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Biomedicine in museums

Karl Grimes' poetic transformation of a natural history museum collection in Dublin

By September 24, 2007No Comments

During a year as artist-in-residence at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, Karl Grimes has curated (or rather re-curated) a joint exhibition with the Gallery of Photography called “Dignified Kings Play Chess on Fine Green Silk” which opens tomorrow, September 27:

In photographs, drawings, lightboxes, text and sound, Grimes’s re-interpretation of the Natural History Museum’s collections and Victorian museum practice becomes a re-collection, a poetic transformation activating memory and re-awakening the ‘Dead Zoo’. In the upper balcony of the National Museum, Grimes installs a series of large-scale animal portraits, the Taxum Totem series. The exhibition at the Gallery of Photography goes behind the scenes of the Museum, presenting images and drawings from off-site storage areas, research archives, imaginary do-it-yourself taxidermy guides, and ironic ways of telling the good from the bad curator.

The websites don’t explain the title, but a quick search reveals that this is a mnemonic phrase to remember the hierarchic order of ranks of taxa in the living world (Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species).

Some of us met Karl for lunch here at Medical Museion in January 2005 just before he went to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to do the photo exhibiton “Vial Memory”. I’m afraid I wasn’t that wild with his photos, and his new work (as judged from the websites) again leaves me with somewhat ambiguous feelings. For example, here’s a stuffed striped animal (zebra) re-curated together with a green mop cleaning set against a background of early 20C museum showcases:

Why a mop cleaning set? I haven’t read the catalogue, but maybe the point is that both the brushes and the stuffed zebra are made of natural materials? But with different degrees of harm inflicted on the animals in the collection process? As the lifestyle company one earth one design proclaims, it uses only “animal hair taken from live animals” (“Animals were not harmed”) for their sustainable and expensive cleaning utensils; whereas collecting the remains of the zebra in the Dublin museum was pretty harmful to the poor creature.

But this is a very personal and probably unknowledgable interpretation. There are certainly some much better readings of this photo. Any suggestions?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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