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.