WATCH: An Absurd, Sublime Natural History Collection That Never Seems to End

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Sept. 18 2013 5:24 AM

The Bone Palace

A sublime collection that never seems to end.

Raymond Bandar and his 'Bone Palace"
Ray "Bones" Bandar in his Bone Place in San Francisco

Photo courtesy Julie Dermansky

Raymond Bandar is an artist, retired teacher, naturalist, and a member of the California Academy of Sciences. He also created what he calls a “bone palace,” a collection of close to 7,000 skulls and skeletons at his home in San Francisco. I visited him and his wife, Alkmene, also an artist, and spent days videotaping and photographing him and his collection. He collected many of the skulls and skeletons himself on trips to everywhere from Alaska to Australia. The bulk of his collection is from the shores of Northern California. Others specimens were donated to him from museums, veterinarians, or people who just know he is into such stuff.   

The California Academy of Sciences often asks him to collect specimens and record measurements when they get a report of a dead sea mammal. I accompanied Bandar on one trip to find and collect the carcass of a sea otter. (Bandar holds the required federal and state permits to collect specimens.) That day we found three carcasses, the otter and two male California sea lions. Bandar removed the skull and penis bone from each carcass.

Beyond the value collected specimens have for visual displays in natural history museums, they also hold a wealth of scientific information. Many researchers have studied the specimens in Bandar’s collection, including dentists: teeth tell a lot about an animal’s age and health and can sometimes reveal the cause of death. Scientists also study bones to figure out how changes in the environment are affecting animals.

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Bandar is often asked why he collects bones. He says they’re masterpieces. “Pelvises and vertebrae have fascinating imagery. The structural engineering of a skull serves as a blueprint, and like a book, can be read to understand the lifestyle of different animals. They make great teaching tools for biology and art classes." Bandar's bone palace has the spirit of earlier centuries’ cabinets of curiosities. These collections, made possible by the age of exploration and inspired by the desire to understand science by classifying and identifying, became the building blocks of prominent museums throughout the world.

Bandar’s home is like an art installation. He maintains a rock garden with succulent plants in the yard. Alkmene let him take over most of their living quarters to house his collections of art, rocks, shells, and bones that don’t fit in his palace. Her own studio is one of the few areas not filled with his discoveries. She draws a line in the kitchen, too, stopping Bandar from storing unfinished specimens in the freezer. (He has a designated freezer in a separate room.)

The bone palace has no bells and whistles like modern natural history museums, just the specimens themselves with all their intrinsic wonder. Every bone and skull seems to be in a perfect place. The bone palace is a work of genius by a man who defies classification.  

Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University's Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Her recent work has been published by the Atlantic, Truthout, the Guardian, the Progressive  and Slate.  She focuses on natural history, environmental issues, and social justice. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com

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