% of the money from her sales to the Riverside Animal Centre in East London. We spoke to Natalie about how she creates, what a typical working day is like, and her transition to veganism.
You run an online store on Etsy called ‘Ethical History Museum’ where you sell a selection of your work – where did the name come from?
As I’m sure you can guess there is a connection with natural history museums. Their intention, as far as I can tell, is to educate and bring the natural world to those who have little access to it, but the Ethical History Museum represents a time of change. There was a time when killing an animal for display, for human knowledge and gain, was considered acceptable. We aren’t there anymore. We have the consciousness to create a better history, where ‘otherness’ isn’t to be viewed in a glass box, but respected and treated with humanity. I want to wear animals without causing them harm; as a brooch or a necklace, not as a fur. I want to live in a world where I am proud of our collective history, where things are not done because they have always been done, because of ‘tradition’, but because they are the right thing to do.
Can you tell us a bit about what you make and sell through your store?
Primarily, I make ‘Spirit Animals’. These are either brooches or necklaces, hand-painted in great detail, and each animal represents a certain personality and comes with a description of the animal character. I base the characters of the animals on their natural behaviour in the wild, and also, in some cases, on Native American beliefs about those Spirit Animals. I also make other, more traditional jewellery from reclaimed wood, and hope to sell prints and other paper goods in the future, though I am taking time to think about how I can do this within the realm of the EHM ethics. The Pigeon Spirit Animal is the overall favourite as far as both the Etsy community and people at markets I’ve done are concerned, especially Londoners. People seem to feel about pigeons as they feel about Marmite, loving them desperately or despising them with the passion of a thousand suns! I love pigeons for their determined defiance of ‘the man’. They have this devil-may-care attitude that is so admirable, and are very beautiful creatures if you take a moment to really look at them. I was in Soho Square in London the other day and a pigeon kept flying right up to my face, hovering there, looking me in the eye, before retreating and then repeating the same action. Pigeons. Brilliant.
How many custom pieces have you done, and do you like doing custom pieces just as much as the ones you have total free reign over?
I love custom pieces. I think I’ve sold only a couple through Etsy, but have obviously made a few for friends. I love making ‘couple sets’ of Spirit Animals. It’s great to ask people to say what animal best represents their partner or friend. It can lead to some interesting conversations, and sometimes there is no tangible reason for why someone sees a loved one as an aardvark. There is just something aardvarky about them. Is it their nose? Are they particularly in touch with the earth? It is wonderful to allow people that autonomy when it comes to a gift or a personal keepsake, and it gives me the opportunity to make new work. I also love to open up that line of thought that draws us together with animals. There are so many similarities and we spend so much time holding them at arm’s length. The more we think about animals as our cousins with rich personal lives like ours, the closer we get to a world we can really share peacefully and fairly with them.
Obviously your work is very animal-focussed, and much of it British wildlife in particular. What draws you to these things?
It feels like I have just always drawn and painted animals. When I was young I was taught to draw a horse by my mum, because my twin sister and I were horse-mad and loved films like Black Beauty and were obsessed with The Last Unicorn, a beautiful musical film produced by the company that became Studio Ghibli, and based on a book written by Peter S. Beagle. We grew up in Saudi Arabia, where there were Hoopoe birds, sparrows, and of course pigeons, to name a few; but in comparison visits back to the UK were lush, green and refreshing. My dad absolutely loved British birds and had books and binoculars, and our grandfather would take my sister, my brother and I on walks to see the ponies in nearby fields during our long summer holidays. Adventures on bikes in the desert were wonderful, but now, at 31, my home is the UK, and I suppose I paint them to celebrate them; our neighbours of the hedgerows, parks and floorboards.
Do you think the focus of your art is an inevitable consequence of being vegan, or are the two not really related as far as you see it?
I think my hands were vegan before my mind got there! I go a bit crazy when I don’t use my hands for creative purposes for any long stretch of time, and what I create is animals and has been for as long as I can remember. I think my work has grown and improved since I became vegan. Almost like some sort of barrier came down, and my hands and my mind were finally united. Either that or all the flaxseed I started eating loosened up my finger joints!
You make everything from reclaimed wood – why do you choose to use only reclaimed wood, and how do you go about getting it?
Reclaimed wood is beautiful, has a history and a life of its own. My work is all about life. A good life is one where we step lightly, and as someone who hasn’t always done so, I can speak for both sides. As an artist, I am driven to create, which means I need materials. If I can get materials that are already here, used, unwanted, then this is a way for me to bring things into the world without making a negative impact. I also think it adds a beautiful, personal touch to each of my pieces, and the owner of the Spirit Animal or other piece of jewellery can know they haven’t contributed to the deaths of any trees! I get the wood from all over: I met a very nice reclaimed furniture maker who had a lot of old drawers he didn’t want; a friend of mine donated offcuts from a job he was working on; freecycle and antique shops can be a good source too.
What’s a typical day in the Ethical History Museum workspace like?
Phew, not sure if there is a ‘typical’ day. I work as a teacher in the mornings so a day in the workspace will usually begin around 2pm. If I have orders to work on, it will consist of working on those: cutting, hand-painting and varnishing various animals. If it’s a day when animals and earrings are ready to ship, I’ll carefully hand-wrap them with some beautiful paper and ribbon, parcel them up and put them to the side for sending the next day. If things are quiet, I will work on a watercolour painting, which may be for a new Spirit Animal design or for a future artwork print, which is something I would like to introduce into my shop.
When did you go vegan, and what were your reasons for doing so?
I found vegetarianism on a plane home from a stint in Korea, thanks to Mr Saffron Foer and his glorious Eating Animals. I left Asia a meat eater, and landed in London an herbivore. After that, I met a wonderful person called Kallie, who gently and slowly made me realise that vegans weren’t extremists and that, for me, vegetarianism wasn’t enough. Once I had listened to a few podcasts by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau and sobbed my way over three days through Earthlings, there was really no going back. That was over two years ago now and I’ve had such support and love and feel very lucky to live in a community where it’s so easy to go against the grain.