A Surprising Look at What’s Behind Museum Doors

The Photo Blog
April 8 2013 11:00 AM

The Amazing, Unstaged World Hiding Behind a Museum’s Closed Doors

Basement shark, 2011.
Basement shark, 2011.

Klaus Pichler/Anzenbergergallery.com

What happens in museums when no one else is around? Like many of us, Klaus Pichler had no idea—until he happened to stumble upon an illuminated room at Vienna’s Museum of Natural History as he was walking home one night.

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Jennifer Lai is an associate editor at Slate. Slate Plus members, email her here.

Curious about what lay behind the scenes at one of his favorite museums, Pichler peered into one of the museum’s back rooms and found an unusual site: an ensemble of shelves, cupboards, computers, and, much to his surprise, a group of taxidermied animals.

“It was as if Noah’s Ark was right before my eyes,” the Austrian photographer said via email.

Neanderthals, 2012.
Neanderthals, 2012.

Klaus Pichler/Anzenbergergallery.com

elevator bear
Elevator bear, 2011.

Klaus Pichler/Anzenbergergallery.com

fawn and fox, 2011
Fawn and fox, 2011.

Klaus Pichler/Anzenbergergallery.com

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Others might have been perturbed by the strange and somewhat grotesque scene, but it didn’t phase Pichler one bit. In fact, he was even more fascinated than before. He promptly contacted the director of the museum, who generously gave the photographer a tour of the museum’s behind-the-scenes premises.

As Pichler wandered through the maze of storage rooms, filled with priceless art and artifacts in unexpected and unusual locations, he knew his series, “Skeletons in the Closet,” was born.

hallway painting, 2011
Hallway painting, 2011.

Klaus Pichler/Anzenbergergallery.com

pteranodon, 2011
Pteranodon, 2011.

Klaus Pichler/Anzenbergergallery.com

Pichler was careful not to stage any of his photos, hoping to capture peculiar scenes just as they were when he discovered them. And it was no problem: The museum, with nearly 600 rooms, was filled with “countless” surprises: cavemen sitting on fancy couches, a shark lurking around a corner, and dozens of skulls against file cabinets. For the next four years, Pichler documented the strange still lifes of exhibits when they weren’t on display.

“There were plenty of surprising moments,” Pichler said. “Imagine standing in front of a storage room door—somewhere you’ve never been before. When your guide unlocks the door and switches on the light ... boom! You’re standing in front of 50 taxidermied animals, and they’re all standing shoulder to shoulder, staring at you with their glass eyes.”

skeletons and antlers, 2011
Skeletons and antlers, 2011.

Klaus Pichler/Anzenbergergallery.com

After a while, Pichler felt the exhibits come to life. “I spent long times in the storage rooms being in complete solitude,” he explained. “When I entered a room again after weeks of not being around and encountered an exhibit I knew would be there, it felt like meeting up with someone I knew for a long time.”

“I began to think of these exhibits as personalities, and somehow had to remind myself that these were the remains of dead animals and there was no 'life,' in a biological sense, in them.”

bandgers and pike, 2011
Bandgers and pike, 2011.

Klaus Pichler/Anzenbergergallery.com

Indeed, the humor, absurdity, and strangeness of seeing exhibits come to “life” while remaining lifeless is present throughout his work.

Although Klaus Pichler had visited Vienna’s Museum of Natural History multiple times while growing up—he insisted on visiting whenever he and his parents traveled from the countryside into Vienna—the photographer never expected that he would have a full-blown exhibition at the museum 25 years later.

“I loved staying in the museum for hours as a kid,” Pichler said. “But, at the time, I hadn’t the slightest idea of what lay behind the scenes.”

the hunter and the maiden, 2010
The hunter and the maiden, 2010.

Klaus Pichler/Anzenbergergallery.com