Andy Lock, Foreign Bodies, Empty Rooms
(text of presentation from Bergen natural history collection, February 2019)
Not long after his arrival, Murke wrote in his journal,
“As I found it, the museum was – with several striking exceptions - a collection paradoxically dedicated to exhibiting “nothing” but itself, but to doing so with all the theatrical spectacle of a wunderkammer and simultaneously all the certainty and authority of the 19th century’s positivist tradition.”
By November 9th last year Murke was writing:
“…Rather than thinking about the museum as a way of framing absence, I should perhaps try to consider the opposite of that. The museum is only a site characterised by absence from a particular, narrow, highly partial point of view... Here at least, absence is a construct (a distinctly anthropocentric one), a denial of other presences. Here as elsewhere, “who or what is denying the presence of what or whom?”
The following pages in his journal are full of sketches of what appear to be insects and pupae or chrysalises of some kind and then this, under the heading ‘Pupation: the building as chrysalis’
“During its renovation, the museum has become a cloistered site of transition: in insect terms, a pupa.
“Far from being in a state of temporary stasis this current “private” interval between the museum’s public lives finds it in a state of flux. As in a pupa, processes unwitnessed from the outside have been unfolding inside its body.
At this point, Murke seems to have become very preoccupied by the Museum’s natural history archive and the next legible entry in his journal, begins with a list. Consulting with the collection’s staff, I was able to ascertain that these entries refer to different specimens in the collection, specifically to a family of beetles.
Although his journal says nothing about this display case, on finding it in the archive, I also discovered, attached to the case, a note in Murke’s handwriting, which read:
“The apparatus of the natural history collection orders the flora and fauna of the world. It attempts to differentiate between the different elements of complex, interdependent systems; to codify and separate those intertwined components.
“Natural History’s disciplinary ordering of course extends beyond the bounds of the physical collection, but a natural history collection of specimens, sees the imperative of ordering to include the policing of the material and institutional boundaries of the archive. On the one hand, categorising certain bodies as “licit” as acceptable, granting them admission to the collection and giving them the title of “specimens” or exhibits. These are “the right bodies”. On the other hand, working to exclude “the wrong bodies”, those bodies that are deemed illicit, which are given the label of “pests” or “infestations”, and which are the subject of determined attempts to exclude and eradicate them from the physical and institutional corpus of the collection and the museum.
“I was introduced to some of the techniques that might be used in order to carry out the necessary “cleansing” of potential specimens and exhibits, of the “wrong bodies”; those of the pests, parasites and infestations, which might otherwise infiltrate the museum’s collection. And yet infestations do still continue to penetrate into collections and museums like this one.”
Murke writes, “it is as if the different components of the complex systems, which Natural History’s taxonomies work to separate, yearn to re-establish their connections; to recreate their ecosystems even within the body of the archive.
His journal continues: “As a consequence of reproducing these systems within the archive, these “pests” undoubtedly do damage to any organic material they encounter. They use specimens as food and as shelter; as places to breed and to lay eggs and pupate. I’ve been told about specimens reduced to piles of dust, with only the identifying label remaining, but I’ve also been told that - paper being an edible, organic material - beetles are also known to devour the labels that identify specimens. Actually devouring not just matter, but data, provenance, history; leaving those specimens unmoored from the time and place of their finding and therefore adrift in the archive. Transforming its order into a kind of entropy and rendering the individual specimen of no practical value to the collection: such artefacts effectively becoming non-specimens, bodies stripped of their place in the order of things.”
Murke’s investigation appears to bear on one room in the museum, in particular, the Whale Hall and I think it’s there that we need to head, in order to follow the line of his inquiries…
On my entering this room, it was immediately clear that Murke had set up certain experimental equipment here. It seems he had carried out investigations which required making x rays of the whale skeletons and even more mysteriously, there had been an apparent attempt to make sound-recordings of the whale specimens.
One of the last entries that appears to have been written about these specimens, reads:
“Here since the 19th century, the whale skeletons are on the one hand so permanent a part of the museum collection that they have achieved a level of symbiosis with the building, itself. When almost every other specimen is gone, the whales have remained… a part of the building; perhaps too delicate despite their size and weight and too impractical to move. To me, looking at their texture, their bones could almost be carved from the wood of the ships and boats that hunted them. But although expertly preserved the whales are not stable. Despite their age, they are not inert objects. They remain dynamic, organic things; the focus of processes of decay, of entropy and of attempts to delay that decay. Their bones are not dry. I am told that just as trees contain sap, so even after a more than a century, the marrows of these whale bones still contain fat [and oil], which like tree-sap may ooze out, under the right conditions, to fall on the floor below.
“Braced, screwed, pinned, plated, chained and corseted, they hang over my head as I write, suspended by hundred and fifty-year old metal, which is continually interacting with and decaying itself through its contact with the organic material of the whale bones. The x rays made of their bones, trace and reveal the complex of fixings holding bone to bone and bone to building.”
It is not clear from this entry however, why Murke was making x rays of the bones; what he was searching for, but I think this next diary entry - the last in his journal - may provide a clue…
“The whales’ skeletons and specifically the fat their bones still contain, also provide a potential source of shelter and nourishment for other species, making the bodies of the whales potential hosts for colonisation by other bodies; infestations, which have found their way illicitly into the museum…”
Was it, I have begun to wonder, the presence of some other species, some form of alien infestation, which Murke had traced to this specimen. If he was unable to identify any evidence of their presence using x rays, had he thought that he could record evidence of that presence using sound; was that why he set up the recording equipment we see, here?
Perhaps we can discover more if we attend to this specimen, the Blue Whale, as Murke appears to have done, by listening to it, carefully. His recording equipment has been left as I found it. I suggest, that to better attend to the sounds that Murke was trying to record, we all close our eyes and concentrate on what we can hear. I’ll now turn on the microphone…