Rational Amusements

I like natural history museums, especially old-fashioned ones. I like the big oak cases, the dark corners, and the oddball particulars. I could present my photographs of these museums as a document of our changing attitudes toward representation and the natural world; but in truth, my interests are more personal. I come for the decrepit yak family, the gibbon's skeleton that appears to dance with raised but severed hands, and the peculiar aesthetic logic of a diorama background painted in an impressionist style. Admittedly, I have a tendency to anthropomorphize the exhibits. I find expression in a rhino's glass eye and sympathize with hedgehogs caught in mid-scurry, trapped forever on a small red shelf.

Emmet Gowin wrote, "the gift of a landscape photograph [is] that the heart finds a place to stand." I repeat this not because I think it directly describes my own work but because it points to a fundamental difference. Despite the sentimental comforts of taxidermy, my own pictures convey no such certainty. Long dead yet eternally poised for action, the animals are figures without a ground, imprisoned in dizzying reflections, violent colors, flat landscapes, and time. Gawked at by tourists and leered at by predators, they float in a nether world between past and present, stasis and motion, life and death. The pictures reflect a genuine, though guilty, sense of sentiment and nostalgia, which has been tempered or denied by my approach to the subject matter and by formal strategies that isolate, dislocate, and refract that impulse.

Howard Whitten teaches biology at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport, Maine. He is also responsible for the school’s museum science/taxidermy program. In 2004, with the idea of establishing a lending library of taxidermy, he persuaded the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to donate almost 300 unwanted specimens to the school. Lacking a conventional storage facility, he has placed many of the animals in the classrooms, hallways, and libraries of Nokomis and other schools in the district.

I have never been sure whether I think that knowing this information helps with reading the pictures or is just distracting. Generally I think that more information is better, but there is a danger in too loudly shouting “TRUE BIZARRE FACTS.” To me, the spaces and actors within them are a happy accident, interesting in their own right, yet embodying a certain internal logic which also allows them to function as metaphor. The scenes provide a picture of school life, but they also reflect a way of being in the world at large, a stylized take on interactions and relationships of a particular emotional tenor.

Foam mannikins are used by taxidermists to replace muscle and bone when mounting hides. These forms are the stuffing in a modern stuffed animal.
Rodents of New York State (American Museum of Natural History, New York City)Gibbon (Peabody Museum of Natural History, Cambridge, Massachusetts)Great Blue Heron (L. C. Bates Museum, Hinckley, Maine)Earliest Human Relatives (American Museum of Natural History, New York City)Reinstalling the Moose (Capitol Building, Augusta, Maine)Spoonbill (Pratt Museum of Natural History, Amherst, Massachusetts)Leopard (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago)Bald Eagle (L. C. Bates Museum, Hinckley, Maine)Greater Kudu, Newport/Plymouth Elementary SchoolGreat Horned Owl, Nokomis Regional High SchoolRed Stag and Eld's Deer, Biology Lab, Nokomis Regional High SchoolLion, Community Center, Hartland Consolidated Elementary SchoolRoom 205, Nokomis Regional High SchoolDeer and Students, Nokomis Regional High SchoolOtter, Nokomis Regional High SchoolChamois, Sebasticook Valley Middle SchoolGreater Kudu and Red Stag, Selectmen's Meeting Room, Newport Municipal OfficeMannikin #45-006Mannikin #45-027Mannikin #45-031Mannikin #45-035Mannikin #45-047Mannikin #45-069Mannikin #45-101Mannikin #45-108