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Dead museum animals: from ‘Order of Nature’ to chaos of culture

Dr Libby Robin, National Museum of Australia, 27 March 2009

GUY HANSEN: Our next speaker this morning is Libby Robin. Libby is an environmental historian at the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia and also at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. She developed an interest in the uses of animals in European museums while based at the Danish National Museum’s Research Centre for six months in 2008. Her latest book is an edited collection entitled Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country and today Libby is talking about ‘Dead museum animals: From order of nature to chaos of culture’.

LIBBY ROBIN: Thank you, Guy. And thank you Peter and Guy for inviting me.

I’m standing in front of a glass cabinet full of dead animals. They are taxonomic specimens: tiny birdskins stuffed with cotton wool lying on their backs, entomology specimens classically pinned out. They are, however, ordered in this cabinet by design and not science. This is art, not natural history. It’s called Stilled Lives. The artist Janet Laurence was commissioned to create this work for the opening of the new ‘Turn of the Millennium’ Melbourne Museum. The Museum includes galleries of history, Aboriginal and settler, and a huge Gallery of Life, a gallery of living trees with real birds flying around in the canopy.

In a museum with multiple galleries, each with different designers and different curatorial expertise, an artist was offered the challenge of explaining to the public what the museum was ‘about’. The artist had to create a conversation piece in the space between very differently purposed galleries that said something about the museum as a whole.

The installation was a feature of what the architects call the ‘upper level circulation spine’. It was the device that enabled the architects to ‘skillfully negotiate the complexities of the contemporary museum’, according to Paul Walker, in Architecture Review 2001. I’m speaking also here about the museum historically at the moment in 2001 when the galleries were different from what they are now. I should add that.

What does a cabinet of dead animals mean? How can it negotiate the complexities of a contemporary museum? The fact that the animals are, in Laurence’s words, ‘dislocated from their histories, stilled in time’ - this is from the caption and what’s up there is from the caption too - and paradoxically this makes the animals live. Implicit in the artist’s thinking is the notion that the museum principles are dead rather than the animals, and that empathy is perhaps beyond history.

Collections are, of course, the heart of the museum, as we acknowledge today with this, the third annual symposium on this subject at the National Museum of Australia. And while I’m really interested in this artwork, I want to argue here that there is an intriguing history emerging through the bodies of dead animals preserved by museums.

In this section I quickly trace the trajectory of dead animal collections in museums from the 18th century to the twenty-first. Initially, dead animals were collected and sent to museums to identify and name. Museums were libraries of living organisms. The Dewey cataloguing system they used was Linnaeus’s system of binomial nomenclature. The animal’s name gave its place in the ‘order of nature’. By international agreement, Linnaeus’s names were the ones used by museums throughout the western world, from 1753 for plants and from 1758 for animals. This ‘order of nature’ proceeded British settlement of either Australia or New Zealand, but Linnaeus’s ideas were influential in British scientific thinking and aroused curiosity in ‘new’ nature. Australia was conceived of as a place of ‘exceptional nature’, ‘antipodean’, where ‘all things were queer and opposite’ - that is threatening the order of nature as arranged by Linnaeus.

Thus museum cabinets developed two purposes: scientific relevance and displays of wonder. Cabinets were sometimes ordered by the biogeography of place. Alexander von Humboldt’s ideas about parallel climates were influential, both to exploration and to museums, so cabinets were sometimes ordered by place. Thus desert-adapted animals or polar-adapted animals shared cabinets rather than ungulates or felines.

Taxidermists emptied dead animal bodies of the parts that would rot and refilled them so they could, in a sense, live forever, wired and stuffed in ways that recaptured the life-like behaviour and attitudes of the animals. This was fine art and went beyond public museums. Private collectors developed a taste for taxidermic specimens in their sitting rooms, sometimes in private cabinets of curiosity, and most commonly of all, as a head on the wall, celebrating a hunting achievement. You can sit in a chic cafe in Copenhagen where your waiter is a polar bear ironically dressed in a dinner suit. A deer with elegant leather gloves supervises the same cafe’s website.

Already in the nineteenth century the art in taxidermy was celebrated. But the mounted head on the wall glorified the hunter, not the hunted. The bigger and wilder the head, the greater the hunter. Thank you, Jenny [Newell], for those wonderful images of London museums too, that was great. Similarly, in the public museums of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, cabinets of natural history worked to glorify empires and their resources: the more wonderful the nature the more resources for the empire. Thus cabinets became a signature item in imperial museums.

In the twentieth century as scientific interest moved away from mere classification of dead specimens to understanding living behaviour, museums organised their cabinets differently. As the science of ecology grew, museums developed dioramas, a picturesque way to display relations between animals and their environments. Real animals stuffed to live again were placed on a stage with images of scientifically classified habitat. The cabinet had become a theatre.

The American Natural History Museum in New York boasts a particular mastery of the diorama, the art piece with a scientific message. These are now heritage items and still a point of pride. This is from their current website:

The illusion of the artwork is crucial but so is the artistry of the lifelike taxidermy animals, crouched ready to pounce that transform the paintings in the backdrop into informational art and ‘real’ entertainment.

In 1999 the National Museum of Australia purchased a thylacine skin for the Land and People exhibition. It was a key object for a module about the idea of extinction, later entitled ‘Endling’. Acquiring this object was somewhat controversial. Was ‘extinction’ a suitable subject for a social history museum and could an animal skin be part of a National Historical Collection? It was evident that the extinction of the thylacine was a cultural and not a natural event, and very much part of the history of European settlement in Tasmania. But the skin itself needed a history. Eventually the acquisition was approved by shifting the emphasis away from the animal to the hunter.

Today the skin is being rested for conservation purposes, but you can still find in the corner of the ‘Endling’ cabinet the story of Charles Selby Wilson, the man who shot the last wild thylacine in 1930. It was this story that was needed to justify purchasing the skin that is no longer on show. This is a strangely old-fashioned story in a museum built in an era where hunting trophies are more often subjected to gender readings of their iconography or turned into retro cafe furniture and celebrated. The trope of the ‘last wild animal’ was clearly important to the purchase. The skin was shot at a time and in a place where it was arguably one of the ‘last’. But the real rub was that a thylacine skin was just a dead animal, not a cultural object suitable for a National Historical Collection. It was not something people used like the buggy rug comprising eight thylacine skins stitched together, recently purchased in Tasmania.

The National Historical Collection had a possum, rabbit and even platypus skin cloaks and rugs. It had a water carrying container made out of the body of a kangaroo. But a skin without a definite social purpose had to be constructed as a ‘hunting trophy’. It was otherwise dangerously close about being about the animal and not social history.

At the Fram Museum in Oslo last year, I was privileged to see a photography exhibition that directly challenged the trope of the heroic hunter and his trophy. It focused on the polar bear, now signature animal of global climate change. In Nanoq: The Great White Bear, Brydis Snaebjornsdóttir and Mark Wilson rephotographed thirty-three taxidermic polar bears from public and private collections in Britain. Each photograph is captioned with a carefully researched biography of the bear - its place of capture or shooting, the name of the person responsible, the nature or purpose of the expedition, the bear’s history in captivity and its age at death. This exhibition is a cultural and not a natural history of polar bears. It does not celebrate the hunter, the collector, the taxidermist or the collection house, but the bear itself.

Snaebjornsdóttir and Wilson’s travelling exhibition has moved through a series of museums between 2006 and 2009. It’s showing now as Nanoq: Flat Out and Bluesome, which is also the title of the book that accompanies the show. The book includes reflective essays by academic Steve Baker and Garry Marvin, with titles such as ‘What Can Dead Bodies Do?’ and ‘Perpetuating Polar Bears: The Cultural Life of Dead Animals’.

Nanoq is at the leading edge of a new art movement that challenges the place of animals and their bodies in museums. The bears are no longer objects, performing life-like animal activities in dusty dioramas, but rather particular bears from particular places at the time of their death, and in other particular places at the time of their photograph. Some bears were photographed wrapped in plastic in back rooms, deep in storage, poignant reminders of how an institution’s politics can change and marginalises collections.

Dead animal collections continue to function at the junction between science and art in the twenty-first century as taxidermic specimens and skins are used to explore environmental ethics and concerns about animal rights. Dead animal collections are moving out of natural history museums and into social history and radical art.

Consider Mark Dion’s work 1996, Tar and Feathers. Dion, born in 1961, is a New York installation artist. His work can be found online. That’s where I got this. He’s also interested in what animals can reveal about humanity. He writes:

With some of my work you can sense that it has a pretty dark tone ... my sensibility tends to the dystopian, to the dark side.

I want to compare this art installation with this. [Shows image] It’s a mausoleum, not a museum. It’s a tree hung with dead feral cats at William Creek on the Oodnadatta track in desert South Australia. It’s dubbed ‘Pussy Willow’ or Acacia felinata. In Dion’s terms, such an Australian vernacular landscape has a pretty dark tone. What sort of society is mirrored in our backyard? This tree turns us away from art and back to science. It’s the science of conservation biology that often provides the rational and moral attitude towards biologically invasive animals.

Darrell Lewis, who works with us at the Centre for Historical Research, took this photograph of the Cat Tree at William Creek in 2004. His dog, Kelly, plays in the foreground, a touch of humour in a grim scene. Lewis found another such tree later the same year: the dingo tree of Lake Eucumbene. Here there is a different ethic at play. If the desert tree is Acacia felinata perhaps we should call this one ‘Eucalyptus caninatus’. This tree is about an economy red in tooth and claw. Someone has hung, drawn and quartered the obstacles to sheep farming in this district.

These are animals that feed on other animals. They live and die in relation to animals as well as humans. The carcasses throw up questions about what it means to be feral in the Australian landscape in an era of invasive species biology. What does it mean for Australia to lead the world in mammalian extinctions? Does a consciousness of damage justify killing the perceived perpetrators? And when they are dead should they also be strung up, skinned? Are they a warning to other wild cats and dogs as the hanged criminal once was considered a warning to criminal elements in Victorian societies? Or are they symbolic of a new heroics of hunting, something acceptable in a world where taking polar bears is no longer so?

Like the artist who holds up a mirror to the present and to the kinds of problems that we have right now, the creators of trees like this - dystopian landscape features - challenge our views of right and wrong, of humane and ecological. These trees are working like a good museum exhibit. They ask questions, they give us pause and they do not shy away from controversy. And they are historical. They speak to the human history of this moment. Thank you.

QUESTION: by Lyn Beasley from the National Museum. Just a very quick question: has any research been done on visitor reaction to the art installation using dead animals?

LIBBY ROBIN: Yes, thank you for this question, Lyn. Very interestingly, [image shown] there were two reactions to this image historically. One was published in Meanjin by Tom Griffiths, who had talked to the staff of the Gallery of Life, that’s the natural history exhibit, and they said visitors hated this artwork. The visitors were curious but they were not satisfied because what was actually in the cabinet with the little birds was a whole lot of words, but they were not the informational words of a natural history caption. They were verbs about what had happened to the animals. I can give you examples: They were fetishised, possessed, collected… and so forth. [These words] were engraved on the glass with the exhibit, but people wanted to know what birds were, not what had happened to them. That was one reaction.

The architectural critic, Paul Walker, who was interested in the building and who came to the exhibit without having gone through the natural history gallery said that visitors were enjoying Janet Laurence’s exhibit of ‘decontextualised and ordered animals’. Now I think the ordering force of ‘decontextualisation’ has to be seen with relation to the building [as a whole]. That’s the only way I can understand that statement. So Walker had one reaction; the staff who worked in the Gallery of Life had another. Both of those papers were published reports [on visitors at the time], one in Meanjin in 2001 and one online.

GUY HANSEN: Thank you very much, Libby, for that stimulating paper. I am sorry to not allow further questions, but we have another session to get started here.

Date published: 4 May 2009