Anyone who knows me, reads this blog, or looks at any of my social media will probably know that I have a little bit of a passion for museums, and particularly the little odds and ends that make up the back rooms of their collections. Since living in London I've had the opportunity to visit some of the best museums the city has to offer, and had a look at some of the greatest collections of objects in the world (though their acquisition is something that is often hazy and definitely deserves its own discussion). I'm probably most taken by the natural history collections of the Natural History Museum, the medical specimens at the Hunterian Museum, the taxidermy at the Booth Museum (which is in nearby Brighton) and the beautifully preserved specimens of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. I'm planning a trip down to the Horniman Museum very soon, and I'm sure that'll go straight on my favourites list. I managed to get a fairly good look inside the Theatre & Performance Archives at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of my work with CreateVoice, and was bowled over by the sheer amount of objects they have in storage, amazing things which never get to see much light simply because there's not enough room (even at the huge V&A) to display them. It sparked in me a little obsession with the collections behind the scenes of the museum, and was exacerbated by a quick trip to the archives in the Booth Museum where I photographed some documents for my lovely friend Abi, who was working on her dissertation at the time.
In most places you can request a tour of the archives, or make an appointment to go see them. However, most places aren't so keen on having them photographed by people they don't know or haven't hired! Maybe one day I'll get free reign of the Natural History Museum's specimen jars, but until then I'll live vicariously through the photographs of others - others like Rosamond Purcell. Purcell is a collector as well as a photographer, and has spent years going through specimens which she feels the world just has to see. What I particularly love about her images is that she makes no effort to separate the specimens from their contexts; she doesn't remove them from their cases, or shoot them with a classically archival white background. Instead, she works with their number, their patterns and shapes and their museum setting in order to produce images which aren't just sterile representations of precious objects, but artworks in their own right. As if I needed any persuading to see them that way! Her images were featured by National Geographic this January, and they've made a short video about her work which I've shared below.
1 | Preserved parrot fish (Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard)
2 | Bat specimens (collection unknown)
3 | Slab containing multiple ammonite fossils (Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard)
4 | Masks of native Sumatran men on the island of Nias, made by anthropologist J. P. Kleiweg (Universiteitsmuseum Utrecht)
5 | Hematite shaped like a bird's wing (Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University)
6 | Skins of the European Mole, collected by Willem Cornelis van Heurn (Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden)
7 | Two gorilla skulls from an expedition to West Africa in 1934-5 (Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University)
8 | Paradise bird-wing butterflies, collected in Papua New Guinea by naturalist Carl von Hagen, who was later eaten by cannibals on the island (Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard)