Bruce Mahalski collects skulls. Porcupine, tui, crocodile, human, cow and giraffe skulls decorate the front half of his Dunedin home, which he has turned into the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery, showcasing his skulls next to bones, fossils, “ethnographic” art, and whatever weird or interesting objects take his fancy.
Bruce is also an artist. He makes sculptural installations out of bones. For Bruce, the roles of artist and collector are inseparable; items from his collection make their way into his art and his art is displayed next to his collection. More than this, he sees the whole collection as a work of art in itself.
A lifelong pacifist and environmentalist, Bruce started collecting when he was eight, following in the footsteps of his scientist parents. He says he “used to think it was what normal people did … I used to skin small animals and things like that and bring back their skins”.
The price for exotic remains varies but Bruce says that something like a lion skull costs two to four thousand dollars in New Zealand, depending on the size and the condition. Bruce’s dream skull is a hippo skull; “When I’ve got a hippo I’ll rest happy, because they’re the biggest skull that still looks like what it is,” says Bruce, pointing out that elephant skulls don’t actually look much like elephants without the tusks, and with the tusks, they start to veer into ethically dubious territory because of the illegal ivory trade.
While he says it would be “crazy”, not to mention unethical and illegal, to try sneak things through customs now, Bruce says that a remarkable amount of exotic animal remains are brought into the country legally; “I have bought amazing things on Trade Me”.
According to Bruce there are at least two people legally importing remains from North America and North Africa on a semi-professional basis. “There’re quite a lot of species there that are quite common, but to us they’re very exotic, and there’s no laws against bringing them into the country”. Customs let exotic bones into the country as long as they’re clean (and have a CITES permit if they are protected); if they’re not, they’ll confiscate them or charge you for fumigation.
According to Bruce there’s a surprisingly large community of exotic bone collectors in New Zealand; he thinks it’s because “these things are harder to get here; there’s more of a rabid desire” to possess them. Most of the other bone collectors he knows are primarily interested in animals and the natural world; they can’t get a live bear or racoon, but they can own a bear or racoon skull; possessing the animal by proxy. “I’ve always felt a little bit of cultural cringe and inferiority about coming from this perceived backwater,” says Bruce, “and wanting to have a broader take on the world than I can get from just living here”. For Bruce, bone collecting allows him a connection with a wide range of animals; a connection with the wider world.
In addition to exotic animal remains, Bruce also has the remains of native species. Legally this is a far more contentious area. Under New Zealand law it is illegal to possess the remains of any native species, except for black backed gulls and pukekos, however the law has grey areas and the Department of Conservation has insufficient resources to fully police collectors.
Bruce and some other collectors are currently asking that the laws around native remains be changed to something more like the laws surrounding the ownership of Māori artifacts; when you buy an artifact you get a certificate saying you’re a registered collector and then your artifact gets a number and is registered to you as a collector. Bruce argues that this is a far more common sense approach than putting blanket bans on ownership, de-incentivising legitimate collectors to register their collections with the proper authorities.
The remains of certain native bones, like whale, are more heavily policed than others because of their connection to tangata whenua. Bruce says that for this reason, selling whalebone is considered taboo in the bone collecting community; he has some whalebone in his collection but they’re bones that he’s inherited from his father, who picked them up in the sixties. “I don’t think DOC is going to come and confiscate my whalebone. What they don’t want obviously is people coming up and chain-sawing whales to pieces on the beach. So if you find one bone you’re probably good to pick it up (although check first as some iwi don’t want anyone picking up any bones at all on their beaches). If you find part of a whale then you’ve got to tell DOC and tell local iwi.”
Bruce is also interested in mutations. His prize mutation is the skull of a “unicow,” a cow born with a single horn coming out of its forehead.
As well as collecting animal remains, Bruce also has a number of human skulls and bones. Most of the skulls in New Zealand come from old medical specimens; back in the day every medical student had to get a skull for their studies. The human skull on display in the Museum of Natural Mystery is one of these specimens, with a special hinge for taking off the skullcap.
Selling human remains is illegal under the Human Tissue Act, but remains can legally be ‘gifted’ to other people. However, Bruce says that human skulls are occasionally sold quietly, “no one will say that any money changed hands; it’s often done with swaps”. It helps that the pool of people who are interested in buying human remains is quite small and they’re likely to already know each other, “it’s not like there’s a big market for these things”.
For Bruce, collection of remains is about celebrating and respecting the natural world, which is why one of the things conspicuously absent from Bruce’s collection is taxidermy. “With taxidermy, you’ve got to be an expert, you’ve got to be a sculptor, to make an animal look alive”. While he’s fine with taxidermy done by experts in a way that respects the animal, he says that, “generally anything you can afford is not going to be very good”. For Bruce this kind of taxidermy “risks degrading the animal”. For the same reason, cryptozoology, the practise of joining remains of different animals to make so-called ‘mythological’ ones, like joining monkey and fish remains to make ‘mermaids,’ really annoys Bruce. He also doesn’t like it when people carve skulls. “I’d never do that; you can’t improve on a skull”.
For Bruce skulls are special, even sacred: “with a skull you’ve got that sort of purity; if a life-force could return to this world after dying, the skull is an obvious hard drive to return to”. This is part of Bruce’s animism, the belief that objects, creatures and plants contain unique spiritual essences. For Bruce, animism is “basically seeing humans as part of nature rather than being separate from it”. He uses the example of a New Guinea tribal person holding onto the skull of their dead grandfather as a connection to that person. “Animism is the belief that you can actually communicate with some aspect of your biological past if you do the right things; it’s basically a belief that all life is equal and all life is perpetual.”
An important part of Bruce’s collection, alongside his skulls and bones, is his collection of what he calls “ethnographic” art, art that comes from animistic societies. “It’s about the connectivity of it; the skull is a vessel, and these objects are vessels. So I see skulls and these objects as like spiritual telephones to other dimensions, and with my own art I’m trying to do that as well; I’m trying to make connection points between this world and other ones.”
Bruce’s art consists of entangled arrangements of bones; forming remains together into new shapes while always respecting the material itself; he doesn’t alter or paint his bones; he revels in and celebrates their brittle and bleached glory.
While Bruce says that some might think of him as a little-known contemporary artist, he’s really “not interested in contemporary art; I’m interested in going and looking at collections of ethnological art and trying to make objects myself in this modern, Western context that have the same sort of animistic qualities and the same aims and ambitions as some of the work that people were creating 200 years ago, before Western contact.”
The different objects in Bruce’s collection, his skulls, his fossils and bones, his ethnographic art, his own art, all occupy their place as part of a larger artwork: the museum itself. Objects are moved around, objects leave, objects arrive, but the museum itself remains. “Sooner or later,” Bruce says, “everything in here might get recycled; it’s constantly changing; it’s always being added to and taken away.”
Bruce’s Museum of Natural Mystery is really cool. Check it out. It’s a ten-minute walk from campus, at 61 Royal Terrace. It’s open 10am-5pm Friday-Sunday. The entrance fee is $5. Bruce’s book, Seeds of Life - The Bone Art of Bruce Mahalski, about Bruce’s art, environmentalism, and the process of ethically collecting remains, is available at UBS.
Cover: Oves Dei (Sheep Goddess) by Bruce Mahalski
Centrefold: Manu Ika by Bruce Mahalski