AMNH in January  

I’m inside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I’m walking through the mammal halls with their astonishing dioramas and note that each diorama has at least one animal that catches my gaze and holds it in communion. I feel immediately engaged. The animal is very attentive, ready to flee at the intrusion of man, but ready also to hold forever the gaze of meeting. A moment so very fragile and true. An actual encounter. The animal is on the verge to disappear and for a tiny moment I’m arrested in my movement, anxious to disturb the instant of meeting. A shot of adrenalin is rushing through my veins. A true and old sensations, a real archaic moment of men meets beast. I’m aware of the simultaneously obtruding contexts, the fakeness of the exhibited nature, the thingness of the animal, the theatrical lights, the painted environment and my position as a viewer inside a dark panneled hall, participating as an audience member in a show that could be called “The Bright World of Captured Wonders”. I like theatre. I take a few steps towards one of the windows. Time on both sides of the glass has fallen out of continuity. The animal is frozen in a moment of supreme life, and I’m transfixed in astonishment. In real life, no human could ever see a wild animal like this, and maybe more important, no wild animal would ever look at a human like this. Eye to eye. I can see my reflection in one of the buffalo’s huge black eyes.
What is on display is a vision and manipulation of nature, a brilliant interpretation of wilderness, the best producible at the time of the diorama’s inauguration in 1942. Following strict guidelines for the habitat displays, the creators of what I’m looking at wanted to reproduce the habitat of the exhibited animal as truthfully as possible and so they removed foreground material, plants, sod, and trees from the exact site where the animal had been harvested, as they called the procedure of hunting a future exhibit. Images of land and nature are going through my head where entire blocks of reality in the size . of the dioramas are missing. Sky, vegetation, animals and soil removed, leaving blind spots behind. The dramatically spotlighted precious objects, the buffalos as well as the vast land, evoke awestruck attention while the real and living creature, as well as the real land, have been and are trampled and wasted with a different attention but probably under a more sweeping light. This huge buffalo, the grass and soil it stands on, are witness to their own killing and mutilation.
A few steps further I have entered the Hall of the Eastern Woodland Indians and find myself facing an almost similar form of display with at least one difference: the resemblances of members of varying Native American groups are not taxidermied people. They are mannequins, realistically shaped, painted and dressed in ‘authentic’ costumes, posing in arrested movements as dancing dancers, a nursing mother, an aiming hunter, a weaving woman, playing children, they are holding on to their activities for eternity. They are put into compositions with each other and together with their appliances and surroundings, posing as if in ‘real life’, as if alive. They don’t offer me their gaze, they’re not holding mine, don’t make contact. They’re not looking out into the hall, waiting for an encounter with that other side. These mannequin Indians are forced to perform as if I was completely absent. I’m supposed to see them as if I would look through a two-way mirror. This setting doesn’t only put me in the conscious position of a voyeur, more importantly, it suggests that I’m looking backwards into a past where the actual people these mannequins resemble were still undisturbed, still originally real authentic Indians. These installations support the idea that Native Americans lived in a different time and a different world. They provide no link to the living cultures of native people here in New York and all over the Americas, much less to their actual struggles against enduring displacement, expropriation of land and cultural appropriation.
It is Wednesday around noon and kids are running through the dim hallways, screaming ecstatically, stopping for moments in front of the lit windows, dragging each other from one display to the next, taking short notes and rushing further to another display. Some are sitting in corners, filling out forms. Others gather in front of a window trying to catch a glimpse under the skirt of one of the mannequins to see if it has genitals. Here and there staff members are performing little procedures, reenactments of everyday routines from Native American lives. How to hold bow and arrow, how to play the drum, how to grind corn, how to embroider pearls. What is enacted inside the glass boxes and elucidated in text and illustrations on their backdrops, is recalled to life in short loops by the museum staff outside. In front of a diorama with a group of figures 'dancing' I overhear a conversation between two young girls: “Are these Indians real stuffed people?” “No, they’re not dead. They’re just frozen.” Frozen, their spiritual and somatic functions arrested, intermitted. Stopped in place and displaced. Plausible ideas if one has followed the architectural directive of the museum: being channeled from hall to hall, surrounded by taxidermy and fake nature the entire time being here, it seems possible to end up with real stuffed people. Especially if they are displayed in the exact same way fish, birds and mammals where before.


One of the first displays I saw upon entering the Hall of the Eastern Woodland Indians consisted of a number of naturalistically built fake human heads sticking out of the wall, displaying different hairstyles, headdresses, hats and headbands, repeating the manner in which, a few halls earlier, the isolated real heads of numerous birds stuck out . of the wall to elucidate the varying sizes and shapes of their beaks. What is it that we’re looking at? How is one supposed to know what is dead and what is frozen in such a puzzling accumulation of things and times and places; authentic, real, exemplary, replicated and forged.
I remember to have read about a stuffed man called “El Negro”, the body of a spear-carrying, nineteenth-century Kalahari aboriginal, who was stolen from a freshly dug grave in southern Africa and stuffed with hay and sawdust by two Spanish scientist brothers in 1888. “El Negro” was on display in a museum in Banyoles, a town 70 miles north-east of Barcelona starting in 1916 and was, only after international pressure on the occasion of the 2000 Football World Cup held in Spain, finally sent home to Botswana to be buried. The body, after almost one hundred years on display–in which it received many coats of paint, several new pairs of eyes and changing sets of costumes to cover the progressing decay–didn’t even look like a 'real' human anymore and yet it was in fact the real corps with the real skin and the real skull of a human behind a lacquered face with its crooked glass eyes.
Does a mannequin need to be covered in real human skin to be a dead human or is it enough to know that its face was moddeled after a plaster cast that was taken from real human several decades ago as part of a ethnographic survey in a prison-like educational institution for young Native American men? Is it enough to be represented as a vanished past to be tinged with the taste of death? I walk back and forth, from the Eastern Woodland Indians to the Plains Indians, into the Hall Of Pacific Peoples, downstairs to the South American Peoples, crossing through the Birds of the World into the Hall of Asian Peoples, further down into the North American Forest, crossing Biodiversity and the Hall of Ocean Life; further, leaving the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians, walking back upstairs again, I visit the African Peoples, further up, pass the American Birds and the Primates to reenter the Hall of the Woodland Indians. This museum, capable to produce so many different narratives and narrated realities, to veil so many deaths and thefts, to deliver perfect forgeries and lies, is a time-machine, a device for fast traveling, a tool for both, education and lie, a temple to praise omission and invention and a bank stacking more than 32 millions of specimens and artefacts. And it is a theatre with a large repertoire of dramas and comedies performed simultaneously on uncountable stages with or without audience, 24/7.
I’m resting on a bench in front of a group of mannequins in their box. Now they don’t look like anything but plaster and wire, paint and hair assembled in the shape of men. They have no life and have lost none. As sculptural representations they become talkative. Their materiality is indistinguishable from that of a sculpture or a painting and so is their thingness just like that of a good art object. They hold the power to fashion their own readings beyond the descriptive text they seem to offer, outside of being illustrative, ethnographic visuals. At least temporary they are capable to manipulate, change and even subvert their own thingness. I see them transform, back and forth.
I return to see the buffalos one more time. Still grazing, still ruminating. So peaceful and yet so strong, so quiet, here they are. I’m the only visitor now. Out of every diorama, at least one animal stares at me. No matter where I turn, I’m watched. I’m the centre of attention in the Hall of the North American Mammals, the main character in the enactment of natural history–the human-centric version of it. I'm amused by the blunt collection of so many arrested times under one roof and I’m inspired by the way the antagonists, costumed, lit and set in relations to each other so purposefully, still manage to claim their own space, apart from being representations, signs, symbols, artefacts, idols and trophies. And finally I feel sorry a little bit for man’s loneliness and the obsessive longing for acknowledgement and even love from the other, the creature and the beast that makes him kill what he desires to possess. I’m very thankful that these dioramas can still disclose their gruesome fantastic truth. Within the next few days I will come back with my fourteen year old son and they will be excellent accessories in the attempt to think about and to discuss together with him some of the complicated relations between desire and conquest, representation and power.
Now it’s closing time. I have to leave the building. Real sky, real air. The early evening is mild, and although it is only end of January, I can walk through Central Park with my coat open. Music resounds somewhere. And laughter. The Turtle Pond reflects some city lights. Two people pass by on rollerblades.