The legendary photographer’s new book Nature – Stilled showcases museum specimens the public rarely sees.
Books editor Catherine Woulfe writes:
People say “stunning” lightly but that’s really what it felt like, the first time I opened Nature – Stilled. There is no flicking through. You sit and you look properly and it is a pleasure, to pause like this over images, to be still.
Of course the photography is superb – Jane Ussher! – but the design, by Arch MacDonnell, is an equal triumph. Spare, clean captions. Space. Weight. Something I didn’t notice until my third or fourth read-through is that the photographs are arranged according to colour, so you move from whites and creams – see the mushroom coral, below – through browns, purples, the electric blue of butterfly wings and X-rayed fishes. It’s a great leveler, a trick that sits lichens close to birds of paradise, or ferns alongside a dramatic grid of kākāriki.
There is a sadness to it. This book is a lineup of dead things in a year that has crystallised our own vulnerability, and that of the planet. But there’s also a quiet sense of levity here: I giggled like a loon when I turned to the kaoriki, dignified little brown birds which look like they’re pirouetting on the page (below).
What follows is an abridged version of Ussher’s introduction, and as many of her photographs as we could possibly cram in.
At the southern end of Tory Street in Wellington, just before Pukeahu National War Memorial, there is a big squat building that I have driven past dozens of times without a thought for its purpose.
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has owned this building since 1999, not long after it moved out of the imposing classical-style National Museum, located on the hill above the war memorial. The botany, art, Māori and Pacific collections are all now housed at the National Museum’s successor, Te Papa, on Cable Street on the waterfront, but the bulk of the rest of the vast natural history collection, as well as much of the history collection, the museum archives and the conservation labs, are at Tory Street.
I first went inside that building in 2018 to photograph several of Te Papa’s natural history curators and collection managers for the book 100 Natural History Treasures of Te Papa, which was published to link with the museum’s new natural history exhibition space, Te Taiao Nature. My memory of the two days I spent shooting there are of a labyrinth of dark corridors and concrete walls, of access pads being swiped and doors opening onto vast spaces.
I was there to shoot complex group portraits, and so it took me a while to realise that the rooms in which the curators stood were full of cabinets of pinned butterflies of dazzling colours, shelves holding the bones of great whales, and cupboards full of taxidermied and mounted birds, including kākāpō that looked ready to waddle out into the daylight when the doors were opened. Elsewhere there were trays of tiny birds, forever silent and still, and great stainless-steel tanks like cold sarcophagi in which fish floated. There was even a stuffed timber wolf.
In the months following that shoot I became preoccupied with the objects and collections I had seen and I started thinking about how I would photograph them, if such a thing were possible.
When Phil Sirvid, Assistant Curator Entomology, opened the many cabinets that house the entomology collection, I was astonished: so many colours, such remarkable patterns, a dizzying variety. In the botany storeroom, Kaitiaki Taonga Collection Manager Botany Antony Kusabs showed me ancient books of pressed flowers, and in the crustacea storage area Curator Invertebrates Rick Webber showed me giant crabs and the most delicate starfish. In the mollusc department former Collection Manager and now Research Associate Bruce Marshall and Invertebrate Curator Rodrigo Salvador showed me wondrous shells. I was so fortunate: Te Papa conducts some back-of-house tours for members of the public, but generally only museum staff and visiting researchers have access here.
There’s something distinctive about collection storage areas in museums: for a start, they have an unusual smell. I could never quite identify it — some kind of preservative and fumigant, certainly, colliding with a sort of remnant animal scent in the bird storage areas. And they are very silent and very dark.
We started with birds. Colin Miskelly, Curator Vetebrates and one of New Zealand’s best known ornithologists, could not have been more accommodating, wheeling trays of birds in to me in succession and taking them back to the storage area when I had finished. From that initial scoping visit we had drawn up a list of about a dozen trays of birds to shoot, but Colin happily brought me more that he thought I would be interested in. It wasn’t until I went through the files later that I realised we had shot 150 specimens of 24 different species. This mission creep was to typify the next 10 days as my initial narrow and slightly naive focus expanded and grabbed whatever was possible. I did not want to overlook anything, and I knew that because Te Papa was going out on a limb for me I would never be able to ask to come back.
I couldn’t touch any of the bird specimens, of course – one of the reasons being that the older specimens are preserved with arsenic – and so Colin helped me place the birds in the various arrangements you see in this book. Only a few of them are mounted; the rest are what are called study skins. Te Papa has 11,600 skins of New Zealand birds, ranging across 290 species, mostly endemic but also exotic. The older ones are closed and stitched around a stuffing that taxidermists call tow – a mix of coarse linen and hemp fibre; more recent study skins are closed around foam plastic or cotton wool. They all lie on their backs in trays, mostly alongside others. Their feathers have lost none of the vivid quality of life. Their claws are very apparent. Sometimes a metal rod, inserted for ease of handling, protrudes through the centre of the filled cavity. I didn’t try to duck this fact with the photos, as this was one of the things that drew me to the project: depicting these fantastic objects as they are stored. These are specimens and they were collected for science; and many of them still serve a scientific purpose now that DNA testing can draw important information from the feathers of very old specimens.
I was captivated by all of them, from the tiny tītipounamu South Island rifleman and the showy yellow-crowned parakeet to the vivid-red collared lory and the elegant huia. Huia! I took especial delight in the beautiful old labels, many with their original antique copperplate inscriptions that state the scientific name, the specimen number, and where and when and by whom the specimen was collected. The oldest specimens I photographed were collected around 1875. There was a magnificent Antipodean albatross that had to be released from a complicated shelving unit before it could be set down for me to shoot. There were trays of prions, gathered on a shoreline in their dozens after a huge storm; bushy-browed crested penguins; mohua yellowheads … they were so beautiful, and they were brought to me in tray after tray, riches upon riches.
All images © Jane Ussher. Reproduced with permission from her new book Nature – Stilled, published by Te Papa Press. All specimens featured are part of the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.