Klaus Pichler spent months photographing one of the largest and oldest natural history museums in the world.

Skeletons in the Closet, the resultant series, is on view at the museum now.

It depicts the banal storage and workspaces that visitors never see.

Where artifacts and specimens await their displays.

In one image, a shark blocks the path to the exit in a cold concrete hallway.

A pterodactyl perches next to a pile of ladders in what looks like a garage.

We see a storage closet where a bevy of cobra snakes wait patiently for their moment.

There’s even a cameo from some early homo sapiens.

The museum has over 25 million specimens.

Keeping track of them is a huge job, as Pichler’s photos attest.

There’s also a bit of a problematic colonial undercurrent in Skeletons--after all, the museum’s collection was bolstered largely by the plundering of artifacts and art in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Pichler himself has questioned the practices of the early museum, saying that the collection was culled from bloody colonial practices.

Co.Design

Giant Toad, Angry Shark, Hungry Bear: Behind The Curtain At A World-Class Museum

Klaus Pichler was walking home late one night when he noticed a light on in the basement of Vienna’s Natural History Museum. What he saw inside inspired a project called Skeletons in the Closet.

Vienna’s Natural History Museum is one of the oldest, largest, and most important collections in the world. With 25 million specimens, 60 staff scientists, and a massive 125-year-old building, it’s somehow antithetical to call it a museum--it’s more like a city.

Which makes Klaus Pichler something like a street photographer. Pichler’s series, Skeletons in the Closet, captures the museum à poil, as few ever see it. In one image, a shark blocks the path to the exit in a cold concrete hallway. A pterodactyl perches next to a pile of ladders in what looks like a garage, while in a storage closet, a bevy of cobra snakes wait patiently for their moment.

“It all started when I happened to catch a glimpse through a basement window of the museum one night: an office with a desk, a computer, shelves, and a stuffed antelope," writes the Austrian photographer. “The experience left me wondering: What does a museum look like behind the scenes?” He was granted access to photograph the museum and ended up spending far longer than he intended on the project, which is currently on view at the museum until February 3. “As a photographer with limited knowledge of scientific research methods, the museum’s back rooms presented to me a huge array of still life," he adds. "Full of life, but dead nonetheless.”

Back when Pichler unveiled the project, the New York Times pointed out a problematic colonial undercurrent in Skeletons. After all, like so many other European collections, the Natural History Museum contains artifacts nabbed from across Africa and Asia during the 19th century. According to Kerri MacDonald, he had the following to say about the experience:

I think the real background of the series is quite sad and has a lot to do with colonialist thinking … There were lots of bloody stories from the time the museum was opened … We have to criticize the museum as an institution itself.

If you’re near Vienna, check out Skeletons in the Closet until February 3. Otherwise, see more on Pichler’s website here.

Add New Comment

3 Comments

  • Jmelnick13

        Hmm.  I enjoyed the images.  I would not have seen these specimens if he did not photograph them and get noticed.  As for how they were acquired, I will assume standard methods of the day were employed.  Mankind is a work in progress.  It is useless to say somebody did something the wrong way 40 years ago.  Much better to say, we do it differently now in a better way because we learned from mistakes that were made.  The critics are way off base. 
        Hitler did a lot of damage in his day and NOBODY stopped him at first.  It takes a while to work through  these things. that s just the nature of mankind.   we will NEVER be perfect.  However, we should learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.

  • Annie

      The NYT article states, "Mr. Pichler is working with a sociologist to prepare the background for
    the exhibit, from cultural, scientific and post-colonial perspectives."

    This isn't about creating sanitized, boring exhibits. They're adding an additional academic layer, acknowledging the implications of the work and its subject matter.

    If you don't like it, just look at the pretty pictures and ignore the wall text.

  • T Paulus

    "There were lots of bloody stories from the time the museum was opened … We have to criticize the museum as an institution itself."

    Aaaaaaaand you lost me. 
    Nice. Let's sanitize and dumb down everything to avoid offending anyone. The masses just love bland, boring, super-nonoffensive installations. 
    It's a cocktail for sparking interest!