The exhibition tells the story of the nearly extinct northern white rhino, designed by Gitta Gschwendtner, while questioning 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 as the first in a series of artist collaborations.
Built around Ginsberg’s 2019 video installation The Substitute, which uses AI to create a life-size digital 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, the last male northern white rhino, died in 2018, leaving only two females, he noticed that the media continued to focus on the possibility of bringing the subspecies back, saying: “Don’t worry, it’s good because people have been collecting cells from these different animals before they died.”
“But what would he be born if he didn’t have other rhinos like him to learn from?” Ginsberg says. “If your DNA makes you a northern white rhino, but you don’t growl, squeal, hiss, and moan like a northern white rhino, are you just a role model to make us feel better?”
Ginsberg was invited by the museum as the first artist for a series of new exhibitions in the museum’s Jerwood Gallery. NHM Performance Developer Holly Gupta, who helped put together the exhibit, explains that the show focuses on “the messages that we’re trying to get across to audiences around the planetary emergency,” with the emotional impact of art as an effective method to “connect visitors with those”. issues in a different way.
The museum approached Ginsberg about her previous work “communicating fascinating ideas about nature and how humans are impacting the natural world” to contemporary art audiences, according to Gupta. With The Substitute, “where you see the rhino walking through this really contained space, and you know it’s representing one of the last of a species,” he says, “it has a really powerful impact that all kinds of visitors will be able to connect with.”
Four substitutes populate the exhibition. Visitors are presented with a video of pulsating heart cells, grown from stem cells extracted from the penultimate male northern white rhino, Angalifu. “When I first saw this on the Zoom call with Oliver Ryder, the scientist, I felt like if I could just zoom out, I could get a full Rhino,” says Ginsberg. She describes this exhibit as the most “rhino-like” because the cells are actually alive: a “life force” that she wanted to start the exhibit with.
The following is a cabinet containing Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros from 1515. Although well known, it contains several inaccuracies, including an additional horn and armor-like features, as Dürer was unable to see the rhinoceros . However, this drawing was reproduced in publications for some 200 years, and several examples are shown here as well. Through these “descendants,” says Ginsberg, Dürer’s rhinoceros “continues to live on in our imaginations.”
Then comes The Substitute. Growling and roaring loudly in space, the sounds of him are taken from video recordings by Dr. Richard Policht, from when the last eight northern white rhinos were together in a zoo in the Czech Republic. The rhino was created using research from the DeepMind artificial intelligence laboratory and becomes more “real” throughout the film, morphing from pixelated to realistic, before making eye contact with the viewer at the end. A second screen displays the experimental data behind it.
The latest is a stuffed southern white rhino from the NHM collection. While it was an important scientific object for 130 years, “to me it’s the least rhino here, it’s the most lifeless depiction,” says Ginsberg. She explains that even at the time she shot the rhinoceros to add it to the museum’s collection in 1893, there was the same awareness of the need to preserve it for study, as its numbers were already dwindling.
“We wanted to make sure it didn’t have any savannah connotations”
Inspired by the outline drawn around Dürer’s engraving, the exhibition places the four isolated rhinos inside boxes as a sort of cabinet of curiosities.
Exhibition designer Gitta Gschwendtner explains that this idea was central to the exhibition design, as well as a necessity, “because we are talking about extinction,” she says, “to look at this from a very sustainable angle, and the design of temporary exhibitions it’s quite problematic.” She notes that with the need for fire-resistant materials, “they can’t even be burned for fuel afterwards, so they end up in landfills.”
Gschwendtner explains that he sought to build volumes “without creating too much waste” so that the four exhibits fit well within the “cavernous” and “characteristic” Victorian room.
She opted to use the scaffolding as a “reusable rented system,” but using a “very minimal key clamp system,” which “also doesn’t have any tubes pointing at the end” for safety reasons, she adds. Cotton fabric is used to cover essential parts and create volume; this fabric will be donated to a local school after the exhibition is over. “The school is going to come and visit the exhibit, so they understand about the rhino and the extinction, but they will also see the fabric and know that they have played a role in reducing waste,” she says.
“Funnels pointing in different directions,” “exploit” the box concept “to make it more interesting and fit into the space,” says Gschwendtner. For example, “starting with the stem cell, really looking inside the box”, whereas with Durer’s display case, “the box opens outwards”.
The taxidermy rhino sits within a pink fabric structure. Gschwendtner explains that “they wanted to make sure it didn’t have any connotations of savannah or nature. In the end we settled on pink because it’s almost like a womb, but it’s also quite artificial looking.”
Reflecting on the exhibition, Ginsberg says, “Every [exhibit] contains the possibility of a rhinoceros; a chance to see the world in a different way while trying to preserve that idea of a rhinoceros and at the same time admit that the world could be different.”
“They remind us that it seems that the rhino cannot exist with us, but without us, it is completely lost.” She adds: “I hope this weird collection of rhino images makes you think differently.”
Header Image: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Video Still 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 December 16, 2022 at the Natural History Museum