Cathy Durso, “The Natural History Museum #2”

Cathy Durso
Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Natural History Museum #2
cloth covered box with 8 drawers and gatefold opening with bone and loop closure, linocut, bookboard, aluminum wire, lokta paper, rice paper, cotton embroidery floss, and book cloth
12.875 x 5 x 10.25″

Artist Statement

With The Natural History Museum #2, I continue my series of artist’s books inspired by natural history museums, a source of fascination for me. A miniature Hall of Ocean Life, this artist’s book contains eight drawers, which, when pulled out of the box that houses them, reveal dioramas of eight different ocean-faring animals, each with its own booklet describing the animal and its peculiar habits and history. The animals were constructed using book board, aluminum wire, lokta paper, rice paper, and cotton embroidery floss. Some have linocut- printed skins.

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my family at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I fell in love with that museum, and the sense of awe and wonder the great halls inspired. My love of natural history museums only grew when I lived in Boston during my twenties, and spent time in Harvard University’s Museum of Natural History. That museum could not have been more different from New York’s. Instead of the spacious, open halls of the American Museum of Natural History with their grand and beautiful dioramas, this museum was like a cabinet of curiosities – stuffed full of animals, their skins coming apart at the seams, and not much in the way of information about the animals.

I love both of these museums and they have inspired this miniature museum hall. Other sources of inspiration include the documentaries of Werner Herzog and those narrated by David Attenborough; John Lurie’s TV series “Fishing with John”; scientific writing about animals from days of yore; wunderkammer of the 17th-18th centuries; and signage seen while traveling through Iceland.

The book stays closed with a bone clasp. When opened, the drawers are revealed. The colors of the drawers correspond to the depths that the animals can be found (i.e. the animals in the lightest blue drawers are found in the shallowest water, and the animals in the black drawers at the bottom are found in the deepest darkest waters). Each animal’s diorama is revealed when the drawer is pulled out, and a little booklet describing the animal can be pulled out of the slipcase built into each drawer. The booklets contain elements of mystery, history, and humor, as well as early scientific illustrations of the animals.

This artist’s book is meant to be opened and explored. I hope it will put a smile on the viewer’s face, make them curious about the natural world, and perhaps make them reminisce about spending time in natural history museums as a child, and the sense of wonder and joy those experiences inspired.