Honesty and illusion in museums

Twitter is brilliant for finding out about really interesting stuff you may otherwise have missed. In the last couple of weeks, to really interesting examples of museum NS displays have been brought to my attention.

The first, from Elee Kirk (@eleekirk) via @RachelCockett

The Opposite of Taxidermy

So in this display in the Exploratorium in California they have decided to take the most realistic view of the decay process possible. Namely, they’ve shoved some dead animals in a tank and left them to rot. This is brilliant.

I’m a great believer that there is nothing wrong with being honest about death. Throughout human history we have sheltered ourselves from the reality of death, and constructed all kinds of myths to try and deny the finality of it. So confronting it, tackling it head-on, is very honest.

I love taxidermy (good and bad), but it’s fake. It’s creating an afterlife, using the illusion of life. The best taxidermists are extraordinarily skilled. But it’s dishonest (not in a bad way). The “Is it real?” question comes about because of that slight-of-hand that taxidermy displays. I wonder if anyone looking at this display would ask the same question?

They might well do, but it would be with a very different tone. It would be in grim certainty of the answer, not as any kind of philosophical pondering.

I worry that no museum in the UK would risk doing this (and I really hope at this point I’m corrected in the comments). There is an inherent conservatism in much of our psyche, and we’d surely shy away from it in the name of protecting children. But in my experience, kids are fascinated when they find dead animals. It’s adults who are really freaked out by death and decay, possibly because they have a greater awareness of their own mortality, and find it an uncomfortable reminder.

I did find an old story that suggested the Science Museum wanted to do this with a human body. I think, as long as all consents were in place and the display was controlled and optional, this is a fascinating thing to do. But I don’t think it ever happened. Maybe they are still pursuing it?

The Honest Label

The second thing I wanted to share has been so widely circulated via Twitter and email that I really can’t credit it to anyone. It seems to be described as a label from an unknown museum, although the HMNH tag clearly indicates the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

The label reads:

“This object has been temporarily removed as we revise its facial expression, which was deemed zoologically improbable and/or terrifying to small children”

I do so want to believe this is genuine, and may try track down the source to confirm it. I have to say though, I worry it’s actually a conscious installation, rather than a true attempt at honesty in natural history displays. There’s an underlying truth though, in that old taxidermy was often displayed in such a way as to indicate the brutal and savage nature of the living world. this is of course at odds with the perfectly peaceful way most animals conduct themselves 99% of the time. All those snarling wolves, bears, apes, etc are far more likely to look pretty serene should you ever see them in the wild. But there was a storyline to maintain, and so displays had to serve that.


I think both of these images talk about the honesty of museum displays. In no way am I suggesting there is a wilful, negative dishonesty in museum displays. But I think we do engage in illusion. I’m fascinated to hear what people think.



Filed under Museums, Objects

7 responses to “Honesty and illusion in museums

  1. Hi David,
    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the label is from an art project. You can see more pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/csdavis/sets/72157626335833539/
    I too was disappointed that the label wasn’t genuine, or at least wasn’t referring to a genuine piece of taxidermy – I think plenty of specimens could probably do with this sort of treatment!
    Sometimes it seems to take the wit of an artist – people who we think are supposed to play with illusion – to point out the down-to-earth, honest and ‘real’ that more science-minded people somehow end up avoiding.

  2. I can’t imagine any UK museums taking on a decay tank, mainly because of the issues it would raise for Integrated Pest Management, rather that because of the subject matter.

    I’ve been hoping to set up a decay experiment at my institution and my main concern has certainly been about keeping the insects associated with the decomposition process away from our stored collections.

    Science centres would probably be more appropriate locations for this sort of exhibit – preferably kept well away from any organic collections!

  3. David Craven

    My colleague Myna has written a couple of excellent follow-up posts to this, which will be appearing over the next couple of weeks.

  4. It has been done frequently in art institutions, Damien Hirst being the obvious example. maybe we need to start curating mixed shows that intergrate ‘musuem’ exhibits and ‘art’ exhibits, to give us a better insight into both.

  5. Pingback: Unrealised Proposal for Cadavre Piece, 1970 | New Light on Old Bones

  6. Lily Fernandez

    I know that at the California Science Center, there is a “rot room” where you can see bugs eat dead animals, usually mice. I’ve been told that they tend to go through a mouse in a couple days.

  7. Even if it were not an art project, I think that people who are reading the ‘honest label’ display woulod have believed it, whether it is honest or not, such is the authority of the construct of a museum. Museums are (generally) places of curiosity, knowledge, records and preservation. Frequently, places like the Natural History leave a label saying “this specimen has been temporarily removed for study” or something similar..what if it has been stolen? Mysteriously gone missing? I think the authority of the museum scenario is extremely interesting, and frequently unquestioned.
    In regards to the decay tank, I think this is a fantastic idea. I remember going to the Oxford Museum of Natural History, which is mainly old-fashioned taxidermy and formaldehyde, and seeing a mouse, taxiermied to look as if it were in the first stages of decay, strewn with plastic maggots. Why not create this scenario for real?

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