The Natural History Museum could be seen as a museum of many things other than Natural History; of taxonomy, of hunting, of curiosity, of power and indeed a museum of a museum. The ancestral atmosphere is between that of a country house and Noah’s ark, the risks and wonders of its first collectors many generations removed. This collection has represented both evolution and creationism yet like the empire from which it proudly drew it now represents a different age and a different way of seeing the world. A world where it might just have been possible to collect all known species, where the idea of extinction was heretical. Within these interiors you are not only seeing but inquiring, inspecting, regarding and as intended - marvelling. You are surrounded by eyes, their realism is their mark of the uncanny, seen to be seen and real enough to frighten, the sparks of lives despite their glassy artifice.
Beyond the examples of specimen taxidermy there is art in the arrangement of the exhibits; the gentle sympathies and worried glances between species, compositions and groupings that give the spaces subtle tensions and dramas and echo the lost art of the tableau vivant re-presented within the sobre Victorian order of glass cases and mahogany mounts. Like the animals one can become suspended, a suspension of disbelief, of judgement, a willing disorientation. A type of order does descend from above, one hundred and sixty years of fading skylight to which all fur cedes. Light and sight, but it is the silence that unnerves.
Like taxidermy photography freezes and frames, measures and orders, the elements of waiting and hunting are common. And in time the melancholy of having recorded what no one remembers is also shared.
Stephen Tierney is an Irish architect and design tutor at University College Dublin
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