Tim France is more used to photographing bands for album covers, and lifestyle features for magazines, but lately he’s been taking a very close look at bones at the Booth Museum.
I’ve had an interest in skulls and bones since childhood. I first visited the Booth Museum when I moved down from London a few years ago. I was struck by the amazing display of osteology – or bones – and so I approached them about photographing the collection.
Lee Ismail, the Curator of Natural Sciences, suggested another project and showed me ‘back stage’ to the store rooms where they have a huge amount of stuff that is hardly ever seen. It’s a bit like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, with crates and boxes full of bones and birds. There are cupboards and cupboards and cupboards of stuff.
I began cataloguing the osteology collection so that it can be viewed online. Only 5% of the collection is ever on display. I started with the primates and there were a lot of really small, quite mundane bones to document but, as I went from cupboard to cupboard, I kept coming across these gems. As I opened boxes I found marvellous skulls, of primates, birds and reptiles, and I felt that there was another project in it. As I’ve shot the hundreds of images for the catalogue, I’ve also selected 30 skulls to photograph for exhibition-quality prints, ten of which are on display at the museum.
The skulls are beautiful, impressive things, so I approached them like I would a portrait job. On Thursdays, when the museum is closed to the public, I set up a table-top studio in the gallery with a backdrop and lights, and work with the curators to set up the subjects.
The baboon skull was the stand-out one from the primate collection. It looks like an alien. The turtle is awesome too, it’s absolutely enormous. If you look into the skull, it has the texture of polystyrene to keep it light and buoyant in the water.
I’ve been cataloguing for a year now and I’ve only just finished the primates. I’m going on to the birds next, which is probably going to take me the rest of my life. My favourite is the Hornbill. It is so other-worldly. You can really see how amazing nature and evolution are, to get a skull that big to be light enough to fly. It’s a massive honeycomb lattice of tiny bits of bone. This project is a fascinating study of nature as architect. I just love it.
As told to Lizzie Lower
Skeletal: The Scaffold of Life continues until the 23rd of January timfrance.com / brightonmuseums.org.uk/booth
The Booth Museum is open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm (closed 12-1.15pm), Sunday 2-5pm. Closed Thursdays. Admission is free. Behind the scenes tours can be arranged for groups of between 5-15 people and cost £15 per person. Call Visitor Services on 03000 290900.