Skip to main content

Rebuilding History … With Cardboard and Paint

Student art exhibit draws inspiration from Brooks Hall Natural History Museum

Ruffin Gallery’s latest exhibit transports visitors to a strange dimension where Charles Darwin befriends P.T. Barnum. The UVA gallery’s transformed entryway depicts the Victorian Gothic façade of Brooks Hall, while the interior features a whimsical museum, displaying artifacts such as a zebra Pegasus and an alien skeleton. The entire installation is composed of two materials: brown cardboard and black paint.

The exhibit is a collaboration between a group of 12 studio art students known as “The Cardboard Company” and New York artist Tom Burckhardt. Burckhardt came to UVA as the Arts Board 2011-12 resident artist after professor Megan Marlatt saw his installation “Full Stop,” a cardboard re-creation of an artist’s studio, and wondered whether he might want to work with UVA students on a similar project. Seeking a focus that combined diverse artistic styles, Burckhardt was inspired by UVA’s former natural history museum, which occupied the gallery of Brooks Hall from 1877 to 1940.

The result is an installation called “The Brooks Natural History Museum, c 1900: A Creative Interpretation.” The main attraction of the original Brooks Hall museum was a plaster model of a woolly mammoth, constructed by the naturalist Henry Ward. This artifact is the inspiration for the exhibit’s centerpiece, “Wilma,” a full-size replica who gently shelters a bust of Ward between her cardboard tusks. 

Other historical elements in the exhibit are a scale model of Brooks Hall and display cases with intricate detailing based on the original ironwork. But students in The Cardboard Company say they were less interested in creating an accurate replica of a Victorian museum as they were in exploring the museum as platonic ideal. “I was fascinated with the fact that [early museums] pretended to be authoritative in their idea of the way the world is,” says Burckhardt. He was inspired by the book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, which addresses how early European museums often shirked accuracy in favor of wondrous displays intended to amaze their viewers. 

“Tom’s instructions were to take the idea of a museum and perturb it in any way you want,” said Shiry Guirguis (Col ’12), a cognitive science major and studio art minor. Whether this meant hybridization, distortion or projection—all were fair game. “The role of the artist is to be not a historian, but a devil’s advocate for ideas,” says Burckhardt, who told the students to leave their concerns about scientific accuracy in biology class.

This emphasis on artistic freedom allowed The Cardboard Company to creatively combine the surreal and scientific. Dioramas juxtapose a Salvador Dali painting with the story of human origins, a glyptodon with a prehistoric phone. At every level something new catches your eye, from a display case of fungi to a whale shark soaring down from the ceiling. All the artifacts are painstakingly labeled in tongue-in-cheek taxonomy, including such titles as Mo fossils and Honeyus badgerius.

“Whether people contributed a bug or mushroom or built an entire wall, they feel like a piece of them is in here,” says Guirguis of the diverse styles that make up the exhibit. “You wouldn’t think one artist did it, but it doesn’t look like it’s fragmented. It’s tied together by the cardboard and black paint.”

The original mammoth in Brooks Hall
The installation came down March 30, when the collection was dispersed among its creators, faculty members and various institutions, just like the pieces from the original museum. Wilma the mammoth will take up her rightful place, back in her former home, Brooks Hall.

The Cardboard Company includes Bridget Bailey (Col ’12), Hannah Barefoot (Col ’12), Marie Bergeron (Col ’12), Susannah Cadwalader (Col ’12), Manya Cherabuddi (Com ’13), David Cook (Col ’13), Carmen Diaz (Col ’13), Shiry Guirguis (Col ’12), Margaret King (Col ’14), Brendan Morgan (Col ’14), Agnes Pyrchla (Com ’12), and Cherith Vaughan (Col ’13).