THE BREATHLESS ZOO IS HERE!

My book The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing!

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How to do it

Were you to pay as much attention to birds, as the sculptor does to the human frame, you would immediately see, on entering a museum, that the specimens are not well done. This remark will not be thought severe, when you reflect that, - that which once was a bird, has probably been stretched, stuffed, stiffened, and wired by the hand of a common clown. Consider, likewise, how the plumage must have been disordered, by too much stretching or drying, and perhaps sullied, or at least deranged, by the pressure of a coarse and heavy hand, - plumage which, ere life had fled from it, was accustomed to be toughed by nothing rougher than the dew of heaven, and the pure and gentle breath of air.

Charles Waterton, On Preserving Birds for Cabinets of Natural History. 1828

As the English naturalist Charles Waterton (1782-1865) makes clear, preparing skins of animals and birds for display has never been a simple process of arrangement. Taxidermy was an act of artistry, requiring a delicate hand and a sensitive touch. Beautiful is perhaps not the first word that comes to everyone when viewing a piece of taxidermy. Many of us may only see death on display. Yet for Waterton and nineteenth-century nature lovers, taxidermy was an art form which revealed a deep respect for nature and a fascination with all the exuberant diversity of its fauna. Ideally, taxidermy not only to defended the carcasses of birds from decay, insects, and the ravages of time, but also presented specimens as if they were still alive, preserving the vibrancy of their plumage and the elegance of their form. As Waterton assert, any common clown could “stuff” a bird or, a frequent error of amateur taxidermists, to overstuff the skin. But to craft a specimen which gave some suggestion of the proportions, musculature, and harmony of the whole form “so much admired in animate nature, so little attended to in preserved specimens,” required a great deal of experience not only with a knife, some cotton, and a needle but also with living nature.

Waterton advises that the taxidermist must have a complete understanding of ornithological anatomy and retreat “to the haunts of birds, on plains and mountains, forests, swamps, and lakes” in order to scrutinize each species’ attitudes and expressions. Once you have learnt the precise angle of each bird’s wings, neck, head, and tail, your eagle will be commanding, your magpie will seem crafty, the vulture will show his sluggish habits, and your “sparrow will retain its wonted pertness, by means of placing its tail a little elevated, and giving a moderate arch to its neck.” In short, taxidermy was the aesthetic contemplation of nature’s beauty and variety through art and imitation.