Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s Lost Rhino exhibition opens at NHM

The exhibition tells the story of the endangered northern white rhino – designed by Gitta Gschwendtner – and questions whether science and technology can preserve what has been lost.

The Lost Rhino, a free exhibition curated by artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, opens at the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) Jerwood Gallery, the first of a series of collaborations with artists.

Built around Ginsberg’s 2019 video installation The Substitute, which uses artificial intelligence to create a digital life-size projection of the soon-to-be-extinct northern white rhino, the exhibition explores “how the idea of ​​an animal can be more powerful than the animal itself.” , says Ginsberg.

Ginsberg explains that when Sudan’s last male northern white rhino died in 2018 and only two females remained, he realized that news outlets were focusing on the possibility of bringing back the subspecies, saying: “Don’t worry, that’s okay because we collect cells from these different animals before humans die. ”.

“But what would be born if they didn’t have other rhinos to learn like him?” says Ginsberg. “If your DNA makes you a northern white rhino, but doesn’t grunt, squeak, whistle, and moan like a northern white rhino, are you just a model for us to feel better?”

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg in The Lost Rhino at the Natural History Museum with a video from her 2019 The Substitute © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum London

Ginsberg has been invited by the museum as the first artist in a series of new exhibitions at the museum’s Jerwood Gallery. Holly Gupta, developer of NHM interpretation, who helped put the exhibition together, explains that the program focuses on “the messages we try to convey to audiences around the planetary emergency” and that the emotional impact of the art is “an effective way to connect with visitors.” themes in a different way”.

According to Gupta, the museum turned to Ginsberg for his previous work, which “conveys fascinating ideas about nature and how humans affect the natural world.” “It has a really powerful impact that visitors of all kinds can make,” he tells The Substitute, with “when you see the rhino roaming around in this truly confined space and you know it represents one of the last of a species.” link with”.

Four substitutes fill the exhibition. Visitors are introduced to a video of pulsating heart cells grown from stem cells from Angalifu, the second-to-last male northern white rhino. “When I first saw this in a Zoom interview with scientist Oliver Ryder, I felt like if I could zoom out, I could get a full Rhino,” Ginsberg says. He describes this exhibit as the most “rhino-like” because the cells are actually alive: the “life force” he wants to begin the exhibition with.

Heart cells made in the laboratory from preserved cells of Angalifu, the last male northern white rhino to die in the United States in 2015 © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Next up is a cabinet containing Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut rhino. Although well known, Dürer has many inaccuracies, including an extra horn and armor-like features, as he can’t really see the rhino. Still, this drawing has been reproduced in publications for nearly 200 years, and several examples are on display here. Ginsberg says that Dürer’s Rhino “continues to live in our imagination” through these “grandchildren.”

The Rhinoceros’, Albrecht Durer, Germany, circa 1515 © The Trustees of the British Museum
Installation image of The Lost Rhino showing reproductions of Durer’s engraving. © Natural History Museum Board of Trustees

Then comes the Spare. Loud grunting and roaring sounds in space are taken from video recordings made by Dr Richard Policht from the time the last eight northern white rhinos were together at a zoo in the Czech Republic. The rhino was created using research from AI lab DeepMind, and it becomes more “real” throughout the movie, transforming from pixelated to real before finally making eye contact with the audience. A second screen visualizes the experimental data behind it.

The last one is a taxidermy southern white rhino from NHM’s collection. While it’s been an important scientific object for 130 years, “for me it’s the least “rhino” here – the representation with the least life in it,” says Ginsberg. He explains that even when the rhino was shot for inclusion in the museum collection in 1893, there was the same awareness that it had to be kept for study, as their numbers were already dwindling.

“We wanted to make sure there were no savanna connotations”

Inspired by the outline drawn around the Dürer print, the exhibition isolates all four rhinos in boxes like a kind of cabinet of curiosity.

Exhibition designer Gitta Gschwendtner explains that this idea is central to exhibition design and also a need, “because we’re talking about extinction,” she says, “to look at it from a very sustainable perspective – and temporary exhibition design is quite problematic”. He points out that “you can’t even burn them for fuel afterwards, so they end up in landfills”.

Installation image of The Lost Rhino showing the box concept. © Natural History Museum Board of Trustees

Gschwendtner explains that the four exhibits tried to create volumes “without creating too much waste” to fit well into the “cave-like” and “characteristic” Victorian hall.

He chose to use the dock as a “reusable, rental system” but used a “very minimal key clamp system” where “there was no tube at the end either” for safety reasons, he adds. Cotton fabric used to cover key areas and create volume; This fabric will be donated to a local school after the exhibition is over. “The school will come and visit the exhibit so they understand the rhinos and their extinction, but then they will also see the fabric and understand that it plays a role in reducing waste,” he says.

“Funnels facing in different directions,” says Gschwendtner, “explode the concept of the box to make it more interesting and space-appropriate.” For example, while “starting from the stem cell and actually looking inside the box”, “the box opens outwards” with the Durer showcase.

Taxidermy southern white rhino © The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London, 2022

The taxidermy rhino sits in a pink fabric structure. Gschwendtner explains that they “wanted to make sure it didn’t have a savanna or nature connotation.” In the end we decided on pink because it almost looks like a womb but also looks pretty artificial.”

Reflecting on the exhibition, Ginsberg says: “Every [exhibit] includes the possibility of a rhino; the possibility of seeing the world differently, while trying to preserve the idea of ​​a rhinoceros, while at the same time recognizing that the world could be otherwise”.

“They remind us that the rhino could not exist with us, but is completely lost without us.” “I hope this very strange collection of rhino images will make you think differently.”

Banner image: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, video from The Substitute, 2019. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Courtesy of the artist. visualization/animation by The Mill

The Lost Rhino: An Art Installation with Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg opens at the Natural History Museum on December 16, 2022

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