Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
The Booth Museum Of Natural History, Brighton
16 June 2007 - 15 June 2008
Reviewed by: Laura Clarke »
It is interesting how a specific exhibition detailing the life’s work of Edward Thomas Booth: huntsman, collector of specimens and curator, is being shown at a time when taxidermy seems to be re-kindling as a desirable medium, rather than something looked upon as archaic and somewhat politically incorrect. With a resurgence of artists using the process in their practice over the past 5 years or so, the exhibition at the Booth museum comes at an opportune time.
The exhibition celebrates taxidermy as a skill and an art, rather than purely an informative factual tool in terms of natural history, yet it has been displayed in a museum rather than a gallery. The lines have been blurred between informative and evocative, changing the tone and purpose of the information displayed.
The Booth museum itself is unusual in terms of what you would expect a natural history museum to look like, housing the somewhat uneasy marriage of scientific fact and art. Everything is just a little ‘off’; the signs are hand painted on rough planks of wood haphazardly nailed to animal skeletons, and the whole building looks like an old warehouse, with boxes of specimens piled up on top of the displays, and small nooks and crannies filled with almost random displays of specimens, with some that look suspiciously bogus.
The fact that the design of the museum does not follow the typical blueprint for a natural history museum questions the authenticity of the information, which in turn, questions what it is exactly that makes us put our trust in certain institutions over others. The exhibition does little to parlay this, displaying work that can be appreciated both scientifically and artistically.
Life in Death celebrates both the macabre and darkly humorous aspect of taxidermy at the height of its popularity during Victorian times, as well as the rise of taxidermy in museums, as new discoveries about the world were being made. What was once an exciting and innovative means of home decoration and proof of material wealth rapidly became seen as morbid and politically incorrect during the early 20th Century. Taxidermy had earned itself a bad reputation; it became a dead art, seen as distasteful and outdated. The work of one of the most skilled taxidermists of that era, Walter Potter, helped contribute to this reputation, and some of his most infamous work has been set up as part of the exhibition. A favourite with Queen Victoria, Potter was famed for his anthropomorphic works designed amuse and entertain. A century later and his work is still controversial, and seems to sit slightly uneasily amongst the permanent displays of birds in their natural habitats. The fact that it is unclear exactly which displays are part of the exhibition, and which are regular features of the museum underpins the feeling that art is trying to pass itself off as science, or vice versa.
However, Potter’s work does seem to compliment the centrepiece of the exhibition; the installation running through the centre of the museum has been set up to look like the living area of a Victorian parlour, possibly even a mock-up of the house that E T Booth lived in. Housing a multitude of glass display cases of birds and butterflies, it epitomises the decadence and lavishness of the nouvelle riche of that era. It is this section of the exhibition that seems to further blur the boundaries of art and science. The collections of specimens have been immaculately preserved, and the display cases themselves are reminiscent of those in the Natural History museum in London, yet the context in which they have been placed renders them objects appreciated for their aesthetic appeal, rather than objects which have been classified and placed in a museum. Purely by changing the context of the taxidermied works, they could become factually correct and scientifically informative.
According to the information displayed on the walls, Booth pioneered the diorama style of display used so frequently in natural history museums; subsequently, this standard format has been the basis for much of the subversive taxidermy work produced by contemporary artists who work with the craft. Artists such as Polly Morgan and Chloe Brown frequently subvert the traditional context of taxidermied animals to evoke a feeling or response rather than to be anatomically informative. The animals become more about their setting; they are a very visceral medium, and still have the power to unnerve an unsuspecting viewer. There is still something slightly disconcerting about being presented with a dead animal, particularly out of the context of a museum display, where a viewer is automatically distanced from the work because of the formal and purely informative context. By placing taxidermied specimens in an unexpected context, their purpose changes, and thus the response of a viewer is affected; the animal is no longer just a tool for learning but it is an emblem of death, preserved for all time with tiny beady eyes.
Life in Death ties in nicely with the darker side of contemporary art that is emerging. The revival of the craft of taxidermy is a powerful thing; the artists of today seem to have learnt from the mistakes of taxidermists past, and seem to be careful to emphasize the aesthetic and evocative aspect of taxidermy, overshadowing its more gruesome past. The exhibition at the Booth museum encapsulates both, allowing you to make up your own mind.
The Booth Museum Of Natural History »
194 Dyke Road, BRIGHTON BN1 5AA
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