This Monday the American Museum of Natural History launched a new digital platform with thousands of images from their archives. It kicked off the initiative with an event featuring two artists who have been profoundly influenced by its collections. Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman joined Library Director Tom Baione for a Slide Slam that rotated between museum photographs from the newly online archives and their own work.
“I think in the last three years I’ve visited the museum at least once a month,” Dion said, while Rockman explained that the museum inspired “vivid narratives for how I interpret the world.” Both artists described spending significant time there when they were young, drawn to the elaborate dioramas with their taxidermied beasts. Dion has translated this into his own dioramas — such as his Concrete Jungle series — which evoke the collision of urban sprawl with nature, often replicating real places with Rockman working on the backdrop similar to the collaborative AMNH creators. Rockman, likewise, paints detailed scenes of animal life, often in a conflict with modernization, with a sharp detail similar to what you might find in a biology textbook.
Dion emphasized that he sees the museum dioramas as “masterworks of art and science,” and in the over 8,000 images offered online in the initial digitization you get these “human moments” from behind-the-scenes. Often they are surreal, such as with a museum worker pretending to be mauled by a grizzly bear in 1941 (an antic that apparently almost got him fired), or from 1958 a diorama artist working on a larger-than-life millipede in an Incredible Shrinking Man-type moment. “It really is the place where the museum gets to tell its story” Dion said of the archives, in how it has evolved over a 145-year history through all “its foibles and victories.”
Rockman regularly paints tableaux similar to sprawling natural history murals of tumultuous biodiversity; he even painted the AMNH’s forest floor diorama in 1989. Dion has built curiosity cabinet-style installations for museums like the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, and in one of his most recent pieces set up a sleeping bear on a mound of human detritus from the stone age to present in a cave as part of the National Tourist Routes in Norway. Aesthetics aside, where both artists may have the most significant influence from the museum is its sense of discovery and exploration.
“There’s a generation of artists who are all deeply invested in this notion that the expedition has a place in artistic practice,” Dion said. While traditionally the domain of scientists, Dion and Rockman have both spent significant time out in “the field,” together in Guyana in 1994, and on separate journeys such as Rockman to Madagascar and Dion to Komodo where he built supply sheds for the park rangers. In this way they are not dissimilar from the naturalists who went out into the wilds for the AMNH and painted, photographed, and documented the world, and returned to rebuild it in the museum.
The museum definitely has a complicated history of conservation in terms of harvesting specimens from their environment and interpreting these for a Western world. (Dion highlighted how, for example, the taxidermy of the polar bear has gone from “demonic” to a softened creature, from something we need to be protected from to something we need to protect.) Yet it’s now positioned as a valuable resource on our changing relationship with the natural world. Each attendee of the Slide Slam got a few 35mm lecture slides as a souvenir (my packet had a muskox and a capture of a deer diorama), their own little windows into the museum’s history along with the trove of images now online.
Below are some selections from the digitized archives that show the human interaction with these reconstructions of nature.
The Digital Special Collections of the American Museum of Natural History’s Research Library can be accessed online. The Slide Slam with Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman was April 28 at the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street, Upper West Side).