The Lost Rhino, a free exhibition curated by artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, opens at the Natural History Museum (NHM)’s Jerwood Gallery as the first in a series of collaborations with artists.
Built around Ginsberg’s 2019 video installation The Substitute, which uses AI to create a digital life-size projection of the soon to be-extinct northern white rhino, the exhibition explores “how an idea of an animal can be more powerful than the animal itself”, Ginsberg says.
Ginsberg explains that when Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, died in 2018, leaving only two females, she noticed that news outlets kept focusing on the possibility of bringing the subspecies back, saying: “Don’t worry, it’s okay because people have been collecting cells from these different animals before they died”.
“But what would be born if it had no other rhinos like itself to learn from?” Ginsberg says. “If your DNA makes you a northern white rhino, but you don’t grunt and squeak and whistle and moan like a northern white rhino, are you just a 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 interpretation developer Holly Gupta, who helped put the exhibition together, explains that the programme focuses on “the messages we are trying to convey to audiences around the planetary emergency”, with the emotional impact of art an effective method for “connecting visitors with those themes in a different way”.
The museum approached Ginsberg for 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 around this really contained space, and you know that it’s representing one of the last of a species”, she says, “it has this really powerful impact that all sorts of visitors will be able to connect with”.
Four substitutes populate the exhibition. Visitors are introduced to a video of pulsating heart cells, grown from stem cells taken from the second-last 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 whole Rhino”, Ginsberg says. She describes this exhibit as the most “rhino-like” because the cells are actually alive: a “lifeforce” that she wanted to start the exhibition with.
Next is a cabinet containing Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut print of a rhino. Although well-known, it contains several inaccuracies, including an extra horn and armour-like features, as Dürer was unable to actually see the rhino. Yet this drawing was reproduced in publications for around 200 years, and several examples are also displayed here. Through these “descendants”, Ginsberg says, Dürer’s Rhino “continues to live in our imaginations”.
Then comes The Substitute. Grunting and roaring loudly in the space, its sounds 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 AI lab DeepMind, and becomes more “real” throughout the film, transforming from pixelated to lifelike – before making eye contact with the viewer at the end. A second screen visualises the experimental data behind it.
The last is a taxidermy southern white rhino from the NHM’s collection. While an important scientific object for 130 years, “for me it is the least “rhino” here – it’s the representation with the least life in it”, Ginsberg says. She explains that even at the time that the rhino was shot in order to be added 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 connotations of the savannah”
Inspired by the drawn outline around the Dürer print, the exhibition places all four rhinos isolated within boxes as a kind of cabinet of curiosities.
Exhibition designer Gitta Gschwendtner explains that this idea was central to the exhibition design, as well as a need, “because we’re talking about extinction”, she says, “to look at this from a very sustainable angle – and temporary exhibition design is quite problematic”. She points out that with the need for fire-rated materials, you “can’t even burn them for fuel afterwards, so they end up in landfills”.
Gschwendtner explains that she looked to build volumes “without creating too much waste” so that the four exhibits would sit well within the “cavernous” and “characterful” Victorian hall.
She chose to use scaffolding as a “reusable, hired system”, but using a “very minimal key clamp system”, which, “also doesn’t have any tubes pointing out at the end” for safety reasons, she adds. Cotton fabric is used to cover essential parts and to create volume; this fabric will be donated to a local school after the exhibition ends. “The school is going to come and visit the exhibition, so they’ll understand about the rhino and extinction, but then they will also see the fabric and know they’ve played a role in reducing waste”, she says.
“Funnels pointing in different directions”, “explode” the concept of the box “to make it more interesting and fitting in the space”, Gschwendtner says. For example, “beginning with the stem cell, actually looking into the box”, while with the Durer showcase, “the box opens outwards”.
The taxidermy rhino sits within a pink cloth structure. Gschwendtner explains that they “wanted to make sure it didn’t have any connotations of the savannah, or of nature. In the end we settled on the pink because it’s almost womblike, but also quite artificial looking”.
Reflecting on the exhibition, Ginsberg says: “Each [exhibit] contains a possibility of a rhino; a possibility of us seeing the world in a different way by trying to preserve that idea of a rhino while at the same time also admitting that the world could be otherwise”.
“They remind us that the rhino can’t seem to exist with us, but without us, it is completely lost.” She adds: “I hope this very odd collection of rhino images will make you think differently”.
Banner image: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Video still from The Substitute, 2019. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Courtesy the artist. Visualisation/animation by The Mill
The Lost Rhino: An art Installation with Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg opens on 16 December 2022 at the Natural History Museum.