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Thursday
Mar152007

Bad Taxidermy

Well through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, many animals from distant parts of the world were known to Europeans as from the shrivelled caricatures created by taxidermists who had to guess at the appearance of animals they were trying to represent. As Thomas Bewick wrote in General History of Quadrupeds first published in 1790, a great number of monkeys he sought to illustrate were “wholly impossible to trace from a stuffed skin, void of every kind of expression; the muscular parts, which should convey the idea of action, being generally ill supplied, or entirely wanting.”  As such, the greater part of his monkey tribe was without illustration.

jonas-bro-mouth.jpg
Teeth for taxidermy offered by the Jonas Brothers.

Sometimes bad taxidermy created erroneous ideas of animals' features. For example, the English naturalist and adventurer Charles Waterton noted that snakes seldom arrived to museums with their heads still attached: cutting off the head was the easiest and swiftest means of killing a snake and a sure way to avoid a lethal bite. However, Waterton complained, when “the skin is stuffed in the museum, a wooden head is substituted, armed with teeth which are large enough to suit a tiger’s jaw.” This distortion misled spectators into believing that snakes, like tigers, chewed their victims rather than swallowing them whole. On the subject of teeth in taxidermy, Waterton was also confused by Charles Peale’s display in Philadelphia. Although he was highly impressed with Peale’s skills as a taxidermist, Waterton disagreed with Peale’s idea of setting the creatures with their mouths open "frightfully grinning" in order to show their teeth (teeth were a means of classification). Animals, Waterton thought, look so much better with their mouths shut.

 

Another erroneous belief arising from incomplete or poorly prepared exotic specimens persisted for centuries. The Bird of Paradise was an elusive species native to the Aru Islands, a group of islands in the Moluccas, southwest of New Guinea, known to early explorers as the Spice Islands. From the late sixteenth century, traders in search cloves and nutmeg were awed by the beautiful plumage of the birds and began exporting the feathers to Europe. The natives of the islands had long used the birds’ extraordinary plumage for ornamentation, and Europeans were equally thrilled by the birds’ bizarre tail feathers. Seeing as Europeans only expressed interested in the plumage, indigenous traders removed the superfluous legs when preparing the skins for trading. And, since no European had seen the birds alive, it was believed that the birds were in fact legless.

A romantic mythology spread that the birds, variously known as God’s Birds, Birds of the Sun, or Birds of Paradise, remained in perpetual flight during their entire lives, always flying upwards towards the sun and paradise. The ethereal creatures of unearthly beauty only touched the earth for the first time at their death. Linneaus perpetuated the myth by christened the largest species with its extraordinary golden-yellow two foot fan of tail feathers the Paradisea apoda or footless bird of paradise.

In 1854, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) ventured into the Malay Archipelago of South-East Asia in search of natural history specimens. He emerged eight years later with 125,660 specimens (mostly birds and insects) including several live birds of paradise with intact feet. "The emotions excited in the minds of a naturalist," Wallace wrote, "who has long desired to see the actual thing which he has hitherto known only by description, drawing or badly-preserved external covering, especially when that thing is of surpassing rarity and beauty, require the poetic faculty fully to express them." As ever, seeing is believing.

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