“To avoid calling attention to the required killing that precedes the taxidermic state, all marks of the cause of death such as bullet holes and arrow incisions must be hidden through meticulous stitching of the hide. With the cause of death excised from the visual equation, so also is the presence of the human who precipitated it.” (Desmond, 2016, p. 98)
One participant reads these words out loud, as the rest of the group follows on their handouts. We, the three workshop co-designers Sina Ribak, Chiara Garbellotto and Debbie Onuoha, have selected 12 pages from Displaying Death and Animating Life by anthropologist and Women and Gender Studies scholar Jane C. Desmond. We have allocated a half-hour for reading and discussion. This is the second collective activity the group participates in before moving on to the central, more individualised cinematic exercise.
Participants have already gotten to know each other through an icebreaker in which they shared personal memories of earlier visits to museums, aquariums or zoos, with the group. They have also spent a few minutes strolling through—“Evolution in Action,” the gallery of the Naturkundemuseum chosen for this workshop. As invited by Debbie, they spent 10 minutes lingering among the vitrines, and each picked one exhibit that made an impression on them. They then briefly presented their choice, the reason behind it and, where possible, an initial idea for the short video they would put together later in the workshop: i.e. making their own impression on and of the selected exhibit in turn.
In this reflection, we revisit the experience of organising and leading the workshop on “Taxidermic Cinema” at Berlin’s Naturkundemuseum. Drawing on the idea that cinema and taxidermy have much in common, including a shared interest in creating life-like images for viewing or informational purposes, the workshop invited 11 participants with varying levels of familiarity with both taxidermy and filmmaking, to shoot their own short 30-second to 2-minute videos in the Evolution in Action gallery, all the while reflecting on processes of image-making. Taking the feedback we have received into consideration, this self-evaluation ultimately focuses on the challenges of creating a space that balances between, on the one hand, being too critical without learning enough about the specifics of the institution in question, and on the other hand, not being critical enough of the kinds of violent, colonial entanglements that underlie processes of taxidermic exhibiting.
One hour into the workshop, having already engaged with the theme of taxidermy through personal stories and the embodied visual experience of the displays, we delve into written words. The idea for this reading component was proposed by Sina and , in a nod to “Between Us and Nature,” the local, monthly, nature-and-culture reading group where the two met, and the idea for Oddkin was born. Participants take turns to, voluntarily, read various paragraphs out loud and a chain of different timbres and rhythms gives voice to the printed and stapled paper pages: illusion of realism in taxidermy, as I have argued elsewhere, depends on a fundamentally ironic epistemological structure: death is the absolute and always indispensable prerequisite to the process of creating lifelikeness.” (Desmond, 2016, p. 96).
Through this text and the discussions it catalyses, we directly confront the palpable absence of any sufficient acknowledgement of the museum’s violent past within the gallery next door. But colonial history has been already brought to the table by artist Hayden Fowler before the reading. He presented himself through a story about the Huia, the larger group of endemic birds to New Zealand that were hunted to extinction for European collections in the 1800’s. And after the initial tour of the gallery, Hagar Ophir, performance artist, had pointed at the scar visible on the taxidermied kangaroo.
A quintessential materialisation of the taxidermist’s work, the scar testifies that a human being (or more) has touched, modelled, sewn together that skin. But where from this skin? One participant voices her surprise in hearing that killing animals for collections is still allowed, and one of us adds that, as we had learnt from our tour with taxidermists a week before, many dead animals also come from zoos. The taxidermic procedure and the socio-cultural codes defining how to perform it are indivisible throughout the workshop. Hagar reflects on the kangaroo pointing especially to its pose and her experience of being in the gallery and observing it: whether through the glass of the vitrines or as reflections upon them, the white busts of male scientists, seemed to constantly intrude upon the observer’s field of vision.
In response to the reading and the introductory walk through the gallery, the normative representation of body perfection and its material-semiotic violence, in the conversation. When we regroup to discuss everyone’s individual impressions in the gallery, Lisa Jahn rightly remarks that the only vitrine showing imperfect, mutated foetuses has been positioned at what she called “child-level,” well below the eyeline of an average adult. This makes it harder to see the exhibit in detail unless the observer bends down. Her observation that displays of imperfect animals are so rare, and even when they appear, not as easily observable, echoes in Desmond’s writing that most specimens are created to represent an “idealised type” of an individual within the species.
She also suggests another visual practice to think the entanglements between technological developments and scientific typification, namely photographs of symmetrically perfect snowflakes. Following this visual thread, the last words from Desmond’s extract describe the form of vision that taxidermy affords, a vision purified by the “risk” of being close to living animals, a vision which is usually “unavailable in the wild,” and in zoos:
“(…) even though this moment is preserved or created, it is the palpable, three-dimensional, bodily presence that dominates, emphasizing spectacle over narration. The more invisible the technologies that make this preservation and presentation possible, the more spectacular the spectacle.” (Desmond, 2016, p. 108)
Processes of hunting, killing, dying and sometimes even extinction are necessary prerequisites to the spectacle of many taxidermy exhibits. Death is the price for this privileged moment of physical proximity that human domination over non-humans allows in museum displays, and yet it is often markedly absent, unnarrated, within the museum displays.
These invisible taxidermy technologies come into light again through the photograph that Harriett Merrow took to document the workshop. A portrait of the taxidermied quagga shows another visible scar. Taxidermist Jan Panniger chose this exhibit in the first exercise, as the one that made an impression on him.
The quagga represents, for him, a good “mix of taxidermy and history”: the historical conservative technique of stuffing with straw is one thing together with the story of that individual animal. This story, he specifies, is actually the “end of a story”, reminding the visitor of the extinction of that species. This particular exhibit, and the stories it can tell, could not be explored further through the video shooting activity because Jan joined the workshop only for the first hour. The other museum practitioner who responded positively to our invitation, evolutionary biologist Bibi Faysal, unfortunately also had to leave after the reading section.
These circumstances influenced the workshop’s atmosphere. The group profile was curated by the co-hosts—and the participants personally invited—with the intention of creating a balance between practitioners from different departments of the Naturkundemuseum and people not affiliated with the Museum but engaged in work close to its themes and collections. In the end, during this session, 9 out of 11 participants came from the Arts, Social Sciences, History of Science, or a mix thereof. They shared a common historical and socio-cultural approach to both the practice of taxidermy and the biological perspective, and the lack of different approaches influenced the dialogic dynamic of the workshop. During the final group reflection, a critical comment by artist and researcher Nine Yamamoto-Masson voiced a possibly-related tension. Reflecting on the amount of input condensed in the three hours and the relatively short amount of time available to dig into themes and stories, she warned about the danger of reproducing a bourgeois pattern of intellectual criticism, where we assume a judgmental role upon how things should be done based on generalisations, without a close enough familiarisation with the institution under consideration. “I know nothing about the MfN” she warned, calling for reading against the grain in an open way: reading the Museum and reading with the Museum.
This comment came as a fertile problem space concerning our attempts at designing a public engagement format, This was especially so considering workshop series’ three main aims, which were: 1) to engage in a dialogic and practice-led experience accompanied by speculative storytelling, 2) by staying close to certain partial stories (Haraway, 1988) inspired by the exhibited collections, 3) to avoid dichotomous contrapositions of (museum) scientific expertise against (public) non-scientific expertise. As Rhamjohn reflected during the individual feedback conducted with the participants in the month following the workshop, inviting participants to speculate on different stories that are critical of the institutional narratives, without providing the structure for a consistent and long-term access to information concerning the very institution, risks putting the participants in the problematic position of being asked for solutions that they are not in a position to give, a sort of “outsourced criticality.”
On the other hand, it is interesting to note that in a presentation of the workshop a month later, it was also suggested that it did not seem to have been designed in a way that would allow participants to be critical enough of the Museum and its colonial entanglements.
Organising a visit to the Museum taxidermists’ studio with Jan in the following weeks was a move in the direction of providing some further engagement and familiarity with the Naturkundemuseum. This was a chance to engage with the theme from a different entry point than the workshop’s. Hayden Fowler joined this follow-up and shared positive feelings about listening to Jan’s descriptions of his practice and his personal path toward his profession. The technical details of the taxidermic procedure and the glimpse we had into the ecology of museum institutions, national and international championships, professional service companies, job markets and educational trainings that he outlined, allowed for a different kind of story — one that is much closer to the messy everyday experience of being a taxidermist. It was also an interesting full-circle moment, to hear Jan himself, relate his taxidermy work to filmmaking, since he had been unable to participate in that section of the workshop: “I’m making [the taxidermy preparations] like movies: you make the scenery and change how people feel to look at it.” Yet this personal story cannot be kept separated from the other, more violent ones present during the workshop. When we first entered the main taxidermy studio to meet Jan, prior to the workshop itself, the death mask of Bobby the Gorilla hanging on the wall, immediately caught our eyes. The story of this gorilla is in fact the very focus of Debbie’s present filmic research,[i] which, in turn, inspired the workshop.
How many stories co-exist in the Museum about Bobby? How many about the kangaroo and the quagga exhibited in the gallery? And how to create more generative, long-term spaces to facilitate being told in nuanced, critical ways[ii]? “A polyphonic natural history waits for its sustaining social history” writes Donna Haraway (1984, p. 42), but what does this call entail when it comes to museum public engagement?
° ° °
The workshop “Ghosts, Silences, Hidden Things” was held on the 4th July 2019 at the Experimentierfeld in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. It was part of the series “oddkin°labs” co-designed by Chiara Garbellotto (CARMAH) and Sina Ribak, which aimed at exploring museum objects, spaces and narratives a transdisciplinary approach. For this session, visual anthropologist Debbie Onuoha was invited to ideate a 2-hour activity to engage with the theme of taxidermy through her research practice. The workshop was centred on the use of video recording as a processual means to interrogate one’s own experience of being in the Museum galleries.
[i] The project is undertaken through CARMAH’s “Making Differences in Berlin” project, in collaboration with the “Animals as Objects” project run by the Museum’s Humanities of Nature team.
[ii] These considerations are especially inspired by debates in the areas of feminist posthumanist political ecology (Aikens et al. 2016; Cameron 2018) and relational materiality (Bennett 2010; Maurstad 2012).
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Cameron, Fiona. 2018. “Posthuman Museum Practices.” In R. Braidotti and M. Hlavajova (eds), Posthuman Glossary, 349–352. London, New York: Bloomsbury.
Desmond, Jane. 2016. Displaying Death and Animating Life: Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies (14) 3, 575–599.
Haraway, Donna. 1984. “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936.” Social Text (11) 20, 20-64.
L’’Internationale online. 2016. Ecologising Museums. Available at: https://www.internationaleonline.org/media/files/04-ecologisingmuseums.pdf
Maurstad, Anita. 2012. “Cod, curtains, planes and experts: Relational Materialities in the Museum.” Journal of Material Culture (17) 2, 173–189.
Chiara Garbellotto is a doctoral researcher on the Making Differences Project at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH). She is funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation as part of the research award for Sharon Macdonald’s Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. Her research explores multiple modes of doing Biodiversity in public engagement activities at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
Debbie Onuoha is a visual anthropologist in the Making Differences Project at the Center for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH). She is funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation as part of the research award for Sharon Macdonald’s Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. She is also a visiting researcher with the Animals as Objects Project of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin’s Humanities of Nature Department. Her research involves filming, ghosts, silences and hidden things in museums archives and heritage spaces.
Details of the Experimentierfeld, where the workshop was held
Participants browse the Evolution in Action Gallery, noting which exhibits make impressions on them
Busts and vitrines’ reflections
Mutated foetuses presented well below eye level
Taxidermy of Quagga, “Evolution in Action” gallery
Participants return to the Evolution in Action Gallery to record their short video impression
Tour of the Museum für Naturkunde’s Taxidermy Studio: Top to bottom a) some birds being prepared (blurred for sensitivity), b) medals from taxidermy competitions, c) the taxidermist’s work desk, d) the taxidermist’s work glove
Infrastructures and polyuerthane forms, Bobby’s and other two ape’s masks on the wall
Close-up of Bobby’s death mask on the wall