Volume 4. No. 1. Summer 2011
ISSN 1752-6388

Reflections on the Vitrine

Ingvild Kaldal and Nigel Rothfels

Reflections on the Vitrine

The following conversation took place as an asynchronous email correspondence between the artist Ingvild Kaldal in Sweden and the historian Nigel Rothfels in the United States in March and April, 2010. 

Nigel Rothfels: In 1922 on the grounds of the New York Zoological Garden, a new building opened to house what was then called the National Heads and Horns Collection. According to the May 22nd announcement in the New York Times, carved in stone on the front of the building was inscribed: ‘In Memory of the Vanishing Big Game of the World’. I’ve been turning that inscription around in my head as I’ve been thinking about your installation, When you see me again it won`t be me (2009). One of the first things people notice about your work for the Hall of Mammals at the Natural History Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, is how ‘out of the past’ the museum, itself, seems to be. Museum spaces like the one you show - partly a natural history collection and partly a hunting trophy collection - have slowly disappeared over the last fifty or sixty or years, but when they were first assembled a key idea was that they would somehow preserve for centuries into the future the memory of the large animals of the world. Surprisingly quickly, though, these collections came to be seen not as miraculous preserves of memory but as out-dated, old-fashioned, and somehow generally musty. To start off this conversation, could you describe your experience of this museum before you thought of creating work in the space? What did you think of this place before you ever considered doing work about it?  

Ingvild Kaldal: Before working with this exhibition, I had visited the museum several times, and it was definitely the special atmosphere in this specific museum that kept me coming back. As a kid I visited a lot of forest museums because my father is a professor of History, whose work then was about forestry workers. Almost every holiday we traveled by car through Scandinavia, and we always stopped at different local museums. As a child I felt I had seen more than my share of log cabins and installations in museums in which ‘humans’ were displayed as characters working with wood or ‘eating’ some plastic porridge. I then connected museums with a romantic history and history with men who lived in and together with nature. The Natural History Museum in Gothenburg is so different from the museums I grew up visiting, and maybe it was this difference that attracted me. When I first visited this museum I was impressed how history felt so present, and the feeling of traveling back in time. Because of financial reasons, they never really updated the collection, and now, of course, the ‘old’ setting is a part of their signature. I am fascinated by this place precisely because it is a museum over a museum. The Natural History Museum in Gothenburg is so interesting because it claims to be a scientific museum whilethe displayed collection obviously is a monument to a power relation between man and nature.

By pointing this out I’m reminded of two earlier works I did in zoological gardens. The museum is a part of colonial history and yet it is also difficult not to be seduced by the strong feeling of nostalgia and beauty in the aesthetics of the place and the time it somehow memorializes. 

NR: Right, the Museum in Gothenburg has preserved more than just the specimens, it has preserved a critical moment of the museum experiment itself. You also point, though, to how your thinking about the place was framed by your earlier work on animals in zoological gardens. For you, what sorts of questions about animals and display interested you in both your earlier work on zoos and in this more recent project on a museum? In what ways, too, were the settings different? 

IK: In 2008 I created a work in and about an abandoned zoo in Klæbu, a small village in Norway where I grew up. This zoo struggled to get enough visitors and was forced to close down in 1998. For this work, I wanted to engage both the zoo displays and the unique history of the area where the zoo was situated. I made six time-based sculptures imitating the fake landscapes zoos use in their displays. The sculptures were made of brown cardboard and were placed in the empty landscapes and near the houses that bordered the zoo when it existed. The work was presented with a text component consisting of eight letters sent by the owner of the zoo to the city hall.

In the letters, the owner appeals for more support from the city.  The letters have a tragicomic tone as the owner talks about the value of both the more exotic and more domestic animals. For example, the prospect of selling a Norwegian goat is seen as a financial disaster compared to selling a zebra. I am interested in different issues of hierarchy and display - and especially how settings are created at both the zoo and the museum.  I feel the projects were dealing with similar questions, in particular the ‘lie to the eye’ and how different artifacts can become more real than actual nature.

While working in the museum a staff member told me that the architecture of the museum caused her to pass the Hall of Mammals several times each day. She said she used to imagine the reflections in the glass vitrines being the souls of the dead animals.

It is interesting how the obvious difference of animals in a zoo being alive and the animals in a museum being dead skin doesn’t seem so important when one realizes that the animals in both places perform an equal function in environments created by a human wish to represent nature.  

NR: I agree. Despite the differences between them, zoos and natural history museums both seek to create nature for the audience. Both the polar bear at the zoo, playing with a hard plastic ball in its pool or sleeping on gunnite fashioned to look like rock, and the polar bear at the museum, made to look arrestingly alive as it stands on fake ice next to a seal made to look as arrestingly dead, are both real and not. As you put it, they are ‘lies to the eye’ that can somehow become ‘more real to us than [the] actual nature’ they are supposed to represent. Your work goes right to the theatrical and narrative structures underlying these institutions. How would you, then, introduce your broad goals for your installation at the Gothenburg Natural History Museum? 

IK: At the very beginning of this project I was looking at Chris Marker’s film La jetée. I brought my computer to the Hall of Mammals and walked around listening to the music and watching the still images from a specific scene in this film. In a post-apocalyptic Paris after the third world war, the main character is sent back in time and meets a woman from his memory. In one of the scenes, they meet at the natural history museum in Paris, a place that in the film both represents the past and an underlying fear of the distant future. I wanted to work with the feeling of the Gothenburg Museum as a non-place; I didn’t want to create a work that was either condemning or affirming. I used the music from Chris Marker’s film to enlarge the museum’s nostalgia and ‘from-nature’ setting that had attracted me from the very beginning.

Going back to my thoughts on how zoological gardens and museums use narratives, I also wanted to create a work, which would echo the circus, and traditions that have used anthropomorphism in different ways. By using symbols from the theatre to highlight and frame a central piece in the collection, I was not trying to create a new hierarchy but framing an existing one. Not all the visitors realized that I was engaged in creating a time-based art installation, and it is in this uncertainty that I see the greatest strength of the work. While constructing the installation, visitors often told their children to leave the museum staff alone.

NR: Your response reminds me that the famous taxidermist Carl Akeley wanted his work to be understood as art, even if it was in a different kind of museum. That visitors understood you as a member of the museum staff, working on the exhibits, and understood your work as just maintaining the exhibits, reminds me, too, of some of Mark Dion’s pieces in museums. Of course, the museum, the zoo, and the circus have attracted the interest of a great many artists, writers, and scholars. Do you see your work as engaged directly with that of others? 

IK: In response to the repeated questions about his practice being either art or science, Mark Dion claimed that his relationship to science is not that different from a Renaissance painter’s relationship to religion. He also points out how science has replaced the church in contemporary society, and I am inspired by how Dion camouflages himself as a scientist in order to discuss the complex power of science through his art. After working with the installation in the Hall of Mammals, I created an additional work, also with the Natural History Museum in Gothenburg, titled Correctly named, Securely packed. I started this work while I was engaged with the installation in the Hall, and it was striking how different the experience was working with a public exhibition space on the one hand and the basement storage on the other. In this new work I asked the staff members to choose 49 pieces of newspaper and donate them to me. The newspapers had originally been used to wrap the long and fragile beaks of 272 hummingbirds when a large collection was shipped from South America to Sweden. Both this work and the installation in the Hall of Mammals can be seen in a relationship to other artists working in museums or with existing material from public collections; and in the case of the hummingbirds I worked with the material considered uninteresting to science. Correctly named, Securely packed was exhibited recently in the group show ‘Derridas Katze... que donc je suis (à suivre)’ at Kunstraum Kreuzberg, in Berlin. The work reflected upon the museum as a public space, while commenting on the differences and similarities between private and public collections, as well as the tradition of trophies in museums. The history of the museum, both as a powerful institution and as a public place, is one of the discussions that fundamentally connects my work with that of others in this field.  

NR: It’s important that you’ve mentioned the temporal nature of this work- something which is not obvious, of course, in the photographic documentation. Can you describe for us the installation both technically and as an experience for the audience? 

IK: As you say, it is very important to emphasize that this work was never considered as a permanent installation, even though I played with the fact that it could have been. The work consisted of 30 metres of red theatre fabric mounted 120cm over the floor on a thin steel construction. The elephant was already surrounded by an oval-shaped metal rail standing 50cm over the floor, which I extended to 80cm. The fabric was then hung on and draped over the old oval rail. The installation was lit with spotlights placed on top of the glass vitrines, complementing existing spots lighting the other displays. The spots I used were much more powerful than those of the museum and the scene felt like a movie set, giving the installation a dramatic feel. There was a text complementing the work in the catalogue but next to the piece there was only an already existing information sign stating, ‘No—we did not blow up the elephant, this is the actual size of a African Angolan male elephant.’ (This sign amused me because the museum’s formalin collection was located on the floor directly below the elephant.)


Museums, of course, must design their exhibits to appeal to a broad audience, but I was surprised how much consideration the Museum gave to the visitors’ emotional feelings for the old exhibitions. The staff talked a lot about how people remembered seeing the exhibitions as kids, and how they now bring their own children to the museum and are pleased that nothing has changed. A typical visitor comes to the Museum once every five years, which means that the Museum is forced to create changes at only a very slow rate in order to maintain the personal memory for every visitor. I liked the thought of the Museum, as a kind of memorial to nature after it is gone. I hoped the installation would wake feelings that the audience didn’t normally consider. I wanted the red curtains to remind visitors of an overarching narrative, while expanding the existing atmosphere of the Hall of Mammals. Pushing the ambiguous tension of the work to be seen as either an art installation or a ‘normal’ museum display was something I decided upon when I planned the physical size of the intervention. Still, while reconfiguring the already exciting parts of the exhibition, it is important to remember that this was a temporary installation that could only be seen during one month. Now it exists only in the documentary photographs and in the memories of those who experienced the work. As much as the photographs presented here are documentation, however, I want them to also function as a series of photographs on their own. These images allow a physical work to exist after its disappearance, in the same mythical and dramatic way, in fact, as the installation had. The images are, for me, a way of thinking about the roles of the intervention long after its disappearance.

When I visited the museum some months before working on this piece, I noticed the elephant in a completely different way than I had done during my previous visits. The feeling was so strong and I was so struck by it, that I asked a staff member how long the elephant had been removed for renovation. I was told that the elephant had never been moved since it was placed in the museum in 1952. In an issue of a Swedish magazine called ord & bild (word & image), I had read an article written by Mattias Hagberg almost a year before about the taxidermist David Sjölander, who both shot the elephant and brought it to the museum for preparation. The article described Sjölander’s process of working with the elephant and speculated about whether his behavior had changed and how he might also have hidden his sketches and notes inside the elephant. My experience had now changed because of this loaded myth about the taxidermist.

NR: I want to return, in a moment, to Sjölander and the elephant, but first I want to ask you another question about the documentation of your piece. You’ve pointed to the additional spotlights and the theatrical theme of the work in general. What strikes me in the your photographs, even in those where we can see reflections, is that you have left the audience conspicuously absent from this theatre. Why do you think it was important to you to not show the audience or even your own reflection in the documentation?  

IK: I thought a long time about how I would immortalize the piece. The installation was inspired by the drapes from the theatre and the spectacular opening, and the photographs in which the elephant is centred also suggest there is an event about to happen. I wanted the documentation to be as seductive as the piece, almost as a myth on top of the intervention, and I found the visitors of the museum to be both the theatre’s audience and its actors. Photographs can never represent the piece as it was in real life, and I played with this in the documentation. In the end, I wanted the pictures to reflect the constructed timelessness and ‘from nature’ feeling I had of the place. 

NR: When you mention ‘constructed timelessness,’ I’m brought back to two of your earlier responses. Early in our discussion, you mentioned a worker at the Museum who wondered about a connection between the souls of the dead animals and animals’ reflections in the glass of the vitrines. More recently, you mentioned conjectures about the taxidermist Sjölander’s thoughts while working on the elephant and that he may have hidden stuff inside the animal. Both of these responses reflect, I think, that many people have found something profound, disturbing, compelling, and even inspiring in these objects, in what is within them and even beyond them. These objects, after all, are often little more than a thin layer of skin stretched over a form with some glass eyes and perhaps false teeth, yet even when we know there is not much more animal in a taxidermized zebra than a tanned zebra hide used as a floor covering, the standing form of a zebra in a museum with its glass eyes ‘looking’ at us arrests us in ways that are very difficult to describe. These objects have aura. As an artist working with these objects, have you experienced the fascination you first felt for them waning as you’ve worked more closely with them? Do you think your feelings about them have changed in any way as result of your work? 

IK: The aura and the authenticity are not so different from those ascribed, perhaps, to works of art and were created at the time and place when the animals were prepared. This, combined with the knowledge of the unique existence of every living creature, makes the objects also seem very alive. The question of the animals’ souls reflecting in the glass vitrines is, therefore, important when we consider both how the objects were created and who created them. Sjölander shot and killed the elephant for the museum in 1948, and the taxidermy process was completed in 1952. In real life, of course, African elephants have no natural enemies, except natural disasters and human beings, which sets the killing of this particular elephant in an important perspective.

One project that creates some of the same feelings that I experienced when I worked closely with this elephant is Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir’s and Mark Wilson’s Nanoq: Flat out and bluesome. During a four-year long process they conducted a survey of taxidermy polar bears from public and private collections around the British Isles. One part of this project was an exhibition for which they borrowed and displayed a number of polar bears in separate glass vitrines. When they were exhibited all together, the differences and the similarities between the bears and how they were stuffed became more clear. Different taxidermists had decided upon the position and expression of each of the polar bears, and also in this work the bears were displayed with all the damage they had suffered throughout the time of their ‘existence.’

The exhibition examined the museum tradition of using one object to represent a whole species and by showing a large group; the artists illustrated how the individuality of these objects is part of the taxidermic process. The work, therefore, gave the audience an opportunity to reflect upon what they saw beyond the fascination of the objects as just objects. This sense of the uniqueness of a particular taxidermized object was also part of my working with and spending time in the Hall of Mammals. The work gave me the opportunity to see beyond aesthetics and a generalized feeling of the sublime, and to think about what we really see when we face one of these objects. There is, of course, something comforting about places that never change, but nostalgia is also a feeling that, over time, becomes both tragic and suffocating. What actually changed through this work is that my intervention added something new to the aura of this elephant and made me a part of creating the history of this object. 

NR: This is really one of the paradoxes of these places, isn’t it? On the one hand, we know that many of the creators and taxidermists of the old natural history museums sought to somehow stop time, to create a record of a moment which could be permanent even while the animals of the world were being exterminated. This effect is clearer in Gothenburg and a few other places because the Hall there has stayed somehow still through the years. Your initial inspiration from the images and music in Marker’s La jetée, in which the couple are able to share moments of joy together precisely because the museum of natural history they visit exists outside of time, emphasizes this quality of some of these places. On the other hand, as an artist working in the museum, you recognize that the work you do can profoundly alter, subvert, or even supplement the aura of the objects. This, as you say, is one of the stunning realizations of encountering the dislocations of Nanoq: Flat out and bluesome. Before we end this conversation, can you tell us a bit about the work you are doing now and whether you think the themes of When you see me again it won’t be me will continue to be important in your work going forward? 

IK: I am now in the very beginning of developing a project with a zoological museum here in Skåne. The collections here are threatened with being packed away and vanishing in the next two years. I am, therefore, thinking a lot about what qualities these exhibitions have that make them different from other public places. The museums that were built for completely educational purposes, like the one I am working with now, also represent a public place that does not have a commercial value and that is part of the reason this place may be closed. Still, I find a quality in these old exhibitions that is somehow connected to time and history, and that contrasts to everything else that is quickly changing in our lives. Going back to your comment about the exhibits in Gothenburg being out of date, I think about a small section of the museum that was updated in the 1990s and that feels paradoxically more ‘un-modern’ than the original exhibition from the 1920s. In particular, there is an image of people lying next to the ocean and both the quality of the photo and the clothes they are wearing are so very 1989 that that scene seems to be the one that is out of date and the older exhibits seem somehow timeless.

This leads me to the fact that the natural history museum reminds us of our immorality in different ways. In When you see me again it won’t be me, I wanted to bring up aspects of the displays that are connected to changes in time in the settings around the objects. This was also what the title referred to. The settings we create when we tell stories are also a big part of how we understand ourselves, and I will continue to work with the part of my installation that references the bathos in Greek tragedies and the use of death in the plays of antiquity. Why does staged death give us a satisfaction and why are we seduced by the feeling of controlling time and the nature of death?

In my new work, I will be focusing on the things that physically have surrounded the objects in their exhibition over all these years—the parts the museum does not choose to be stored and packed in boxes for the future.