Life in the 'Dead Zoo'

 

Envelopes filled with feathers, and portraits of stuffed animals: an unusual show explores the curious world of the Museum of Natural History, writes Rosita Boland

Unless you are a scientist or are in possession of good general knowledge, you might be a little bewildered by the elaborate title of artist Karl Grimes's remarkable new exhibition, which is on show at both the National Museum on Kildare Street and at the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar.

Dignified Kings Play Chess on Fine Green Silk is a mnemonic, used to remind students of the Linnaean Taxonomic Order: a method of classifying living things as originally defined by the famous Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus. Grimes chose it as the title for his new exhibition because of its relevance to the work in his shows - for most of the last year, he has been artist-in-residence at Dublin's Museum of Natural History, a residency that ended prematurely in July with the collapse of a stone staircase and the subsequent temporary closure of the museum.

So how does one work as an artist-in-residence in a place where everything is inanimate? What do you engage with, in the process of creating something new?

The museum has a vast quantity of items in storage, along with an extensive paper archive, much of which relates to the provenance of the exhibits. It was these items, most of which the public would not be aware of, that Grimes spent the most time examining. Some material is held on-site, but the vast majority is stored at an old barracks in Beggars Bush.

"I spent a lot of time just looking. Right until I left, I was still opening boxes," Grimes says. "It was like rooting through some great-aunt's attic of curiosities, looking at all these donations and treasures. A museum is always about the process of collecting, classifying and ordering exhibits, and I wanted to look behind the scenes."

There are two complementary parts to Dignified Kings. At Kildare Street, large portrait photographs of various stuffed animals and birds from the museum's collection are displayed on an upper floor. They have an eerie grandeur to them, these haunting formal portraits of dead creatures, prints on silicon, the only clue to their usual location being the museum's light-box atrium, which is reflected in their glass eyes.

"Dubliners were always stealing the eyes of the exhibits," Grimes says. "Not the exhibits themselves, just the eyes." This theft seems somehow surreally appropriate: in death, eyes are always in danger of being pecked out by predators.

The main part of Dignified Kings is at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin's Temple Bar, where the exhibition space is perfectly suited to the show's cabinet-of-curios format. A rich mixture of texts, objects, soundscapes, photographs and drawings makes Grimes' exhibition at least as rewarding, enriching and esoteric as a visit to the famous "Dead Zoo" itself.

The key part of the exhibition is the fascinating Killed Striking series. Particularly observant visitors to the Museum of Natural History might have noticed that there are only a few cabinets painted white: the "bird wall". These contain birds that were collected by the 19th-century naturalist RM Barrington, whose obsession was the migratory patterns of birds, then still quite a mysterious act of regular disappearance.

In his attempts to understand more about migration, Barrington wrote to the keepers at every lighthouse and lightship around Ireland, asking for their assistance. Birds that migrate at night are fatally attracted to light, and keepers often found dead bodies scattered around the lighthouses in a halo of feathers each morning. Barrisngton asked if they would remove a wing and claw from each dead bird they found, log some specific data, and then send them to him in Wicklow, with the promise that postage would be refunded.

Between 1890 and 1900, when Barrington carried out this project, small packages of feathers and claws, along with those containing entire birds that had been stunned to death, started their own migration patterns, arriving with regularity to his home in Wicklow. One can only imagine what his postman made of these deliveries. The data Barrington collected formed the basis for his book, Migration of Birds as Observed at Irish Lighthouses and Lightships. He also had his own personal collection of mounted dead birds, many of which are now behind the white cabinets in the Museum of Natural History.

Barrington started this project in 1890, and ended it in 1900. Until 1926, a full 26 years after he had formally ended the project, and 11 years after Barrington's death, bird parts continued to arrive at the Wicklow house from the lighthouses and lightships around Ireland. In 1916, his family donated his entire archive to the Museum of Natural History, and when Grimes went through it, he found the central idea that would ignite his show.

Grimes has photographed some of the original envelopes Barrington was sent, and the series in the gallery, arranged in a large grid, shows glimpses of labels, letters from lighthouse keepers, feathers, claws, all emerging from these envelopes.

An accompanying soundscape in a side-space plays the sounds of waves hitting a lighthouse, with a voice-over incanting Barrington's instructions to his willing keepers: "Rare or strange birds should be sent entire." There is a tiny photograph of Barrington himself, in a jewel-like frame. It's a compelling and haunting series of installations.

There are other components to the exhibition, all of them also focused on the theme of collecting, and how collections are ordered. They range from marvellously odd photographs of the plastic dinosaurs and wolves sold in the museum's shop to a series of photographs of masks accompanied by jaw-dropping archival Victorian texts on the methodology of collecting.

The cumulative effect of Dignified Kings is quite wonderful, and has the instant effect of making you want to go straight back to the Museum of Natural History and look at it again through fresh eyes. Sadly, the museum remains closed for the present, but anyone having withdrawal symptoms or wanting to see what its hidden secrets have inspired should go and see this show.

Both exhibitions run concurrently at the National Museum, Kildare Street and the Gallery of Photography until Nov 4. More information on www.karlgrimes.net or http://museum.ie/naturalhistory