Oslo Natural History

Elise Lund sent me these images from the Natural History Museum in the Botanical garden in Oslo. As Lund explains,

"The dioramas were built after a big renovation of the museum in the 1970's and are still a part of the permanent exhibition at the museum. In the Norwegian hall, where the dioramas are installed, the visitors are presented with the Norwegian fauna as they walk from under the sea to the highest mountain top. The floor is tilting, so you actually have to walk upwards as you see the dioramas. The dioramas are all in different sizes, some very small showing zoological details, and some very large, illustrating wild birdlife in the northern parts of Norway."


Ethiopian natural history museum

Many thanks to Yolanda Weima for the following text and photos from the National Museum in Addis, Ethiopia.  The text is from her blog 

"here are a few photos from the natural history museum in addis. i stumbled upon the museum on my way somewhere else, and not being able to pass a museum without pause, i soon found myself wandering around inside. it's interesting (and not so unusual) when museums themselves become relics of another era. this museum is clearly dated. this style of taxidermy and diorama's seems to have gone out of style in newer museums and exhibits around the world. the taxidermied creatures show their age, as old taxidermied creatures do.

of course, it's not only in africa that one finds museums-as-time-capsules. visiting the royal museum for central africa near brussels in 2005 was a similar experience. not only were their dated dioramas, but in many rooms the information on display seemed stuck in a colonial era, unchanged since most african countries gained independence around 50 years ago."





Frog Museum

The Frog Museum in Estavayer-le-Lac, Switzerland contains 108 frogs doing the typical nineteenth-century variety of unfroggy things -- at school, at the barber, in the army, or playing cards -- all created by François Perrier in the mid-nineteenth century.

The museum began in the 1850s with the eccentric Napoleonic guard officer began collecting frogs on his walks across the countryside. The officer would take the frogs home, gut them, and fill the sacks of skin with sand, before posing them in his little scenes. Oddly enough, the museum's holdings also include 200 lamps used by the Swiss railways, as well as a collection of Swiss armaments and battle regalia. Do you have better pictures?  Please send them my way!


Bats and Dublin

I've just come across Michael Stamp's beautiful pictures of ancient bats at the Natural History Museum, Dublin.  Check out all his images from the Irish wonder-world at



The Gentle Art of Museum Conservation

Check out the short film shot by Michael Mills that accompanied the Ravishing Beasts exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver in 2010-2011. This silent film documented the conservation work done to get the animals ready for exhibition and was presented next to some of the saddest animals from the collection- see photos below.

The Gentle Art of Museum Conservation from Michael Mills on Vimeo.


Taxidermy in North Korea 

Ok.. now here's something out of the ordinary.  A reader sent me images of taxidermy from North Korea.  Karin Cerny is a journalist living in Vienna.  She mainly writes about the theatre, but with a passion for travel (and obviously a stomach for danger) she decided to visit as many "rogue states" as possible.  Below is her description of her experience -- from a taxidermy perspective -- and a series of very odd, very badly stuffed beasts.  Thanks Karin!

"About two years ago I decided to see as many 'Rogue States' as possible. I didn't want to read only in newspapers about them; I wanted to see them with my one eyes. I was in Belarus in 2009, and last year in October I went to Northkorea (DPRK). As you can't travel alone there I booked my journey online. I was in a group of 12 people I didn't know before – I was the only women.  It seems North Korea is a 'Mans World.'"

"You see a lot of how the country wants to present itself to the world: Huge momuments of Kim Il-Sung, the first dictator of the country (statues that look like Jeff Koons made them), nice children who perform arts for the tourists, and the mass gymnastic-games called Arirang, where thousands of people perform the propaganda-history of their country (in fact, that's quite impressing). The guides takes care that you don't do anything alone. I often finished eating early to see a bit of Pjöngjang on my own. That was easy to do, but also strange.  Nobody speaks English.  Everybody is afraid because they are not allowed to talk to strangers. You also feel the spy network."

"I bought a lot of books before I went to North Korea. In a photo-book by Philippe Chancel I saw pictures of stuffed animals in the Kim Il-Sung University of Pyongyang. I really hoped we could see them, but the travel schedule was dense, and it wasn't possible to improvise or see anything on your own. We didn't see this taxidermy collection, but we dithers. In did get the chance to see two others.  In North Korea everything seems like a big performance. As we visited an elite-kindergarden, the children were waiting in their sunday-clothes and took us tourists by the hand to play, they sang songs and showed us the classrooms. They had one room with animals lined up around the walls. [pictured here] There where also fishes and birds, quite nice arranged, but also quide badly stuffed. They almost looked like puppets with their sad eyes."


"Our guide told me, that many schools and kindergardens have stuffed animals to teach children about nature. I don't now if they document only North Korean species, but I think so. The other taxidermy collection we saw was in the 'Children's palace' in Pyongyang (the old one, there is also a new one), where children learn to playing instruments. The animals were also badly stuffed. In an English book they had in a shop in Pyongyang I saw stuffed animals, birds, and small animals are for sale in the "Shop nr. 1", which is in the center of Pyongyang. Unfortunately it's closed for tourists. But you can buy butterflies in a shop in the Yanggakdo-Hotel in Pyongyang."


Why Natural History Museums Rock! 

Why natural history museum collections rock! Read David Ng's article in boingboing here 

David Ng is a science literacy academic based at the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia. He is currently on sabbatical at London’s Natural History Museum, and encourages you to check out the PHYLO project. 




Teaching Evolution at the Natural History Museum, London

By 1887, the first of a special series of explanatory cases had been installed in the central hall of the Natural History Museum, London. The case displayed a series goldfinches displaying a graduation of coloration and two crows (a hooded crow an a carrion crow) which could mate, producing offspring of an intermediate character.  An accompanying text explained that the two ornithological series represented what scientists called "diomophism" or the ocurrence of difference physical appearance of a single species.  (The two crows have subsequently been proven to be distinct species.)

According to the Museum's guidebook, the new Introductory Collections - which expanded over the next few years - were intended “to illustrate general laws or points of interest in Natural History which do not come appropriately within the systematic collections of the departmental series.” As the first displays visitors encounteredon enteringthe museum, the series was significantly located to illustrate not just any old law, but one significant law: evolutionary theory.

The Introductory Collections in the Central Hall of the Natural History Museum, London in 1902 

By the summer of 1890 two more cases were in place. One exhibited the variation of species under domestication with fancy pigeons and another, the adaptation of animals to their surroundings with a selection of mammals, birds, and reptiles collected in the Egyptian desert along with rock, stone, and sand, likewise collected in Egypt.  By May 1891 four more cases had been added variously exhibiting albinism, melanism or excess pigmentation, protective mimicry, and external variation according to season and sex.

As educational tools, the cases were highly successful. Newspapers universally swooned over the scientific display: here was science made palatable. Even better, here was pedagogy made invisible. And indeed, the interactive, demonstrative lessons were also highly popular. “The cases appear to be the most popular in the whole museum,” one contemporary journalist wrote, “for, partly perhaps from their prominent position and partly from the interesting forms they contain, they always attract much attention, and that too from visitors who probably have not read Darwin. Here, however, they can see the facts for themselves, and there is much to those previously unacquainted with the subject to cause wonder."  Animals - even taxidermied animals - exude a truthiness, and this intrinsic "truth" value of animals colluded with the textual descriptions of selective adaptation to offer overt material proof.


The case exhibiting seasonal variation, for example, was divided into two levels in order to showcase the same animals (an Alpine hare, a ptarmigan, a willow-grouse, a stoat, and a weasel) in their “summer dress” of browns and greys and again their white winter coats. Both scenes blended the animals with their habitats – white on pure white (faux) snow, mottled browns on lichens, moss, and rocks. Hardly a dry lesson in selective adaptation, visitors themselves could test the harmony between the colouration of animals and their surroundings, by standing back or coming up close.

In every sense of the word, the displays were overt scientific propaganda. Yet, crucially, they were not without visual and emotive appeal. “Needless to say,” the popular journal Land and Water wrote, “the mounting of the animals is perfect, and such ‘exhibits’ will do more to popularise and stimulate an interest in natural history than rows and rows of dismal specimens mounted upon the regulation stands.” These might be facts, but they were highly attractive facts.

The power of such displays stemmed from the pure pleasures of looking at animals, beautifully prepared, intriguingly presented. The cases on albinism and melanism were particularly grabbing.  Anomalies of nature are always crowd pleasers.


 Of  albinism, one newspaper wrote that, “Apart from its scientific value, the collection is certainly an oddly attractive one, and it is no wonder so many visitors linger round it.” Yet, the journalist noted that "very young visitors show a repugnance" to the melanism display.  

"They look at it from some distance, or if led up by older people, shrink back with in some cases marked terror. The colour probably is associated in their tender minds with what nurses and others have told them about black spirits and bogie men. They will even try to kiss the white ones, forgetting the glass, but they turn away from the black.”  Perhaps it was less the dark colouring that the daunting black leopard. 

The cases have now been dismantled.  I'm not completely sure where the animals have gone.



William Bullock's Museum

William Bullock’s Liverpool Museum established in London in 1807 was something of an extraordinary place. Bullock was among the first collectors to present his creatures in theatrical, almost atmospheric displays, with an eye to both the scientific interest and the spectacular entertainment value of exotic specimens. Ever the entrepreneur, Bullock was hardly immune to the dramatic fascination rarely seen animals held for his Victorian visitors. Down the center of his museum, Bullock arranged his large exotics including a giraffe, an elephant, a lion and a rhinoceros surrounded by artificial models of tropical plants in order to produce an “panoramic effect of distance and … affording a beautiful illustration of the luxuriance of a torrid clime.”

Bullock's Museum also known as the Egyptian Hall.  Image taken from here +

Even in a taxidermied state, exotic beasts and birds incited imaginings of the living creature, its behaviors, the look of its native geographic, and – with dangerous beasts – the titillating fear of its savagery. One display cabinet featured a Bengal tiger locked in a deadly battle with a boa constrictor, two creatures of near mythical menace, surrounded by luxuriant artificial foliage to intensify the “natural” aura of the scene. In the museum’s catalogue, Bullock made sure to describe the combat as luridly as possible:

Bullock's tiger is still on display at the Rossendale
Museum in Lancashire, England.  Go +
"The Royal Tiger (F. Tigrina). This is represented expiring in one of those dreadful combats which take place betwixt this powerful and sanguinary destroyed of the human species, and the immense serpent of India, called the Boa Constrictor, in whose enormous folds its unavailing strength is nearly exhausted, and its bones crushed and broken by the strength and eights of its tremendous adversary.”

Big snakes and big cats obviously excited visitors’ sense of the drama and death on colonial frontiers.  Viewers couldn't help but be impressed.


Bullock's Hummingbirds

In a catalogue to his Liverpool Museum published in 1810, William Bullock lists “near seventy various Humming Birds,” all arranged together in a single display case.Two years later, Bullock boasted to having the “finest collection in Europe,” more than one hundred hummingbirds, and after his travels through Mexico in 1823, Bullock’s collection had swelled to over a hundred and seventy little birds.

Of all his birds and beasts, Bullock paid special attention to his hummingbirds, taking special care to express species’ most cherished physical traits: their diminutive size and shimmering plumage. Of a male and Female Trochilus mininus or least hummingbird, Bullock describes the species, “little larger than the Humble Bee,” as exhibiting an impossible daintiness: “its bill is about as thick and as long as a small pin; and the feet are almost imperceptible to the naked eye.” The Trochilus Moschitus or Ruby Topaz Hummmingbird was “the most beautiful of the genus: the head and crest have the sparkling fire of the ruby, while the neck and breast dazzle like the aurora topaz of Brazil.” Around such exquisite daintiness, no description of fairy-like perfect ion was too saccharine: hummingbirds lived – however fleetingly – in a world of blossoms, sweet nectar, and the untainted freshness of everlasting spring:

“It is easy to lay hold of the little creature while it hums at the blossom. It dies soon after it is caught, and serves to decorate the Indian girls, who wear two of these charming birds, as pendants from their ears. The Indians, indeed, are so struck and dazzled with the brilliancy of their various hues, that they have named them the Beams or Locks of the Sun. Such is the history of this little being, who flutters from flower to flower, breathes their freshness, wantons on the wings of the cooling zephyrs, sips the nectar of a thousand sweets, and resides in climes where reigns the beauty of eternal spring.”

Yet when Bullock penned his romantic vision of hummingbird daily life he had not actually seen a living hummingbird. It was not until his stop in Kingston, Jamaica in early 1823 on his way to Mexico that Bullock caught his first glimpse of “this extraordinary little family.”  During his travels, Bullock kept a large aviary – nearly seventy birds in cages – but was unable to bring a single bird back to England alive. This was the eternal struggle with hummingbirds: they were almost impossible to transport alive to Europe from North America. Standing in front of glass cases, Europeans had to envision the birds reanimated, to imagine the humming velocity of their wings, to picture the speed at which the birds dated between flowers, how they hovered almost motionless, as if suspended in air. Even Bullock had to admit that his specimens were poor copies of the sparkling vivacity of the creatures:

“Europeans who have seen only the stuffed remains of these little feathered gems in museums have been charmed with their beautiful appearance; but those who have examined them whilst living, displaying their moving crests, throats, and tails, like the peacock in the sun, can never look with pleasure on their mutilated forms. I have carefully preserved about two hundred specimens, in the best possible manner, yet they are still but the shadow of what they were in life."

Certainly, Bullock’s specimens were poor replicas of the real thing, but whether the birds were crumbling or not, whether their sheen and shimmer had faded with sunlight and death, the birds were, nevertheless caught up in an aesthetic culture of romanticised nature that couldn’t but see them as beautiful. If anything, the impossibility of witnessing life in a creature which was so profoundly lively intensified audiences’ infatuation with hummingbirds to a near ecstatic poetic high. Not only were the birds beautiful but also frail, sensitive, and fleeting: an ideal grouping of romantic characteristics.

A Victorian cabinet of hummingbirds on display at the Natural History Museum, London and
believed to have been Bullock's.

Encouraged by the poetry of William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley, by the 1820s a romantic branch of natural history was well in swing. It viewed nature not so much as a passive object of contemplation but as a vehicle for self-consciousness and an educator of senses, and indeed, only a sensitive soul could properly appreciate nature and the beauty of all living things. It became almost obligatory to preface any nature book – even scientific works – with a few lines from Wordsworth.  In a sense, the perception of nature was inseparable from its aesthetic appreciation; that is, the ability to appreciate birds and bees and flowers and mountainscapes was the ability to fibrillate in tune with the natural world, although – of course – that tune was a human composition filled with lyrical melodies of beauty, loss, and transience. “The accepted approach to nature had become no longer to set down what one saw plainly and accurately,” David Elliston Allen writes in The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History; “the aim now was to record one’s reactions – and the livelier these reactions appeared, the more beneficial, the more exalting, the more ‘tasteful’ the contact with nature was assumed to be.” Romantic nature was nature extruded through the poet’s imagination, and aesthetic appreciation was an index of cultivation:“the eye misted over, the pen trembled, Sense gave out as Sensibility came in.”

In her work on romantic era collecting, Judith Pascoe argues that stuffed hummingbirds epitomized the romantics’ eternal pining for the fleeting and their infatuation with the beauty of ruin and rupture: the pleasurably suffered longings and almost-blissful experiences in romantic poems, the overbearing sense of loss and ephemerality, Pascoe argues, conditioned the aesthetic appreciation of Bullock’s mass of dead birds: “No sounds emerge from their thousands of beaks, but these birds provide mute testimony to their collectors’ insatiable longings, romantic desires fuelled by the impossibility of fulfilment. The superannuated hummingbirds have staved off death with their arsenic-laden stuffing and survived to epitomize the romantic pursuit of perfect and permanent beauty.”



Save Museum Dioramas

The International Committee for Museums and collections of Natural History (ICOM-NATHIST) is concerned with the conservation of biological, paleontological and geological diversity in museums collections an in the natural environment, the scientific study of the world's natural heritage, and the education of the wider public through museum displays, conferences, field trips, etc. Of recent interest to ICOM-NATHIST is the trend towards what is termed "modernization," that is, the removal and destruction of old, historic taxidermy and dioramas from museums in the name of improving public education.

A working group on the Art of Taxidermy and its Cultural Importance has been established to help save these creatures. As Eirik Granqvist (Senior adviser of ICOM NATHIST) writes on their website:

"When fire, earthquakes and wars destroy the world's historical and cultural heritage, it might not be possible to do anything, but when that destruction is undertaken by the very people emICOM-save_taxidermy.jpgployed as guardians of our heritage, then it is a criminal act and we must all despair for the future of our collections. It is especially difficult to understand the fact that those causing the disastrous damage call themselves scientists when, due to a lack of scientific and historical rigour, they burn or otherwise destroy historical evidence of for example, increasing or decreasing pollution of the environment, both through the destruction of irreplaceable specimens and the context in which they were displayed."

go to the website:

Contact or for more information.


Dioramas: Destruction or Exaltation?

What sort of knowledge do you get by staring at all the animals in their glass cases at museums? Recently museums have been trying to emphasis the cultural resonance of taxidermied animals, that is, to posit the animals as potent symbols within a history of violence against nature.

Mountain goats at the Field Museum of Natural History
The dioramas at the Field Museum in Chicago offer an example of the cultural and ideological deconstruction of museum exhibits. The dioramas are accompanied by narratives about past damage done to animals and their habitats and the abuses perpetrated by hunting and the exotic animal trade. The cases of brightly illuminated dioramas of buffalos, for example, in their “natural” landscape narrate how the arrival of the Europeans decimated herds. Their farming practices pushed the huge beasts to the brink of extinction. But staring at those stolid, hairy creatures, what do visitors see? Do they see the buffalo neatly inserted into a story of sadness and ecological loss or do they stand absorbing the visual intensity of the buffalo?

While a natural history museum is an appropriate institution to examine past and present encounters between humans and the rest of nature, the pairing of dioramas and abuses of ecology has the effect both of highlighting active human history against a placid backdrop and of exposing the illusionism of the diorama. That is, rather than attempting to enchant viewers by creating a mysteriously “real” vision of “nature as it really is,” the signs call attention to the human forces which brought these creatures into view and the constructed perspective of the resulting vision. In a sense, looking at nature almost becomes secondary to knowing human history: rather than textual description illuminating the animals, the animals now supplement a cultural exegesis.

A standing Grizzly bear at the Field Museum
And yet, the overall aesthetics of the hall - a dark passage flanked by superbly crafted 3D pictures of animals in landscapes – creates an undeniable visual magnetism, and brings to mind the wonder-generating display tactics in museums and art galleries, where the precious object is dramatically spotlighted in order “to evoke an exalted attention.” Despite the acknowledgement that this vision is a manipulation and the tacit commentary that perhaps these animals shouldn’t in fact be here to look at, the very visual power of the display, this exalted attention it commands, strangely serves to strength the critique of its very presence. That is, the sheer magnetism of the animals impels viewers to look at nature and implicitly encourages them to appreciate the intrinsic value of the creatures, and simultaneously to recognize the problematics of looking at them within a museum context. In a sense, the animals are caught between invisible and visible pedagogy, and between materiality and meaning. In short, if taxidermy is the use of animals for looking and the knowledge that comes from looking, it is no longer entirely clear what we are looking at.

If anything, however, the ambiguity of looking generated by this recent shift and multiplication of interpretations has made taxidermy more interesting to look at as it slips between nature and natural history, cultural and ecological critique. Animals are not fixed entities fully explained by the hierarchies of natural order, nor – either - by recent cultural or political discourse, but rather provocative forces, both ruthlessly physical and semantically ambiguous: is this cultural history on display or nature? Casualties of human culture or edifying artefacts?


The Great Taxidermy Bonfire

It must have taken several days to lug the stuffed exotic birds and beasts from the Saffron Walden Museum in Essex, England to the city dump. They’d lingered immortal and musty for long enough, and the museum’s young curator, Gillian Spencer, was determined to expunge the dusty relics from the museum’s 19th century golden age of international collecting. In fact, she’d been ordered to do so. A curator from the natural history headquarters in London had walked through Spencer’s small county museum in the fall of 1959, pointing to this dingy polar bear, to that golden mole, and decreed such exotic remnants were – to be brief – worthless. They were old and badly stuffed. Worse, they were foreign. Local museums, Spencer was told, must exhibit local nature not the haphazard remains of eccentric Victorian ramblings. And so, the following March, after having convinced the Saffron Walden Rural District Council that “nostalgia should be banished in the interests of greater usefulness for the Museum,” Spencer sent a letter to every museum in Essex in the hopes of unloading what she tepidly described as “foreign mammals which have been pronounced tolerable (though not outstanding) specimens.” No museum wanted them. A long lipped sloth bear, a llama, a lioness and her four cubs donated in 1840 from George Wombwell’s famous travelling menagerie, a puma, an untold quantity of lemmings, an Africa secretary with impossibly long eyelashes, a black tailed wallaby, a mischievous green monkey that had died in the sharp frost of 1836, two koala bears, an unspecified lizard and a boletus – the first natural specimens received by the museum – donated by Mr. Wedge on June 6th, 1833 and apparently infested with the worm, honeybirds, jackals, and a pair of golden cuckoos sent with Robert Dunn’s extraordinary 1834 shipment from Algoa Bay just east of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, four stuffed eels of varying lengths, eleven Taiwanese barking deer, and large blue butterfly, over 200 animals, birds, snakes, and fish, most over a hundred years old, all decidedly not local English fauna. The exotics were martyred by fire on May 4th, 1960. On that day, nostalgia reeked like burnt hair.


A long century now yawns between us and the Victorians. No one quibbles when museums display chamber pots, corsets, and other such charismatic Victorian icons, but their stuffed animals – particularly the exotics – are a different matter. Mildewed and moth-eaten, these mementos from an era when Britain ruled the world, embody the best and worse of 19th century’s fervour for natural history: tireless passion, relentless destruction, imperial delusions of purpose. Grimacing with shrunken lips and wooden teeth, the straw-stuffed survivors from an increasingly distant age seem better labelled as “cultural relic” than “nature” especially for our Discovery channel era, when wildlife videos can bring living, breathing, fighting, mating creatures into everyone’s home, no shooting or stuffing required. How much nature could possibly remain in a fusty piece of taxidermy? “Not much,” thought Spencer. When she purged her museum of pitiable creatures, she was sluicing out the imperial heritage of the Saffron Walden Museum, Britain’s second oldest purpose-built natural history museum.


Don't Blame us; we didn't kill them

Taxidermy had its heyday in the nineteenth century, when an advance in preservation, a general fascination with the natural world , and rapid exploration of the world colluded to create cathedrals of taxidermied birds and animals. But even natural history museums are beginning to question the ethics of exhibiting dead nature. I recently visited the Natural History Museum in London, one of the oldest and largest collections in the world of all things natural. Scattered among the animals in their glass cases were apologetic signs explaining not only why the animals were so old and musty but also why the museum displays taxidermy at all.


What the signs are really saying is “don’t blame us; we didn’t kill them.” While the curators may no longer mount animals for public display, the museum, like all natural history museums, is constantly increasingly its collections of animal and bird skins and body parts, which are stored in temperature and light controlled cabinets in the backrooms. Museums, especially national centres such as London’s, still have the same mandate to ensure their collections contain as complete a record of the natural world as possible in part to identify any variation particular species might exhibit, changes in migratory behaviour, for example, coloration patterns, egg size, or in their physiological systems.

What is on display for the general public in the taxidermy halls, however, is the museum’s historical collections, which is to say, what is actually on view is not so much nature itself but another era’s vision of the natural world. The apologetic signs allow the museum to present a fresher, more ecologically sensitive outlook while still displaying the musty relics of a past generation. The effect is to turn the museum into a museum of cultural history, which in turn highlights the shifting meaning of the natural world.

Certainly natural history museums are experiencing an identity crisis. Taxidermy makes us squeamish; it is seen by many as a gratuitous spoilage of nature, and museums with nineteenth-century roots have been criticised as complicit with the colonial project. Their collections have been branded as an imperial archives of the natural world, materially displaying to an eager public the empire’s success and geographic reach by means of the stuffed shells of lions, birds of paradise, and koala. Natural history museums are also struggling legitimise their existence in a post-Discovery channel era, when wildlife videos can bring living, breathing, fighting, mating creatures into everyone home, no shooting or stuffing required.

Captain Cook's Mamo collected around 1778. Image taken
from The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures of the
Harvard Museum of Natural History
Perhaps it is because of these dilemmas that museum are increasingly presenting their taxidermy as cultural artefacts. A stuffed finch isn’t half so grisly if we know it was collected by Charles Darwin or some other notable naturalist. The Harvard Museum of Natural History has a pair of golden pheasants sent to George Washington in 1786 from the aviary of Louis XVI, a black woodpecker shot and stuffed by Meriwether Lewis on what has now become known as the famous Lewis and Clarke expedition, and an extinct black bird with yellow tail feather known as the mamo collected during Captain Cook’s third and fatal voyage to Hawaiian in 1779 – Cook was stabbed to death during fighting between the Hawaiians and his crew. The stories behind the specimens and renown of their collectors enrich the cultural value of the taxidermied birds immensely. But are the birds now documents of human endeavour? If “real” nature is something out there, beyond human contact and human history, the stuffed peasants, the woodpecker, and the mamo seem more like cultural artefacts than as pieces of nature.

The current ecological perspective emphasizes nature as a source of intrinsic value, truth, and authenticity. Nature is wild and pristine, untouched and timeless. It is unique, nonreplicable, prior to human culture, and uncorrupted by human desires. In short, nature in recent years has come to represent everything that our urban modern society is not. While a walk through a city park can be pleasant, real nature is far beyond city limits. It is there, surrounded by alpine meadows, violent rivers, or majestic forests that we find refuge from the turmoil of urbanism, commercialism, capitalism, and mass production. Out there, beyond any physical evidence of human contamination, nature will save our souls.

The extinct blaauwbok or blue antelope. Image taken from
Rosamond Purcell's book of photographs Swift as a Shadow:
Extinct and Endangered Animals
Museums are also highlighting the extinct and endangered animals in their collections as a means of accentuating their cultural and societal importance on a global and historical level. Tasmanian devils, great auks, passenger pigeons, paradise parrot, Labrador duck, quaggas, the Cape and Barbary lion have all disappeared from the world except for those which were taxidermied and preserved in museums. They have lingered on for decades and sometimes tens of decades, immortal and musty, bereft of their clan. What are they now but dark moral lessons of nature’s fragility, that is to say, documents of human transgression. Extinct animals are an extreme example, but can nature ever escape from human meaning? Is the natural world ever just nature?

Is the nature Out There, beyond city limits really beyond culture? Or is this vision of a pristine untouched eden a stance of anti-urbanism, anti-industrialism, and frequently anti-human? The more vociferously claims against human modification and manipulation of nature, the more those stretches of wildness become domesticated parks, managed, controlled, protected, and ultimately without meaning without human cultural politics and the more pieces of nature - killed, collected, stuffed, and displayed - become not documents of nature but moral lessons, artefacts from a human life, relics from past generations.


Mounted or Unmounted?

Ironically, by the time that taxidermy had finally solved the problems of insect and pest attack in the early nineteenth century (with the widespread use of arsenic paste or powder), the practice had limited use for scientific inquiry. In his treatise on taxidermy published in 1840, the English naturalist William Swainson claimed that a knowledge of taxidermy was “absolutely essential” to every naturalist, since “without it, he cannot pursue his studies or preserve his own materials.” Yet, while the science of taxidermy – maintaining collections from decay and insects – was fundamental to the growth and continuum of collections, the artistic side of taxidermy – setting animals and birds in naturalistic poses – was not.

The typical display of birds in natural history museums consisted of rows of individually cased specimens. In contrast to uncased specimens or multiple specimens assembled in a single case, individually prepared and cased birds, each in its own hopefully air-tight case, would remain uncontaminated and free from insect attack even if its neighbour was ravaged or mouldered.

View of Sir Ashton Lever's (1729-1788) incredible museum.   


For Swainson, however, the arrangement of species each in their own cases had its disadvantages, and Swainson presents technical, economic, and methodological reasons for why “[t]he preservation of birds in skins, or, more properly, in an unmounted state, is, above all others, the best for scientific purposes.” First, mounted specimens were more often than not badly done: “it is, in fact, rare to see exotic birds, after they have come from the hands of the bird-stuffer, in a thoroughly perfect state.” Secondly, mounted specimens were expensive to prepare and took up too much room. Lastly and most importantly for the serious scientific inquirer, sealed cases were “unfavourable to a minute examination” and did not allow those characteristic “which are essential to [the specimen’s] scientific description” to be distinctly seen.

In contrast, skins “when laid upon fine cotton, and arranged in cabinet drawers, they have a very pleasing appearance; they can be at all times handled, and minutely examined, without the least trouble; moreover, they lay in such a compact space, that, in a cabinet 5 ¼ feet high, 3 feet 3 inches broad, and 1 foot 7 inches deep, containing 36 drawers, we have a collection of near 600 specimens." Where space allowed, Swainson recommended mounting birds on short, stout pegs and arranging them in large cases. Such an arrangement allowed birds to be easily removed and examined while many birds could be packed closely together.

image taken from the Smithsonian Museum's website  The image shows the museum's extensive holdings of bird skins, all neatly arranged by species in drawers.  Swainson would have swooned to see such beautiful order so beautifully presented.

Charles Darwin expressed a similar estimation of how to extract the most use from collections. In regards to the mammoth and cluttered collections at the British Museum, Darwin promoted the idea of saving the expense of stuffing and instead collecting the skins in drawers: “Rooms fitted up with thousands of drawers would cost but little.” In addition, more space could be given “to real workers, who could work all days” in rooms separated from the distraction and annoyance of the throngs of visitors streaming through the museum. For the general audience, Darwin advocated a judicious selection of specimen to form a “typical” or popular museum for the daily use of the public. The clearly labeled and well-spaced specimens “would be quite as amusing & far more instructive to the populace (& I think to naturalists) than the present enormous display of Birds & Mammals,” which Darwin considered not only a tremendously inefficient use of space but also exhibited “a sort of vanity in the Curators.”

For both Swainson and Darwin, then, artistic mounts where not inherently unscientific. Darwin remain convinced that artistic taxidermy was serviceable for the serious naturalist. At issue was rather the spatial requirements of large, mounted collections and the scientific requirement to, as Swainson endless repeats, “minutely examine” specimens.


About this Site

Derived from the Greek words for arrangement or order, taxis, and skin, derma, the word taxidermy literally means the arrangement of skin. The practice of stuffing and preparing skins of animals and birds, however, has never been a dispassionate and pragmatic process of assembly.

misfit_3.jpgThe reasons for displaying a dead animal are as various as the fauna put on view: to flaunt a hunter’s skill, to immortalise a cherished pet, to collect an archive of the world, to commemorate an experience, to document extinct or endangered species, to decorate a wall, to amuse, to educate, to fascinate, to horrify, to delight, and even to deceive. A sportsman trophy is a very different object than Martha, who was displayed alongside other extinct birds at the Smithsonian Institute: the last American passenger pigeon, a species shot to extinction by nineteenth-century hunters. And both are different again from Misfits, a disconcerting series of taxidermied animals by the internationally acclaimed contemporary artist Thomas Grünfeld, which includes such composite animals as a cross between an ostrich and a cow. A fetish, a symbol, a piece of art: do these animals still belong to nature? And what does it says about our own values and convictions if we deny stuffed creatures their status as "natural" just because they have become ravished and ravishing beasts.

The environment has perhaps never been more talked about: it is the leading news story, it shapes a political party’s platform, it is documented, photographed, written about, discussed, and protected. But what is nature? What does it mean to be natural?

The current ecological perspective emphasizes nature as a source of intrinsic value, truth, and authenticity. Nature is unique, nonreplicable, untouched and uncorrupted by human desires. In short, nature has come to represent everything that our urban modern society is not. While a walk through a city park can be pleasant, real nature is far beyond city limits. It is Out There, surrounded by alpine meadows, rivers, and forests that we find refuge from the turmoil of urbanism, commercialism, and mass production. Out There, nature will save our souls. But is this vision of nature as untouched eden just a stance of anti-urbanism, anti-industrialism, and frequently anti-humanism? That is to say, are we talking about nature or our own convictions about who we are and who we dream ourselves to be.


The maverick nature-writer Jennifer Price claims that this idea of nature as untouched wilderness beyond city limits is in fact the great American nature story: "we cherish nature as an idea of wilderness while losing track of the real nature in our very houses." If nature loses its natural status as soon as humans brush against it, what are we really saying? The more we claim "real" nature is Out There, the more those stretches of wildness become domesticated parks, ultimately meaningless without human cultural politics. Can nature still be nature if it no longer refreshes our spirits?

In his majesterial 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." The particular landscapes that Schama is describing are those created by Ansel Adams, perhaps the nature photographer who captured most fully the great American nature story: pristine wilderness, untouched, uninhabited.


In contrast, taxidermied animals could never be mistaken as free from cultural engagement and manipulation. In fact, most could be a poster child for environmental doomsayers: mere fossilised shells of natural beauty stuck together in a lame attempt to reanimate what has been irreversibly destroyed. But while they may not save anyone’s soul, in their own often mangled, wizened, and dilapidated way, taxidermied beasts have a lot to say about our definitions of the natural world. Whether as a source of delight or revulsion, taxidermy reveals as much about our collective daydreams and desires as it does about death and domination: sometimes the most unlikely objects offer the most eloquent commentaries.