“That’s a pike. I don’t like pikes. They’re bitey but not tasty.” (American tourist couple overheard at the local public aquarium.)
Since acquiring its very first marble sculpture 500 years ago, the Vatican museums have grown to become one of the largest museums in the world with over 70,000 works attracting some 28 billion visitors a year.*
Behold the Laocöon sculpture, the Raphael rooms, the Transfiguration, St. Jerome in Wilderness and the ticket line longer than the 3.2 kilometre Vatican state perimeter!
See the Sistine Chapel with its ceiling and Last Supper by Michelangelo and its silence continuously broken by guards shouting Silenzio!
See the crowds, see the back of the person in front of you, get a contraband selfie stick poked in your ear.
So I recently visited the Vatican Museums for the first time in ten years. Not much have changed since my last time. I still love the place. I still tried to beat the crowds. I still failed spectacularly.
* number based on a rough guesstimate.
Giddy tourists petting stone genitalia. Families collecting pokemonkeys. Terrified small children whose fathers, inspired by the sculptures, try to juggle them. Yup. It’s the Vigeland sculpture park.
Moving a museum collection, animal by animal.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Super… moose? Nah. Just a regular, stuffed Eurasian elk, lifted out of a third story window down to a waiting lorry.
This, of course, is not part of the animal’s normal migration pattern, but a necessity due to the renovation of the Natural History Collections at the University Museum of Bergen.
The moving of mice and moose, this exodus of elephants, took place October last year. I was hired to document the strange odyssey for the museum and followed the crew for a couple of curious days, as 60 large, stuffed animals of various condition were crane-lifted out of the museum and driven away for temporary storage.
The thing is, however, that nobody really knows how temporary this exile of the animals will be. As of now, the restoration is on hold due to lack of funding. In the last state budget, no money were allocated for this purpose. These days the museum is just empty. The halls are quiet, no work being done.
And the moose is missed.
(Last week the museum invited me back to make a new series of photographs. These were the subject of my last blog post: The Empty Museum.)
There used to be animals here. Wolves and elephants, moose and mice, beavers, birds and bears. Stuffed but wondrous. Ragged, scruffy, dusty and old. And beloved. Now there are none.
The Natural History Museum was one of the most popular museums in Bergen. It was built for a different time, for a different crowd, valuing wonder and mood over educational aspects. It was one of very few museums not yet ruined by forced modernization. Display cabinets had yet to be supplanted by fancy tech. Dust and lack of light were essential parts of the experience. It was a museum’s museum.
But the same age that lent the exhibitions their quaint qualities had also taken its toll on the objects and the animals. Seeing minimal upkeep since it first opened its doors for the general public in 1867, the museum was in dire need of maintenance. Large parts of the collection risked unrepairable damage unless the building itself was restored. Beginning a few years ago, one million museum items were catalogued, sanitized and moved to external magazines. The museum closed to the public. A 600m NOK restoration project, spanning several years, was underway. The reopening was scheduled for 2018. Then the money stopped.
In the last state budget, no money were allocated to the restoration project. The closing was meant to be temporary. But when the museum will open now is anybody’s guess.
(See the animals leave the museum in the blog post “The Great Migration”)
A hundred years ago today Martha died. She was a passenger pigeon and the last of her kind, the final living specimen of a race of birds once so numerous that their flocks would black out the sky for hours on end.
(And commemorating her, here are my photographs of zoo enclosures without animals.)
Extinction is natural. Species go extinct every day. But few species go extinct with such catastrophic vehemence as did the passenger pigeons.
When the Europeans arrived in the new world, there were billions of them – but not evenly distributed. No, they traversed the continent in a few enormous flocks. One flock observed in Canada in 1866 was said to count 3.5 billion birds. That one flock would have been 1.5 kilometres wide and over 500 kilometres long. And it would have darkened the sky for 14 hours or so. But even at that point the species had been in steady decline for over half a century. The decline was slow at first, but from 1870 to 1890 it was catastrophic.
Their numbers meant they were easily hunted. One double barrel blast of a shotgun could net even an amateur 60 birds. When pigeon meat was commercialised as cheap food for the poor, hunting became a massive and mechanised effort. Birds by the tens of millions were killed in the Midwest and shipped east on trains.
Combined with habitat loss as European settlers hellbent on manifest destiny deforested vast areas of land, the birds who only laid one egg at a time couldn’t make it. In March 1900, an Ohio-boy names Press Clay Southworth killed a bird with a BB gun. That bird was the last recorded wild passenger pigeon. A few still survived in captivity. But on September 1, 1914, the very last died at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Here’s to Martha.
These photographs are from San Diego Zoo, carefully framed not to show the animals.
I don’t think I ever did a shoot there without getting lost somehow. Being a former spinning mill, the so-called Merino Building is a maze of confusing mezzanines, spiral staircases, back doors and outdated signposts. For close to 40 years, this was part of the Norwegian School of Economics. Now both students and staff are moving into a new building on the main campus, leaving the old mill behind. I was commissioned to make a series of pictures before all activity ceased – and immediately got carried away, spending several days loitering in the hallways, disturbing students in their exams and discussing the concept of Buddhist Economics and homemade Scream pastiches in the academic realm.
These are the Merino files.
I go to formal openings for the same reason I go to zoos: to watch the people.
Then a few days or weeks later, I return to actually see the exhibition. But opening day is all about the crowd. Yesterday was the reopening of The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The KODE Art Museums of Bergen. One of the largest collections of Edvard Munch paintings in the world was among the works on display. Some 700 people visited the museum during the day, and looking at the queue a few minutes before the doors opened, most of them thought it a good idea to come at the exact same time. I guess quite a few actually was interested in hearing the director’s speech, but I suspect that for some it was of equal importance to be seen themselves.
I was in that queue, but seeing that I wouldn’t get in with the first (and keenest and thus most photogenic) wave of visitors, I left and had a few coffees elsewhere. Returning a couple of hours later, the speech was over and the crowd had thinned out quite a bit (possibly to go and observe World Naked Gardening Day). At this time it was possible to actually see the Munch paintings, but considering what I had really hoped to capture – the ladies of the arts clutching their glasses of faux Champagne and investing in their cultural capital by mere attendance – it was also a bit of a downer.
Watching the watchers
Incidentally (or maybe not) two of my favourite photographers have also worked a lot with the theme of museums and their visitors – in two very different manners. Thomas Struth, a German photographer associated with the so-called Düsseldorf school of photography (including Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte and Thomas Ruff) makes extremely rigid, sober and straight-on pictures with large format cameras – and usually presents his works in gigantic prints often measuring two by two meters. In his museum series, he would set up his 13×18 camera in front of certain works of art and wait long hours or even days before feeling that the crowds in front of him fell into the right formation. I especially remember seeing a large exhibition of his in the Whitechapel Gallery in East London a few years ago. If I remember correctly, one of his pictures from the Art Institute of Chicago – printed so large that the people in the picture was almost life-size – was the very first thing you saw when you came in through the doors. And that meta feeling of me, an actual gallery-goer, looking at a huge photographs of other gallery-goers looking at paintings – that is really, really engaging.
The other museum watching favourite is Elliot Erwitt, a Magnum photographer and the grand master of ironic and absurd photography. He actually has a book called Museum Watching, consisting of pictures from 40 years of attending museums in his spare time in between assignments. Compared to Thomas Struth, Elliot represents the opposite end of documentary photography. Working with small Leica cameras, his work is spontaneous and affectionate and more often than not very witty. His Museum Watching book is in no way one of his best, but at times it is absolutely superb. I honestly think that his 1995 picture from Museo del Prado in Madrid is one of the funniest photographs ever made (Erwitt has several contenders for this prize).
Looking through Erwitts and Struths work today, there is one thing that strikes me: no one in the pictures are taking their own pictures of the art. Since then of course, the camera phone arrived. Yesterday at the The Rasmus Meyer Collection, as good as everyone was snapping away. A few were seemingly trying to capture the mood of the opening, but most were taking pics of the paintings, and I guess a fair share of those pics were going straight on Instagram and the like – showing that yes, we were there.
According to Thomas Struth: “[…] when art works were made, they were not yet icons or museum pieces. When a work of art becomes fetishized, it dies.” I’m not so cynical myself. Munch’s work is obviously fetishized, but I have a feeling that it’s still able to evoke some feelings independently of the fact that they are Munch paintings. But it’s difficult, of course. The Scream, for example, is so much a part of our common cultural heritage that I find it impossible to separate the picture itself and my emotional response to it from its role as an artefact in popular culture. The only Scream on display at The Rasmus Meyer Collection is a tiny pen and ink version. I don’t think that will be able to elicit any new emotions. But maybe some of the other works will. I’ll have to return another day to find that out. And leave my camera at home.