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Science in Museums: Night at the Museum, The Secret Life of Collections

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on February 6, 2013 in Science in Museums |

 

by columnist Kacie Rice

A shark peeks timidly around the corner in an abandoned basement. You enter a room where wolves stand snarling, lined up like books on metal shelves. The elevator doors open to reveal a lone grizzly bear, reaching out to catch a fish that isn’t there.
These may sound like visions from Salvador Dali, but they’re all the subjects of photographs recently displayed at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna.

The exhibit Skeletons in the Closet, which ended its run in Vienna this last weekend, is the work of photographer Klaus Pichler, who became fascinated with the vast taxidermy collections at the museum and obtained permission from curators to work with them after hours. His photographs give a playful, yet honest, look into the museum world’s underground, revealing the behind-the-scenes world of natural history collecting while boldly turning it on its head.

As anyone who has worked at a museum knows, one of the most common visitor questions is, “What goes on behind the scenes?” What kinds of things are in storage, what curators do with them, and how they got to be there, are all burning questions that visitors rarely get first-hand answers to. Collections have historically been mysterious, guarded, and off-limits to the average visitor.

With Skeletons in the Closet, Pichler breaks down these boundaries, showing glimpses of taxidermied animals in various states of storage. In one image, a room of large mammals is packed together like an army marching in formation, while a lone lion in the front is poised to strike at nothing in particular. In another, a donkey stands facing a corner in a room of filing cabinets. Removed from any sort of context – neither in their natural habitats, nor in the interpretive atmosphere of the museum – they often seem forlorn and lost. The dull, grey concrete and cold metal pipes of the storage rooms add to the sense of misplacement, providing a stark and sometimes humorous reminder that the museum is ultimately a manufactured environment, no matter how realistic the painted dioramas upstairs might be.

Pichler’s photographs run the gamut: some images show animals in playful scenes, such as the monkey holding a mirror up for a vain badger, while others capture the animals positioned how the artist found them, like the pack of caribou huddled together behind a wooden crate. In both cases, the result is a dreamlike vision of animals removed from their own lives and put into the stark, almost clinical world of the curator.

In an interview with the New York Times, Pichler discusses the work and his fascination with the museum and its collections. “It was like a wonderland when I entered. I felt like a little kid again,” he recalls of his early visits to the taxidermy rooms. His pictures were an attempt to capture this magic, though as he continued his series over the next three years, he began to think more critically about the collections and about the role of the museum as an institution: “If you think about it more, and more about the museum as a whole, you will begin to think about these animals. Where did they come from? I think the real background of the series is quite sad and has a lot to do with colonialist thinking.”

While the lens of colonialism has often been applied to art and anthropology museums, leading to many museums repatriating their artifacts to indigenous peoples over the last few decades, Pichler’s assessment of Vienna’s natural history specimens as colonial in nature is a new and interesting take on what it means to curate animals. Pichler argues that the history of the collection lies in European conquest of nations in Africa, India, Asia, and the Americas; in this view, zoos and natural history museums are rooted in a fascination with the “exotic” and the desire of dominant groups to put their finds from distant lands on display. A taxidermied lion preparing to strike at thin air in a sterile European storage room begs the viewer to ask, “How did he get to be so far from home?”

For Pichler, our holding of these animals in foreign environments represents a colonial view of dominance over the “other.” The natural history museum gives visitors an invaluable opportunity to look closely at and learn from animals’ form, beauty, and unique evolutionary adaptations, but we often forget that these animals were necessarily removed from their worlds to be placed in the museum: historically, this would have involved expatriation of animals, mimicking the expatriation of artifacts and dominance of indigenous peoples by colonial powers. Today, curators like Judy Chupasko of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology often obtain their collections from natural deaths at zoos and wildlife centers, but in the past, these museum animals’ silence would have concealed a much darker unspoken history. Pichler’s images and accompanying interpretive text, worked out in collaboration with a sociologist, unmask the power relations behind natural history collecting and invite the viewer to think deeply about how and why we collect.

As an absurdist glimpse into the world of taxidermy and curation, or as a post-colonial breakdown of museum culture, Pichler’s photographs are delightful, surreal, and thought provoking. Pichler’s work is the latest in a line of meta-textual exhibits, such as those of Richard Barnes, that turn the museum into an art form all its own and create stunning visual art out of science.
For more information and images, see recent posts on the exhibit by design blog iGNANT and The New York Times’ Lens blog, as well as Klaus Pichler’s professional website. Images © Klaus Pichler.

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