An exhibition and research project on collections of human skulls, ethnographic photographs and the ethics of display, science and art.
The department of anthropology at the Natural History Museum in Vienna holds a collection of over 40,000 human skulls collected from all over the world. The majority of them are kept in glass-faced cabinets, ordered upon shelves, numbered and inventoried: a grid of silent lives; an architecture of order and rationale.
At the centre of one of the long ‘skull vitrine cabinets’ is a wooden door. It opens to a room that contains an even larger collection – the department’s collection of more than 50,000 photographs.
The immensity of these two collections and their incorporation into one built construction are not inconsequential; they symbolise the entanglement – and concurrent and reciprocal evolutions – of photographic technology and anthropological research.
Through a multiperspectival approach, the project Dead Images explores the ethical, historical, political, cultural, scientific and aesthetic implications of these collections.
The central piece in the exhibition is a 30×3 meter life-sized panorama of a section of the skull collection with roughly 8,000 skulls. It can only be seen at the exhibition by entering a restricted and clearly marked space. Five films (total of 110 minutes) and an extensive research and workshop space contextualize the big photograph, question, commend or contest it, and encourage the visitors to participate in the discussion.
Dead Images was developed and curated by an interdisciplinary team, gathered under the project TRACES (funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 693857), as one of the five TRACES ‘Creative Co-Productions’ (CCP).
Previous funding from the Austrian Research Fund (FWF / PEEK) has enabled some the project’s conceptualisation and research, under the artistic-research projects MemScreen (2011-2012; AR 96-G21) and Conserved Memories (2013-2015; AR 212).