A moose in midair, a masked polar bear, a shark on a shelf. While on an assignment at the Natural History Museum in Bergen, Norway, photographer Helge Skodvin discovered that the museum would be closed until 2019 for renovations. This meant that all of the taxidermy animals housed in the museum would be moved to temporary storage on the other side of town.
It was obvious that this would be an elaborate production. "It's not a simple task, especially because the animals are big and fragile," he says. "Some of the animals would be out of their display cases for the first time in almost 150 years."
He negotiated with the museum and eventually they agreed to let him photograph the move. Every day, he would text message the curators and find out which animals were being transported for the day.
"I know the Natural History museum in Bergen quite well," Skodvin says. "My grandparents went to the museum when they were kids. And my mother has stories of endless rainy Sundays spent at the animal museum (that’s what the people of Bergen like to call it). We also went to the museum when I was a kid.
"This place is central for every person living in Bergen. It was a magical place, truly. The museum is one of the few places in Norway that has this kind of atmosphere. They had kept the same interior from 1865. Dark brown wood. Glass gages. Limited light. The smell of dust."
While the atmosphere set the stage for interesting pictures, Skodvin still had no idea how to capture the animals in an interesting way.
"When I got permission to photograph, I went there five or six times without shooting anything serious. I could not figure out how to do the project. Shoot film or digital? Have the curators working with the animal in the pictures? But one day I saw a deer putting its head up from a box. It was looking directly at me. I knew in that moment that this is the way it should be done. So I went with medium-format film, always on a tripod, using a still life approach to the subject. I’m also a huge fan of The Far Side comics by Gary Larson. And I wanted to bring that absurdity into these photographs with a deadpan way of shooting."
Skodvin says he didn't alter the animals' appearances. "If the deer has something on its head, that’s because the curators put it there to make transportation more safe. The polar bear had a mask to prevent dust and rain entering its mouth during moving, etc. The curators did not see the funny side of what they were doing. They thought about it in a practical way."
When it comes to Skodvin's favorite animal, he has a hard time choosing just one.
"I really like the flying moose ... and the porbeagle coming in from the left … and the laying giraffe ... and the kangaroo mother with her daughter … and all the 37 images that made the book. It’s almost a shame that this project is finished, because working on it was so much fun."
Helge Skodvin is represented by INSTITUTE. View more of his work on their website.