Monkeys, polar bears, penguins and lemurs: Afterlife at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

By Ben Miller | 09 September 2013

Exhibition preview: Afterlife, Horniman Museum and Gardens, London, September 28 2013 – March 2 2014

A photo of a skull
Sean Dooley, Chimpanzee© Sean Dooley / Horniman Museum and Gardens
There are baby polar bears, extinct passenger pigeons and critically-endangered ruffed lemurs in After Life, uniting photographer Sean Dooley and Paolo Viscardi, a natural history curator who has brought together wild portraits from across the collection at the Horniman and other museums.

Viscardi’s favourite, though, is a particularly arresting ape.

“The Chimpanzee skeleton is one of my favourites, partly because I’m a fan of skeletons – they’re my speciality,” he explains.

“And it’s partly because the specimen has so much character, despite being stripped to its bare bones.

“When you work with museum collections, particularly natural history, you can become quite jaded about what you consider weird or strange.

“That’s one of the reasons why I find working with someone from a different background so rewarding – it helps you regain a real sense of perspective, relevance and privilege when handling specimens representing the last of a species.”

Speaking of strangeness, Dooley recalls his bemusement at being told to wash his hands after eyeing up taxidermy specimens before his lunchbreak.

“Some of the mounts contain arsenic,” he reveals.

“I hadn't realised, but old specimens were often treated with arsenical soap to prevent pest infestations.

“I've seen some pretty strange things – a cupboard full of owls, a polar bear peering out from underneath a coat of plastic, the spectacular male lion that used to belong to the museum at Eton. Damien Hirst owns the female from the pair.”

Having toured several important museum collections while planning this exhibition, Dooley is aware that philanthropy has been part of the problem.

“I was surprised by how many examples of some of the specimens there were – Huia and Kakapo [New Zealand birds], for example, are very widespread in museums, and their popularity with historic collectors contributed to their decline.

“The kakapo is probably my favourite. At one stage it was thought to be functionally extinct and doomed, but through careful management and attention there are now around 126 birds.

“It shows that there is hope, and that even when things look very bad we shouldn't give up.”

Dooley also names the thylacine skull – declared extinct in 1936, but rumoured to still be seen today – as a cherished exhibit.

“I love the thought of a population of them surviving somewhere outside the influence of man,” he adds, with a sense of wonder matched by his partner in the display.

“Paolo was the first curator from a large institution to recognise the potential of the work and grant me access to the collection.

“We worked well together on the initial photographs – Paolo immediately got the point of it, and I found him very easy to work with.

“He suggested that I propose it as an exhibition at the Horniman with his support.

“As a boy I was entranced by nature, and through taxidermy collections I could see animals from places that I’d likely never visit, and extinct creatures that no one would ever have the chance to see again.

“These objects are sometimes the last remnants of our planet’s lost and fading species, and they continue to unlock my boyhood curiosity.

“Though often beautiful, they’re an extremely poor substitute for having these animals live in the wild.

Viscardi was equally inspired. “Working with Sean has been hugely enjoyable and finding a balance between science and art has been a pleasure rather than a challenge," he feels.

“Sean’s vision and passion for the subject matter, plus his ability to capture the character of long dead specimens, has provided all the ingredients for a beautiful and thought-provoking exhibition.”

  • Open 10.30am-5.30pm, (closed December 24-26). Admission free. Follow the Horniman on Twitter @HornimanMuseum.

More pictures:

A photo of the upright skeleton of a bird
Great Auk© Sean Dooley / Hunterian Museum, RCS, London
A photo of a large golden stuffed bird
Kakapo© Sean Dooley / Hunterian Museum
A photo of a small stuffed white bear
Polar Bear© Sean Dooley / Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow
A photo of a stuffed bird on a perch
Passenger Pigeon© Sean Dooley
A photo of a small stuffed monkey perched on an ancient tree branch
Sunda Loris© Sean Dooley / Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow
A photo of a small stuffed monkey appearing to look upwards
Ruffed Lemur© Sean Dooley / Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow
What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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