The Raft

Mark Fairnington: The Raft, oil on canvas, 2006

The scene is the Natural History Museum’s outstorage depot located in a secret location in South London, where they house all the taxidermy specimens that are not on show in the public galleries. From the outside the building looks like a non-descript 1960s council office. You go through a reception area, down a set of stairs and along corridors to arrive at a huge pair of red doors, you then pass through two separate entrance spaces – the doors you have just come through are closed before the next ones are opened – this is to prevent contamination. When the final doors open the sight is genuinely spectacular – a huge icy warehouse filled from floor to ceiling with stuffed animals and skeletons. There is a logic to the collection – how the specimens are housed and displayed and why one thing is next to another. The ordering of the specimens, for example, is based on an outdated nineteenth-century system of taxonomy. It is simply the physical difficulty of moving everything that prevents it from being updated.

What impressed me most though, was that however much one learns about the depot, this information can never alter one’s initial experience – this is a vast room full of truly peculiar, disturbing, breathtaking and genuinely surreal images. I believe that these images resonate powerfully in the contemporary world. They are deeply compromised images whose meaning has to be continually negotiated between their present day reality and their complex history.

From the beginning of my visits to the outstorage depot one image in particular fixed itself in my imagination, the group of giraffe heads. The idea for the painting came at a single moment, almost two years after first seeing the specimens. It was as if that amount of time was needed for me to know the image enough to use it.

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The scene is the Natural History Museum’s outstorage depot located in a secret location in South London.