In his first collection of photographs, “Animal Logic,” Richard Barnes lifts back the curtain on natural history museums, creating a backstage drama in diorama form. A man in surgical white meticulously places grass into the ground, mere inches from the jaws of two wolves; in another he vacuums the snow-covered plain underneath the head of a buffalo.
“I’m interested in architecture and the stage in the theater, and I started to think about dioramas as stage sets,” Barnes says. “I usually would seek out museums that were undergoing transformation, and oftentimes within that transformation there would be set painters or conservators or curators who would occupy these spaces that the animals were being taken out of. I was interested in those replacement actors on that stage.”
Barnes’ interest in museums began while photographing archaeological exhibitions in Egypt for the University of Pennsylvania. Returning home to San Francisco, he was documenting the post-earthquake renovation of the city’s Palace of the Legion of Honor when a gold rush-era cemetery was unearthed.
“The human remains didn’t interest the museum at all,” Barnes says. “They just wanted to get beyond it and move on. So that’s when I began to question the role of the museum: what gets preserved and conserved and what gets thrown away.”