ReadingRoom named Jane Ussher’s natural history book the best book of 2020. Nonsense, argues Mike Dickison
I used to work out amongst bears and wolves. Back in 1990 I was given a bench press and weights, but there was no room in the flat. A colleague pointed out there was plenty of space in one of the storerooms at work, so I set it up there and would come in early each morning to lift weights. I worked in the natural history unit of the National Museum, though, so exercised surrounded by mounted bears and big cats, regarded blankly by rows of glassy-eyed hunting trophies. You get used to it. Everybody in a museum gets used to being surrounded by treasures. It takes a visitor to remind us. A photographer like Laurence Aberhart or Neil Pardington can bring that outsider’s eye to a museum storeroom, and find beauty and incongruity in taonga stacked and tagged or racks of pickled fish.
Later when I became a curator I noticed how much my perceptions were diverging from the public’s. No matter how precious, museum objects are all things to number, catalogue, and somehow find space for, not because of a colonialist desire to sort and number the world, but because these are taonga and we’re their only caretakers; they’ve lasted a hundred years and we have to make them last a hundred more. My biggest headache was a huge Victorian case containing just two peacocks: a nightmare to store, and almost valueless, given peacocks in New Zealand have gone from an ornamental rarity to agricultural pest. In contrast one of our greatest treasures was a scruffy little bird that could fit in my palm – one of the few specimens of a North Island bush wren, donated in 1915. The species disappeared from the North Island in the 1950s, the South Island in the 60s, and winked out of existence of Stewart Island in 1972. To me this tiny wren is worth a thousand peacocks.
Conversely, when dealing with precious things every day the shine wears off them a bit. When you open a cabinet and reveal a dozen huia some people have an almost religious experience, whereas I can’t not notice some of those mounts are looking shabby, and most have lost some tail feathers.
Jane Ussher was awestruck by the huia. She set up her lights in the corner of Te Papa’s crustacea store, and for two weeks a conveyor belt of curators and collection managers brought her wonderful things to photograph. In her introduction she describes the two weeks stretching into three as there was just so much amazing stuff to see. The museum staff patiently answered her questions and humoured her desire to arrange shells and wrens into decorative patterns, and her unfeigned gratitude to them gushes from the page. It’s obvious this was one of the highlights of her career, and her photographer’s eye jumps greedily from iridescent feathers to handwritten labels to the old newspapers specimens were wrapped in.
With just three weeks and millions of natural history specimens, there are gaps: no mammals, reptiles, fossils, moa bones – no bones except for fishes, which have, I’ll be honest, extremely boring bones. She could have shot an entire second volume just of bone photos, and if she does I’ll buy it.
The result is Nature — Stilled (that’s a spaced em dash, just to give librarians headaches), a handsome $70 work, nearly 400 pages long, with an embossed gold title, marbled double endpapers, and two bookmarks.
There’s a solid tradition in museum publishing of large books of beautifully-photographed museum objects, accompanied by informative text, rather like a two-dimensional exhibit – a metaphorical showcase. This began with the illustrated catalogue, which grew into the exhibition guide with its murky black and white photos. Then as museum labels become more informative, and more information migrated online, the guidebook bloated into a coffee-table book with ever-increasing price tag.
A 150th anniversary seems to be the occasion for producing a commemorative collection showcase. Auckland Museum kicked off the trend in 2001 with 150 Treasures, followed by Te Papa in 2004 by Icons Ngā Taonga, and then Treasures, a condensed version, in 2005. The text is anonymised and the curators are invisible, although I can see their fingerprints: the feather louse page, for example, could only have been written by Ricardo Palma.
Who are these books for? They’re almost unaffordable, and increasingly unreadable
Jane Ussher was also the main photographer for Canterbury Museum’s response, House of Treasures. This had 23 authors, all tucked away in the colophon on the very last page, like dust sweepings. Ussher didn’t photograph the tiny insects, which stand out as rather sad dull objects floating in white space. The book is ostentatiously sumptuous, huge and red with creamy pages (some double fold-outs) and red folios and ribbons and a perforated cover.
Who are these books for? They’re almost unaffordable, and increasingly unreadable. Maybe they’re prestige objects, meant to impress other museums. Or maybe they’re tokens of exchange, to be gifted to visiting VIPs. Our coffee-table book at the Whanganui Regional Museum was one such, a sprightly 150 pages filled with glossy taonga photos. Its familiar rectangular form appeared, neatly wrapped, at every formal occasion, because we had boxes of unsold copies in the store room.
The pressure is on Otago Museum, which recently celebrated its 150th, but doesn’t yet have a prestige book to go with it. To top Canterbury Museum they’ll need to produce a book called something like Treasured Icons, the size of a cinderblock, bound in tooled Corinthian leather, with THREE bookmarks. Every spread will be just a single gorgeous Jane Ussher photo surrounded by a square foot of creamy-white space. All the text will be crammed onto the very last page in 3 pt Helvetica Condensed.
Nature — Stilled is a gorgeous work, and it’s clear from her introduction and her eye that Ussher is entranced by the collections and deeply respectful of their curators. But if we approach the book as something to read, rather than just a beautiful object we might bestow a design award upon, we gradually realise something unfortunate happened when the photos and text were handed over to the publisher.
In the afterword, Ussher describes the main designer dreaming up the idea of building a colour wheel from the tones in the photographs and ordering them along the visual spectrum – she calls it “a stroke of genius”. But I beg to differ. The photos are indeed ordered by colour, starting at white and purple, then through blue, green, yellow, red, and black and presumably infrared if the book had been longer. But this is a literally superficial idea, refusing to engage or understand the objects and just treating them as decoration. It’s like those monstrous people we all know who arrange their books by the colour of the spines.
The captions are as brief and cryptic as an art gallery label, just a dozen words of text stating name, rank, and unit, as if the objects were resisting interrogation
The designer also seems to hate text. The photos are arranged with as much white space as possible, often occupying only a quarter of a two page spread. They’re never sullied with captions or page numbers, which are shoved far away, ideally right over the page edge and onto the next one. The captions themselves are as brief and cryptic as an art gallery label, just a dozen words of text stating name, rank, and unit, as if the objects were resisting interrogation.
Art galleries can (sort of) get away with this – letting the work “speak for itself” – because art is created by people and communicates something about what it means to be a human being, or at least an artist. But shells and crabs aren’t created, and we abandoned the idea that they were encoded with moral instruction by the Creator 150 years ago. Natural history specimens don’t speak for themselves, and when presented with no context – beautifully lit, on a pedestal, with a tiny minimal label – they just reflect the preconceptions of the visitor, who can only engage at the shallowest aesthetic level (pretty peacock, ugly little wren). It’s the curatorʻs job to bridge this gap in understanding, and speak for an object that can’t.
Those curatorial words in Nature — Stilled are all, through a sort of aesthetic cleansing, concentrated into the last 50 pages. Completely different in tone, the “Species Information” is printed on matt mid-grey paper in blocks of tiny sans serif type, and almost illegible. The accounts are written by researchers who know and love these specimens, and are full of colour, stories, arresting anecdotes, and the context that tells us – for example – that the three manky birds on page 087 are actually extinct Little Bitterns, a quarter of all the known specimens in the world, and some of the greatest treasures of Te Papa. But without a good light source and reading glasses you’d have no idea.
The worst problems are revealed if you try to actually read the book. Its colour plates are in chromatic order, which incidentally isn’t at all obvious unless you riffle through all the pages quickly; I’d read the book twice through before I noticed. Chromatic order is essentially random order: the three images of the same Raggiana birds-of-paradise appear on pages 085 (brown head), 129 (green throat) and 185 (red tails).
None of the photos or (numerous) blank pages can bear actual page numbering, of course, because pure unsullied art etc. The few remaining page numbers are printed in the left rather than the outer edges of the pages in the usual way, so half are in the gutter. For some reason the photos are also given a plate number, and in a typographic conceit both plate and page numbers are padded out with zeroes to three digits and printed in identical small fonts, presumably to make them easier to confuse.
Let’s imagine you’re a reader looking at p 281, plate 141: a purple lace coral (Lodictyum yaldwyni), and you turn to the species information. And there you discover that while the photos are sorted chromatically, the text is sorted taxonomically: it starts with Birds, Bryozoans, and Cnidarians and ends with Molluscs and Plants. Now because you did 200-level invertebrate biology at university you remember that corals are Cnidarians, so confidently turn to that section and pick through the tiny type. It’s tricky, because the photos are labelled by page number followed by plate number, and the species information the other way round. Of course it is.
Imagine your surprise, then, when there’s no information on lace corals. What you don’t know, because like me you didn’t take graduate level invertebrate zoology, is that lace corals aren’t cnidarians at all but bryozoans. You big silly! This was all helpfully explained in the species information for a different lace coral, which unfortunately appeared 140 pages previously because it was white.
Because the words don’t march in lockstep with the photos, the twin bookmarks are a bit useless. There’s acres of empty space opposite each plate, so all the text could have been fitted into there with plenty of room to spare, and the book could have been 50 pages shorter and a bit cheaper. That’s what Canterbury Museum did with Ussher’s photos, and it worked just fine.
You’d never get away with these shenanigans in a prestige book of taonga Māori or Victorian lithographs: arranging them by colour and stuffing all the whakapapa and context into an appendix. It’s as if Te Papa Press wanted a book of art photography, but Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa wanted to convey the glories of its scientifically important collections – that’s the press release wording, which also points out reassuringly, three times, that the expert texts are “short” and “concise”. The tension between the two has created a beautiful book, full of beautiful things, which seems to be embarrassed that they’re also quite interesting. It will probably win a design award.
Nature — Stilled by Jane Ussher (Te Papa Press, $70), has been shortlisted at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand book awards, and is available in bookstores nationwide.