On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

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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