Artifacts come to life in new exhibit

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – What do you get when you combine taxidermied animals, books of dried seaweed, birds eggs, and rocks? You get some of the contents of Curiouser, an exhibit that combines the work of six artists with the contents of the Providence museum of natural history.

Erik Carlson and Erica Carpenter stand in the basement of the natural history museum in Providence's Roger William's Park. They're in what's called the "bird room" in the collection's vault. The space is full of large white metal cabinets.
The room is strangely sterile. Florescent lights and the heating and ventilating system buzz overhead, making the spare space seem like a laboratory. But there's something very different behind the white cabinets- stuffed hedgehogs, geese and monkeys.

The taxidermied animals are only a small sample of the museum's more than two hundred fifty thousand objects. Many of the items come from the private collections of Rhode Islanders who stuffed wild animals, carefully pressed flowers, and collected rocks back in the 19th and 20th century. Carpenter and Carlson- who are husband and wife as well as the curators of this exhibit- were amazed when they first took a tour of the archives.

"There are these ancient specimens and they have this certain feel," Carlson says. "And there are hand written tags, in somebody's minute careful, beautiful, minute hand writing," Carpenter adds. "There's just this sense of a human presence down there amongst all these weird taxidermied beautiful animals. It's just an amazing place."

The couple fantasized about releasing the objects from the basement. So, with the permission of the museum, they recruited six artists and asked them to create something new. Allison Owen is one of them.

Her project combines pretty things from the archives with objects she's gathered from friends. She'll arrange them next to each other on a pedestal with a glass cover.

When Owen applied to be a part of this exhibit, she was living in Rhode Island. Since then she's moved to New York, but she was so excited about the project she commutes back and forth to work on her installation.

"Even if a museum would allow you to go and explore the vaults, there's no way you could create your own systems," she says. "I just felt like there was a lot of freedom to use these objects. I don't think I'll get this chance again."

Up a flight of stairs in a work room behind one of the exhibits, local sculptor Jenn Raimondi sits at a table with a piece of pink foam covered in hundreds of tiny brown pieces of paper- they're about 700 paper moths.

Raimondi wanted to create a blanket out of the moths from the collection. But because the insects are so delicate, she had to think of another way to get the same effect, so she photocopied one of the moths over and over again.

Raimondi is gluing those paper moths to a net made out of cotton twine. When she's done, she'll add them to another item from the archives- a taxidermied baby deer.

Ramondi says she was inspired by the way monarch butterflies cover the surface of trees and other parts of the forest when they migrate south in the winter.

Ramondi's hundreds of moths are also a reminder of the overwhelming number of objects in the museum's collections- many of them of the exact same animal or plant. Books and books of pressed seaweed, drawers of seeds and pods.

It's that obsession with gathering objects that curators Carlson and Carpenter want to display in this exhibit- the idea that people back then were perhaps more curious than we are now.

"Today we might go to the movies or go to the mall and buy something," Carlson says. " Then, they were walking out and collecting plant specimens and pressing them in a book."

But Jenn Raimondi, the sculptor who's working on the moth blanket, says there's also something sad about the excess of the collections.

"Walking through those kind of narrow hallways in the collection and seeing just a gazillion owls and a gazillion little song birds I thought, everyone was really excited about these at the time and they wanted them because they were beautiful," says Raimondi. "But it never occurred [to them] that the act of collecting might contribute to there being less in the world."

It's true- some of the taxidermied animals are now extinct. It's hard not to think the drawers and shelves full of stuffed creatures might have had something to do with it. Curator Erik Carlson says that's all the more reason to get the collection out into the public. In some cases they're the only record of some animals that no longer exist.

The museum itself is in danger of being forgotten. Sculptor Jenn Raimondi says she grew up in Rhode Island, but she didn't know the state had a natural history museum until about a year ago. She says she wishes more people know about the collection.

That's what staff at the museum hope will happen when Curiouser opens in November- some Rhode islanders will see the museum, not just the artifacts, for the first time.