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The secret life of taxidermy

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The skin of taxidermy animals belies both a false steel structure and a sanitisation of colonial violence

Taxidermy is the craft of preparing and mounting animal skins to appear ‘lifelike’. Often considered macabre and gruesome, the lifelikeness of taxidermy animals is a source of discomfort for many. Indeed, with the animal skin indexing the violent practices that went into their making, taxidermy specimens and displays are more redolent of death than life. As a result, many personal collections have been relegated to attic spaces, while those on institutional display will not be replaced. Yet it is precisely their provocative presence that has instigated a new wave of interest in taxidermy objects and displays. Whether it is in museums, galleries, designer boutiques or fashionable residences, taxidermy animals are once again making their presence felt. They are being utilised as important resources for telling complex histories of relations between humans and other animals.

To refine Lévi-Strauss’s familiar claim, taxidermy animals ‘are good to think with’, and they are particularly good for not only probing the ways humans have conceptually and materially placed other animals, but also the ways other animals, even in their taxidermied manifestations, have disrupted and resisted these placements. The discipline of cultural geography offers a helpful conceptual apparatus to explore these dual and often intimately entangled senses of place: ‘animal spaces and beastly places’. In a book bearing this title, the editors Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert explain that ‘animal spaces’ refers to humans’ conceptual placing of other animals, where they are fixed in a series of limiting and abstract spaces within our wider ‘order of things’ (after Foucault’s 1966 book), and that these conceptual spacings have consequences regarding how animals are physically placed or enclosed in the material world. Where ‘animal spaces’ refers to the conceptual and material placement of animals as specified by humans, ‘beastly places’ refers to the ways they evade and even resist these: the place(s) animals assume for themselves. 

In Heart Lines, 2016, Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen took half of a taxidermy lion from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, and X-rayed it in a local hospital

Credit:Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen

It may seem odd to turn to taxidermy specimens to explore the ways these species evade or escape their placements by humans, given that historically their skin and bones were fixed into positions to evidence and represent hierarchical orderings of biotic life and to underwrite histories of human exceptionalism. The craft of taxidermy emerged in response to one of the major technical challenges confronting 16th?century European naturalists: how to preserve animal specimens for taxonomic study (the description, identification and naming of species). Increasing quantities of animal skins were being sent back to Europe from Africa, Asia and the ‘New World’ by early explorers and collectors. However, the skins were often in poor condition due to rudimentary preservation techniques, which led to a crude understanding of the animals themselves. For example, when the first bird-of-paradise skins arrived in Europe on the only ship to return from Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1522, European natural historians speculated that these ‘Lufftvogels’ (birds of the air) spent their lives in perpetual flight, living on air and dew, and did not even land to breed. These fanciful interpretations were prompted by the fact that the birds’ feet and legs had been removed when they were prepared as trade-skins by Indigenous Papuan hunters. This example both complicates simplistic postcolonial interpretations that present Europeans as in control of all aspects of colonial encounters, and shows how the alien avian skins defied easy classification and themselves inspired ‘flights of fancy’.

Complete bird-of-paradise skins arrived in Europe from the early 1600s, underlining the folly of 16th-century European naturalists. In 1758, however, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus knowingly perpetuated the birds’ mythology by naming the greater bird?of?paradise (the largest of the genus) Paradisaea apoda, the ‘legless bird?of?paradise’. In his book Species Planterum (1753), Linnaeus provided naturalists with a consistent way to name species through the combination of two names to create a unique scientific name, known now as ‘binomial nomenclature’. The point of this naming system was to precisely classify and position biotic life within a fixed hierarchy, what Linnaeus termed as the ‘natural order’. By placing humans at the top of this, it served to separate humans, or at least white Europeans, from other animals. The contribution of Linnaeus’s classification systems to the rise of modern racism is now acknowledged, as is the way his naming system worked to erase Indigenous knowledges of non-human animals (Linnaeus thought them imprecise and misleading). Yet as Linnaeus’s naming of the greater bird?of?paradise demonstrates, European science was not always precise, and the line between science and story often blurred. Even when it was put in its ‘proper place’ through scientific naming, the trace of Papuan peoples’ interactions with birds-of-paradise and the affective charge of bird skins themselves could still be felt.

The sculptural steel structure within reveals how the taxidermist was able to shape in the national subconscious, a colonial understanding of biotic life

Credit:Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen

To avoid the misnomers of their forebears, 18th-century natural historians sought to improve taxidermic techniques so that large, well-preserved taxonomic collections could be amassed. In 1748, French naturalist René-Antoine Réaumur, prompted by the poor preservation of the bird-skins in the Cabinet du Roi, published a small pamphlet on how to best prepare and preserve avian specimens for shipment and study. These advances in taxidermy techniques enabled naturalists to represent a fuller picture of the ‘natural order’ in natural history’s growing institutional spaces such as the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, in the process turning the ‘beastly places’ of 16th-century cabinets of curiosities into enlightenment ‘animal spaces’. This movement fixed non-human animals in a series of stable, systematic spaces, where each specimen became a type or token for a species rather than a lively creature or agent in an ecology. Yet the ‘survey voyages’ that were organised to collect these specimens were not removed from these messy real-world contexts and it wasn’t until the voyage of the Beagle that Charles Darwin began to change his, and the whole of enlightenment science’s, views on the fixity of species. 

Ironically, it was the preserved specimens that Darwin brought back with him, specifically his specimens of Galapagos mockingbirds and finches, that allowed his initial inklings to flourish into his theory of evolution. Darwin had been taught taxidermy in Edinburgh by John Edmonstone, a former enslaved man who had been taught the skill by the eccentric naturalist Charles Waterton. Although it is impossible to tell if Darwin himself prepared his now world-renowned bird specimens, as all the Beagle crew were engaged in the preservation of specimens, it is known that on examining them en route to Tahiti after leaving the Galapagos archipelago, Darwin noted that all the mockingbirds on Charles Island were of one species, those from Albemarle of another, and those from James and Chatham Islands of a third. It was not until he got home, and thanks to the ornithologist John Gould’s examination of ‘Darwin’s Finches’ whereupon he noticed that the finches repeated the mockingbird’s curious distributions and adaptations, that Darwin began to more seriously question whether variations appeared gradually or spontaneously, and therefore the stability of species. Instead of a hierarchical tabula rasa, he gradually began to see life as rhizomatic. However, although taxidermy specimens had allowed Darwin to challenge enlightenment science’s powerful and still prevailing ontological imaginations of fixity and equilibrium, taxidermy as a developing medium was still being powered by them.

By the mid-19th century, the craft skills of taxidermy had improved significantly. Rather than crudely stuffing skins, taxidermists were now sculpting an accurate replacement body before arranging the skin on top. This enabled taxidermists to present specimens in realistic and dynamic poses, which in turn helped transition the natural history museum from ‘storehouse’ to ‘showcase’. This transition is most intensely exemplified through the conception and making of the African Hall of Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. The hall, which can still be visited today, was the showpiece of the museum’s master taxidermist, Carl Akeley. Unsatisfied with the single-subject context-free taxonomic displays commonly found in museums at the end of the 19th century, Akeley wanted to present multiple animal specimens in a re-creation of their natural habitats via diorama display. To achieve this he led several large-scale big-game hunting trips to procure and preserve the best pelts to work with. While on his third collecting trip to Africa, Akeley was alerted to the vulnerability of its flora and fauna and committed to building his massive monument to the continent’s ‘fast-vanishing wildlife’. Although designed and built by teams of people, including groundwork and scenic artists, the 28 dioramas that make up Akeley’s African Hall were brought together by his ruling artistic vision: to produce images of ‘nature in perfection’. In creating pristine scenes of African wildlife back at the museum, Akeley had achieved his goal of rendering the continent’s endangered animals eternally present. Yet he had also, according to Donna Haraway’s famous critique of the hall, sanitised the colonial violence that went into their making. 

At the American Museum of Natural History, a taxidermist prepares the structure for a bull-giraffe model to be used in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, 1927

Credit:American Museum of Natural History

Indeed, as the examples offered here demonstrate, taxidermy was a medium through which Europeans and Americans were able to conjure static narratives about other global regions, their wildlife and peoples while often actively attempting to erase living Indigenous narratives, knowledges and beings. Today, taxidermy objects and displays remain uncomfortable reminders of the past scientific and colonial practices which sought to capture, order and control animated life and separate humans from other animals. Yet the enduring animal reality of taxidermy specimens and displays means that they will always exceed the human and Eurocentric imaginaries that are built into them. It is the problematic and provocative place of taxidermy animals in the contemporary era that has inspired renewed interest in, and the reuse of, them by contemporary artists. 

Many artists working with taxidermy as a medium draw upon the unsettling effect of beastly presence to not only question how animals have historically been identified and delimited by humans, but also to offer ethical and political grounds for rethinking and recalibrating relations between humans and other animals. Given the complex and compelling stories embodied in taxidermy objects and displays, they are ideally placed to speak against the contemporary perils of ecological degradation and mass extinction and instead affirm an ethical sensibility and awareness of kinship and interdependence between humans and other animals.

Lead image: Image Source / Getty

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