On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Monthly Archives: March 2011

More thoughts on taxidermic form and function

The taxidermic collections of Bristol City Mus...

Taxidermy collections of Bristol City Museum

tax·i·der·my

/ˈtæksɪˌdɜrmi/

–noun 

the art of preparing and preserving the skins of animals and of stuffing and mounting them in lifelike form.

Our last post remarked upon Knut’s possible future as a stuffed animal at a Berlin museum. It’s hard not to write a follow-up on this subject. Taxidermy, especially in the context of human-animal studies, is an onion, with peelable layers, providing new purpose, perspective and interpretation when you look at the multiple ways it’s employed. There are those who make hunting conquests into mounted trophies, oftentimes as a reinforcement of their success, pride, dominion over animals, and collection (collecting seems to be a rather popular human phenomenon; just look at the Museum world!). Regardless of the intent for preserving an animal, the practice of taxidermy shows that there is an intimacy between the human and the animal.

Taxidermy for scientific purposes operates on another level altogether. Most animals will simply have their carcasses flattened and stored along with their skeleton and a DNA sample. For display in museum galleries or even for home or competition use, some suggest there is an artful dynamic to the taxidermy process (statuesque perhaps?). A taxidermist must build or purchase the ‘insides’; A century ago this would have meant using wool, wood, wire, and plaster to create a mannequin, while today Styrofoam shapes are readily available. Taxidermists are endowed with the power to stage an animals’ position and facial expressions. Tigers, for instance, are infamous for their carnivorous teeth which are readily flaunted in natural history institutions and no doubt generate shock and awe, especially among youth; however doing so also fortifies the idea of a predator. But we also know that tigers have a softer side, especially in terms of rearing their young.

Thus taxidermists and museum curators are nurturing a particular reaction, not unlike the work of many artists.

Placing animals in a glass case versus a staged environment (think: faux foreground, grass, trees, den) can create differing views and interpretations. Within this diorama setting, can taxidermied animals be construed as art? Although mounted animals can last several centuries, they do decay. Thus restoration of cracked teeth, dulled hair, and withering skin is needed, much like the damage a painting may accrue over time.

Judith Chupasko, Curatorial Associate at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology believes, “You have to be an artist to make an animal look lifelike…Animals are fluid and move gracefully. To capture that movement in a dead animal means that in some way you’re bringing the dead back to life.”

Will taxidermy bring Knut back to life? Will he become a work of art?

What have been your experiences and reactions to taxidermied animals?

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Knut, will he really be the world’s most famous stuffed animal?

Knut, the posterbear of a dysfunctional family and the controversy regarding large animals in captivity, also brings to light another interesting conundrum in his passing: how do we grieve and cope with the loss of an international animal? Knut truly was a global icon. Germans and tourists enjoyed visiting the zoo to observe Knut’s infant antics firsthand, but the world too watched him grow into adolescence through print, radio and virtual mediums. In this high tech, information-saturated, global community, how do we say goodbye? Is it uncouth to stuff Knut?

Keepers with the Berlin Zoo are in conversation with the city’s Natural History Museum to evaluate the possibility of displaying Knut – stuffed and preserved – within its gallery space. Some have suggested that this would be a way for Knut’s fans to bid farewell and have some sort of closure. Currently, almost 8,000 individuals have signed the Zoo’s online memorial for Knut.

From a museum standpoint, this conversation is a curious one. (For the record, zoos are considered museums too; their collections would be the animals themselves.) Some media outlets allege that Knut will be the world’s most famous stuffed animal. Perhaps in terms of today’s staggering population that might be true, but he certainly won’t be the first. Take for instance, Owney the Postal Dog, who took the world by storm in his postal excursions around North America and abroad. Or Hachiko, the source of inspiration for Richard Gere’s film of the same name; he’s also stuffed and showcased in Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science. Museum curators are charged with the task of deciding which objects or live animals to acquire and how they should be displayed. In essence, a curator can decide if it’s uncouth to stuff Knut. Does he have a place in the Natural History Museum?

Will his body continue to promote wildlife conservation? After all, that’s one of the main arguments for housing exotic animals like Knut in a zoo setting. And reflecting/interpreting the purpose of an object or animal is one of the central objectives of a museum. The Edward Gorey House, in honoring the intentions of the artist himself, decided to auction off Gorey’s remaining fur coats in order to further the care and welfare of animals. Will Knut’s being in a museum further the cause of wildlife preservation? Where and/or how does his individuality come into play?

What do you think? Should Knut’s legacy or body be preserved in a museum? What exactly is his legacy? Is there another way to remember him? Should we remember him collectively?

We’re live!

Welcome to the National Museum of Animals & Society’s (NMAS) official blog!

We’re excited to launch this online venue to share with you all things timely and of interest within the Museum’s concentrations: human-animal studies, animal protection history and humane education. Ours is a bustling field. Here’s a glimmer of what you can expect to see on the blog:

  • Behind-the-scenes look at what’s inspiring Museum staff and volunteers and transpiring at the Museum itself
  • Accessible reports on new developments, research initiatives and people in the field of human-animal studies. Postings will cover the interdisciplinary gamut: the Arts, History, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Cultural Studies, Life Sciences, Agriculture, Environmental Sciences, and Social Work, to name a few.
  • Fascinating  tidbits about animals and people: unique profiles on extraordinary individuals, their roles and impact in society (current and historical), and shared experiences.
  • Entries from Museum interns on their projects and interests.
  • Updates on upcoming NMAS events, programs and services

Comment, suggest blog ideas, and explore the human-animal bond with us!