Taxidermy is both a material and metaphorical practice: it is not just the animal which is on display but attitudes – whether individual or collective – towards pieces of nature. In his analysis of the human myths and memories which shape how landscapes are viewed and appreciated, Simon Schama states that “even the landscape that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product.” In contrast, taxidermied animals could never be mistaken as free from cultural engagement and transformation. Yet despite the fact that taxidermy requires an animal’s death and accentuates the division between us and all other living creatures (humans are rarely stuffed), the practice is not merely an ostentatious demonstration of human supremacy over the natural world.
Certainly, taxidermied animals symbolise human power and desire for control, but the meaning of individual pieces of taxidermy is always framed by particular aesthetic, social, ideological concerns. Animals dressed up as humans, Martha the last of the passenger pigeons, and hunting trophies are more than just dead animals. They expose different attitudes about what nature is and how it should be used. Whether for the sake of whimsy, pride, social commentary, or education, taxidermy reveals as much about our collective daydreams and desires as it does about death and domination.
There are always cross-overs between the genres of taxidermy listed below - for example, the famous menagerie lion Wallace became a museum exhibit after his death - but nevertheless the sections will provide some help in navigating the strange world of ravishing beasts.
- Taxidermy originated as a means to preserve and accentuate the marvelous, bizarre, or incomprehensible parts of nature and frequently has served an exuberant, perhaps even manic collecting urge.
- Historically, natural history museums have been the largest producers and consumers of taxidermy, which in the past was viewed as a pleasant means educating the populace, that is, taxidermy as edutainment.
Not just death on display, hunting trophies act as souvenirs of an individual's life and exploits and stand as sign of geographical possession or belonging.
Theatrical taxidermy either poses animals in humanised scenarios (kittens drinking tea, fencing squirrels) or creates fearsome scenes of animal combats: life is never dull.
The human imagination and taxidermy are both particularly suited to creating fabulous beasts and strange hybrid animal concoctions.
The scary love for preserving pets: eerie desires for ownership or undying love, control or misplaced adoration?
a squirrel decanter with a removeable cork stopper head, Victorian birds under glass, a hummingbird head broach, an elephant foot ashtray, a giraffe table ...