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Dabbling in Wonders

intro.gifWonder is a strange emotional experience. I can attempt to control my anger; I can learn to be afraid of snakes; I can strive to be happy, but I can’t force wonder. Either the object in front of me is strange enough to amaze or it isn’t. The wonderful casts a spell, and sometimes, like a bolt of lightening, scatters everything I thought I knew about nature.

The reasons for preserving a two-headed calf is not the same as preparing a buffalo for museum display or a having a pet stuffed unless, of course, the calf survived long enough to become a pet. Wonders are preserved because they are strange, singular, rare or exceptional.  Like all living pieces of nature, however, wonders are notoriously fleeting: they die, they mould, they are devoured by worms and insects, and they slowly disappear from view. In a sense, to stuff a strange creature is to sustain an emotion encounter as much as it is a way of hindering natural decay.

One of Walter Potter's botched kittens, preserved
in the late nineteenth century in Bramber, England. 
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There are two sorts of taxidermied wonders or, rather, two sorts of experiences that the collusion of taxidermy and wonder produce.  The simplest is simply preserving a strange, unimagined creature.  Historically, the catalogue of "outlandish" beasts, birds, and fish encompassed a far greater swath of nature than today: armadillos, crocodiles, pelicans, salamanders, birds of paradise, white bears, chameleons, flying fish ... the list might never end. And what if you combined all those marvelous and bizarre parts of nature into one room?  That would be the second category of taxidermied wonder - collections of taxidermy that verge towards the manic. One stuffed hummingbird - its shimmering peacock hues finally immobile for detailed admiration - but what about 200 hummingbirds in a single glass-fronted case?

Image: The frontispiece from a treatise on natural
history by the Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante
Imperato published in 1599 is the first image of
an early modern collection.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosity or wunderkammen were filled with marvels of both natural and human construction. Whatever was rare in occurrence, exotic in origin, or in any way unusual or curious was avidly accumulated and arranged in the most enticing manner possible. Strange fish hung from the ceiling, stuffed birds and mammals lined the walls, shells and dried reptiles arranged in drawers. Exotic curiosities were portals to distant lands, offering enticingly fragmented visions of worlds filled with impossible creatures and untold wonders.

In short, this section examines considers stuffed animal aberrations and taxidermic displays which accentuate the marvellous aspects of nature or which demonstrate an exuberant, perhaps even manic collecting urge. The images include curiosities such as a two-headed calf, the largest taxidermied bear, the oldest surviving example of taxidermy (a crocodile on exhibit at St. Gall, Switzerland from 1623), a nineteenth-century case crammed with over 200 hummingbirds, etchings of early cabinets of curiosity, and the charred remains of the taxidermied dodo. head3