Thursday, 24 September 2009

There's something in the cellar

On our visit in the summer we were lucky enough to go down into the bowels of the museum building, down in to the basement, where the taxidermy division is based. A little bit of back ground information here - the modern museum was built in the 1970's on the site of what had been the main jewish bank in Kaunas. This building sat oppostite the main synagagogue on one side and the main pedestrianised boulevard of the city, Laisves Aleja, on the other. Before the second world war, over a third of Kaunas's population was Jewish, and by the end of the conflict, they had all but been liquidated. Most of the survivors owe their lives to the work of two diplomats , Jan Zwartendijk who was the dutch consul (and Phillips Lighting rep in Lithuania) and Chiune Sugihahra who was the Japanese Consul. In the summer of 1940 they signed over 6,000 transit visas to get jews out of then soviet territory and out to safety through Japan. It was a remarkable act, especially for a japanese official of the time. When asked many years later why he had acted in defiance of his official orders and risked his career to save other people, he quoted an old samurai saying: "Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge."

The old synagogue in Kaunas - the only synagogue still remaining in the town, I think.

Anyway, slightly digressing, but the musem sits on the site of the old bank which also housed a shopping arcade and from what I can understand was quite a focus of jewish life in the city. Here is a photo of the building as it used to look:

All that is left of this now are the old bank vaults which are the stores and taxidermy section for the museum. Lukas took us down to meet the staff down there and given the local history of the space it all felt very...atmospheric:

The taxidermists are an amazing powerhouse down underneath the museum proper. They are incredibly skilled at what they do; they can work for years on some of the bigger pieces, reconstructing the muscle and sinews on a skeleton in clay and then making a cast of this and re-stretching the skin over the top. These are skills passed down from master to apprentice - a macabre apostolic succession.

What struck me was the physical lack of 'animal' after the process was finished. You can just see one of the castings, the head of an antelope, to the left of the sprinbok on the wall (no corrections please). It really is just the skin, artfully pulled over the fibre glass. From this strange, translucent core, the ghost of the original animal, long since dead, you can create something that looks so lifelike in its glass cases. In most instances looking so real that you can feel a decided sadness to see them in the main halls of the museum, and yet the life is long gone from them.

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