Photographic Documentation: A day of stocktaking in the mammal collection of the Natural History Museum Berlin

After I picked up my guest pass at the museum’s employee reception gate, I followed Christiane Funk, the mammal collection manager into the depths of Berlin’s fortress of natural history.

I remember passing through many giant doors, all of which led to yet another walk-through compartment. Each room had its own smell, but all had the same peculiar odor of matter steeped in history. The many floor-to-ceiling wooden drawer cabinets and heavy iron cupboards I passed were exactly what I had imagined the behind-the-scenes premises of a natural history museum to look like. By the time we reached the last big iron door, I was certain that I’d never find my way out of this maze on my own. Behind that door lay a huge hall called ‘Fellsaal’ that stores animal skins. This time the smell was even more peculiar, almost intrusive. The air was thick, and it was freezing.

My job was to take photographs of selected Australian mammals that were taken by European explorers and brought to Berlin in the 19th century. The focus was on documenting all tags and labels that I could find on the preserved animal, on bones, or on the containers the latter were stored in. Before I was left to myself and my task, I was informed that I should beware of not letting the door shut completely, as it would be difficult to open it from the inside. For a moment, I thought about the uncanny scenario of being trapped in a cold warehouse stuffed with the remains of dead animals.

My little makeshift photo studio was composed of a small table covered with a white cloth, my camera and a flashlight that I used to decipher the most illegible notes and numbers. The specimens I looked at were very fragile, especially the fine thorax bones of small marsupials or the tiny skulls of bats. Sometimes, there was just a microscopic jawbone in a microscopic plastic case. I remember feeling humbled and in awe as I touched these bones, a century and a half old, of animals that may now be extinct. What’s more, I couldn’t avoid thinking about the inappropriate way of storing them here in boxes, stacked in shelves and drawers gathering dust, especially when considering the Land they came from and their potential relevance for Indigenous communities. With my blue rubber gloves, I gently worked my way through the boxes photographing all the notes and labels I could find.

With the specimens preserved in alcohol, which I photographed later in a different room at a more pleasant temperature, the search for labels proved to be a little more difficult. They are often placed inside the glass jar of alcohol, where they overlap each other or get covered by the animal’s body. This meant Christiane sometimes had to take out the jars’ entire content with forceps and I neatly arranged the dripping wet animal and labels on a tin tray––setting the scene for the photograph. Compared to handling the bones and skulls, this act felt especially violent, as if we were disturbing these furry little creatures in their eternal sleep.

Back home, the next step was to transcribe every typed and handwritten detail on the labels which sometimes could be just a crumpled little piece of paper. The handwritten Latin names can be particularly difficult to decode, sometimes turning flashlight and magnifying glass into futile tools. Labels usually contain the scientific name of the specimen, at least one inventory number, site and date of the find, and name of the collector. Occasionally, I was able to find even more specific information on an enclosed slip of paper whereas in other cases, time and alcohol had completely consumed the pencil-written notes. Every detail was then entered into excel columns feeding the lists and adding to the intended bigger picture. This step of stocktaking as a first form of digitization aimed at compiling data that would help us establish connections within the collections but also to gather information that the Berlin project team could then share with the Australian project team and partners.

By Marla Helling

Cite this blog post
marlahelling (2024, April 15). Photographic Documentation: A day of stocktaking in the mammal collection of the Natural History Museum Berlin. Berlin's Australian Archive. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from

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