What happens when a natural history collection—some of which hasn’t been moved in nearly 150 years—gets packed up and sent across town? The results are weird, wild and strangely beautiful.
The exhibitions in the Natural History Collections in Bergen, Norway are undergoing a major restoration, and will be closed for at several years, opening in the Fall of 2019. Due to this all the animals were being moved to a new temporary storage facility on the other side of town. Not a simple task when the animals are big and fragile. Some of the animals are out of their display cases for the first time almost 150 years.
Between 1871 and 1973, when they were designated as a fully protected species, about 30,000 polar bears were shot on Svalbard. In the 1884 season, about 300 animals were killed. The best place for hunting these white giants of the North was Kong Karl’s Land, a small archipelago that lies some 200 kilometres east of Spitsbergen. The animals were slaughtered, and their flesh was eaten. The pelts were prepared and transported to the mainland. One was bought by furrier Carl Brandt in Bergen, whose establishment was in the centre of the city. Brandt donated this pelt to Bergen Museum. In 1908, the Museum obtained a polar bear cub, and an unidentified seal was also put on display. Ever since, these three specimens have stood, frozen solid, as it were, in a polar tableau; 109 years in a display case. Until now, that is.
It is more than 150 years since the Natural History Collections were given their own buildings on University Hill in Bergen. Most of the interior and many of the animal exhibits have remained unchanged since 1866.
The grand whale hall in particular is quite unique in a European context, as documentation of its time and of a way of looking at the world. Museums of this type are themselves currently threatened with becoming extinct, but in 2011, the building itself and much of its interior were given ‘listed’ status.
Nevertheless, essential maintenance of the building meant that the Museum had to be closed in autumn 2013. Meanwhile, all the animals in the collections had to be moved out of the building and into temporary storage. Thousands of animals and other objects had to be very carefully packed. Many of them are both extremely rare and very valuable, given that they are quite irreplaceable. As specimens, they date from a colonial era when collectors could travel all over the world and just help themselves. So the Natural History Collection is also a museum over a museum.
The A Moveable Beast project is a documentation of this Moving House project. None of the images are staged in any way. It’s all work done by the curators at Bergen Museum, to make sure that the animals have a safe journey. The photographer, Helge Skodvin, have photographed this process, with his absurd and humorous look at things.
The exhibition is kindly supported by Malmö Stad and Mediaverkstaden.