Humans squirm among specimens in a new short film set in the UI Museum of Natural History

Mammal Hall Screening and Q&A

Saturday, Jan. 15 at 3 p.m., Macbride Hall Auditorium

A skeleton in the UI Museum of Natural History’s Mammal Hall, photographed on Jan. 7, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. — Jason Smith/Little Village

When Stephanie Miracle moved to Iowa City in 2019, she visited the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History in Macbride Hall with her 1-year-old son.

“I totally fell in love with this museum space. I immediately started to dream up a project for this space,” she said.

Miracle came to Iowa City as a visiting assistant professor at UI’s Department of Dance. With cinematographer Auden Lincoln-Vogel and composer Ramin Roshandel, Miracle has created Mammal Hall, a short film that explores museums and how we relate to them.

The roughly 16-minute short functions as an entry point into questions like: What is the purpose of museums? How do we encounter that purpose? Why is it important to share that information?

Mammal Hall is a film that involves dance in it and also music,” said Roshandel, a Ph.D. candidate in UI’s music composition program.

There’s no text or dialogue in the film. Instead, there are deconstructed audio descriptions of the exhibits, sounds from the museum and original compositions overlayed on dancing and amoeba-like movement.

“We went into it, and really started by shooting and dancing almost immediately, and thinking about sound from the get-go,” said Lincoln-Vogel, a recent graduate of UI’s film and video production MFA program. “We didn’t really have a script or a storyboard, or any of those kinda traditional things going into it.”

Lincoln-Vogel grew up in Massachusetts and remembered going to the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

“That was always a very fascinating experience for me, even as a very little kid,” he said. “In making the film, I was really interested in recreating that experience for the viewer.”

He hopes the short film will bring a new appreciation and attention to the museum and its small details, like the texture of animal fur, museum architecture, the artificial dioramas and the museum’s history.

“It’s not exactly a didactic film that has a clear message,” he said.

Press photograph of Stephanie Miracle and Auden Lincoln-Vogel filming in Mammal Hall. — courtesy of Ramin Roshandel.

While in residence at the museum, the three artists spent months researching and walking through the space. Occasionally they crept through Mammal Hall at night with flashlights.

“That experience, very Night at the Museum, it was such a heightened discovery, secret, intimate experience with the specimens and also the space itself,” Miracle said.

Throughout the film, Miracle crawls, drags and slinks across the floor as the stuffed and reconstructed specimens tower over her. There are also dance performances by Michael Landez, Laila Franklin, Sabrina Duke, Danica Clayton and Jenny Fairman.

“We talked about the concept of Anthropocene and the dominance of the human species throughout history. And that’s one of the reasons why in the film, the human body is placed at a lower level than the specimens,” Miracle said. “The film is a mix of abstraction, high detail of the space and also some absurdity. So there’s a playfulness to it. It’s not what most would consider a narrative.”

In a “whimsical, cartoon way,” the artists talked about what names and relationships the specimens might have had. They balanced this discussion with the real history of the museum. UI faculty and students collected many of the animal specimens during expeditions.

“That was also important for us to think about: this collection, capture, complication of a more colonial history of museums and when this museum was established,” Miracle said.

They also considered the static quality of the museum contrasted to the wandering movements of visitors, students and faculty stretching back decades.

“We thought about students in the ’70s and the questions they may have had looking at the specimens, and our overlapping time now,” she said.

Miracle originally conceived of the project as a live performance planned for April 2020, but it was canceled because of the pandemic. From there it morphed into a podcast audio play, then a cinematic project after Lincoln-Vogel joined. They’re also creating an audio-description version of the film for people that are visually impaired.

The artists will hold a screening of the short film and a Q&A discussion at Macbride Hall Auditorium on Jan. 15 at 3 p.m.

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