The opening of the new and improved Art & Nature Center is just around the corner on Oct. 19. Visible signs of progress are adding up every day. I’m always impressed at the number of people and departments that are involved in the installation of a new exhibition, and nowhere was that more evident than last week during the triumphant return of the much-loved stuffed bison, attended by conservators and collection handlers, exhibition designers, professional art movers, curators, educators and the media, accompanied by the PR department.
The bison was originally collected at the head of Porcupine Creek in Dawson County, Montana in 1886 on the Smithsonian Institution’s last bison collecting expedition, and it arrived in our museum collection shortly thereafter. It was donated by then US Secretary of War and Salem native William Crowninshield Endicott. At that time, museums were collecting bison and other endangered species specimens because they were concerned that these animals were on the brink of dying out; better to have a guaranteed physical record of their existence than a precarious possibility of their survival. In fact, this bison was recorded as having been a “lone bull” — rare for an animal that naturally travels in large herds, but fairly common in the late 1880s, when the population was rumored to be only in the hundreds or low thousands.
From the point when the bison arrived until its last days on display as a prototype for an endangered species exhibition (in the testing room for the Art & Nature Center as we all know and love it), the bison was continuously on view, a familiar sight to generations of museum guests. Small wonder people have been asking about it in its retirement!
Fortunately, the re-envisioning of the ANC has allowed us a chance to give the bison a fresh look as well, with the assistance of that massive team I mentioned at the beginning. His long tenure “on stage” had left the bison in need of a little TLC, so the folks in conservation set to work, culminating in a final grooming on the morning of the install.
The ANC team took curator Janey Winchell’s ideas for re-interpreting the bison and worked up a whole plan of related artworks, interactives, and other support materials, which we then brought to exhibit design. Their team then gave it all shape and the bison itself a snazzy new home. Unsurprisingly, arranging a multi-hundred pound, over seven foot long bison that manages to be both fierce and fragile is no easy task. Though occupied by assorted other installation tasks of my own, I enjoyed being on the fringes of the bison-moving spectacle, watching his procession into the new ANC, carefully caged and flanked by movers and PEM staff, through the deconstruction of his travel crate, the removal of his spa-like blue hoof booties, all the way to the frightening and fascinating process of lift-straps and balancing to make sure he was perfectly situated in his new inclined case.
When I asked Janey what she found most exciting about the new bison installation, she had a lot to say, starting with that inclined case. “The way the case is angled, makes it appear that the bison is walking up a slight rise, which is more natural looking and active than when he’d been in a flat case.”
She went on to add that the way the case is designed, people can get closer to it, and get a better view of the bison than if it were on an open platform. Plus, inside his case, the bison has new company, in the form of a timber frame bison sculpture, a contemporary artist’s model for a larger-than-life-sized sculpture currently located in Philadelphia.
Both Janey and I agree that the most engaging part of bringing the bison back has been the opportunity to give him new context. In the case, on it, and immediately beside it, this historic member of PEM’s collection is surrounded by examples of contemporary and traditional artworks inspired by his fellows, along with touchable specimens and opportunities for creative reactions. (You decide whether the bison bladder or prairie magnetic poetry is more exciting to you!)
I’ve always been fascinated by the ways interdisciplinary education can lead to making discoveries and finding connections between seemingly disparate concepts. This is, in fact, what drew me to working for the ANC in the first place. In the new ANC we’ve taken that idea even further than we were able to before, and the bison is just one example. I honestly can’t wait to throw open the doors on October 19 and share it with everyone.