Some of the most admired objects in the Museum are stuffed animals, found in the Living Worlds and Nature’s Library galleries. They are incredibly popular and are among some of my favourite exhibits. However, it is a strange thing when you actually stop to think about it. So, who first decided to “stuff” an animal and why? Is it an art form or is it just weird?
Taxidermy is the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals so they present a lifelike appearance. The word derives from the Greek meaning “arrangement of skin” (taxis – arrangement, derma – skin).
Modern taxidermy goes back nearly 300 years. In 1748 the French scientist Reaumur, published methods of preservation for natural history cabinets. The preservation of skins can be dated to Ancient Egypt, but embalming is not considered to be taxidermy. In the middle ages astrologers and apothecaries would display very basic examples.
It really came to prominence during the Victorian times when stuffed animals became a popular part of interior design and décor. Hunters would take their “trophies” to upholsterers, in order to be sewn up and stuffed with rags and cotton – hence the term stuffing, although professionals prefer the term mounting. Techniques moved on to cotton-wrapped wire bodies to mounts made from wood, wool and wire to modern polyurethane forms.
Taxidermy is not actually as gory as you might think; the animal is skinned and the body cavity is taken away, removing the blood and guts. The skin is treated with chemicals or tanned – depending on the type of skin – and then mounted on a mannequin. Another method involves retaining the skull and leg bones so as to keep the shape; building the mount around this frame. Carcasses can also be moulded in plaster. Glass eyes are then added and sometimes artificial teeth, jaws and tongues. For fish, anglers nowadays take detailed photographs and measurements to create a resin/fibreglass model rather than keeping, and thus killing, the fish. This is known as catch and release.
Whether you like taxidermy or find it distasteful, Museum displays enable people to see animals that many would otherwise be unable to encounter. Such exhibits can teach us about the importance of conservation and environmental issues, particularly when certain species become extinct as a result of habitat damage or hunting.
The specimens certainly show the skills required to make a true representation of an animal. The vast majority of taxidermists possess a deep knowledge and appreciation of natural history, and have a strong understanding of biology and anatomy.
So the question remains, is taxidermy art? Would you have a stuffed monkey in your living room…?