As a child, Helge Skodvin would spend his Sundays at the University Museum of Bergen – known locally as the Natural History Museum – just as his mother and grandmother had done before him. He would wander through the halls and wonder at the stuffed animals, birds and insects – each shot or collected from its home far away. “It was a sacred place for many generations of children,” he says. “You’d go in and it would be dark and warm and filled with lions and elephants and all sorts of dangerous animals. It’s mystical, like a fairytale palace, something outside the real world.”
The grand museum building, finished in 1865, sits on a hill overlooking Norway’s second city. It was designed to house a collection which, in the four decades since the founding of the museum, had spilled out of its original home. Later it gave rise to the University of Bergen and was joined on the hill by halls, lecture theatres, prosperous streets. But the museum was there first, the talisman of intellectual life in western Norway. It remained virtually unchanged, ageing elegantly as modernity crept across the city.
Two years ago, the owners finally accepted that the building had to catch up. It needed modern plumbing and wiring; the halls were groaning with specimens and 140 years of enthusiastic feet had taken their toll. But first, the residents had to be placed in storage. They invited Skodvin, now a photographer, to document the process. The results are charming, surreal, irresistible; the animals are recognisably themselves, and yet the protective bits and pieces they’re wearing both disguise them and make them seem more human. It’s something that Skodvin was clearly taken by. Some of his descriptions cross the anthropomorphic line: the kangaroo at the hair salon, the bison dressed to kill.
Using a medium-format camera and shooting on film, he took his first picture in October 2013 and the last in March 2015. “I live just a couple of minutes away,” he says, “so every morning I would text the woman in charge to see if anything had changed, and if it had, I’d grab my cameras and run over. I must have been a hundred times. It’s been a slow process, packing everything up to move it out. There were five women conservators overseeing it all, and they were very protective of their charges. They wouldn’t let me touch anything.”
He got to know his subjects. Though long dead, each had its story to tell – of life on the African plains or the Arctic tundra, of the journey to Norway, and a long afterlife in a large glass case. The rhino had been shot in Sudan in 1919, just after the war. Never in great condition, it spent a few decades with its damaged left side facing the wall, hidden from the train of children. Twenty years ago, it was decided that the Bergen rhino was too shabby, so a replica was commissioned, which retained only its original horn and ears. Some years later, a gang of organised rhino-horn burglars broke in and stole the horn, leaving just the ears. Skodvin shows the synthetic rhino with those precious ears carefully shrouded to protect them from the perils of post-mortem translocation.
To photograph the zebra – and many other animals – he had to don a protective suit and mask. When most of the creatures were shot, they were skinned on location – often the tropics – and treated immediately with chemical preservatives, to prevent the skin from slipping. The chemicals included arsenic. When it was the zebra’s turn to move, it was taken into a prepared room, where Skodvin photographed it being brushed and cleaned with a giant hoover. Once the last of the poisonous dust was removed, it was cloaked in bubble wrap and sent into storage.
The zebra, the fake rhino, giraffe and polar bears, along with the giant leatherback turtle and swarms of insects, tors of minerals, skeletons of giant whales and herds of wild beasts are now all tucked up in a large, locked warehouse, waiting for the renovation. Sadly, their move back home does not have a definite date; sufficient funds have yet to be raised to complete the works.
“It’s been an absorbing, fascinating project,” says Skodvin. “It’s interesting visually, often funny, but it also says a lot about our relationship with animals.” And it has inspired a new interest in him: he recently travelled to Missouri to photograph an international taxidermy conference.
Although the great halls of Bergen’s museum now echo with emptiness, it will not be for long. This autumn there will be an exhibition of Helge Skodvin’s photographs of their inmates, dressed in their best travelling clothes.•