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Natural History Museums

Opened in 1786, Charles Wilson Peale’s museum in Philadelphia was one of the most notable of the century as well as being America’s first public museum of natural history. Peale was an artist and a saddle-maker, and while his experience working with leather naturally contributed to his superior taxidermy, his artistic talent led him to create the earliest examples of natural history dioramas. He created naturalistic environments and painted backdrops for his taxidermy with the aim both to creating a pleasing view and to capture the character of the living animal in its habitat. Peale envisioned his museum as not only educational – he arranged the displays by genus and species according to the principles of systematic classification – but also a morally uplifting alternative to raucous leisure spaces such as dancing and drinking halls. The museum was a place of “rational amusement,” a place of both instruction and entertainment. 

Image: a postcard of the Morse Museum.

 Peale’s concepts of rational amusement (more frequently called edutainment) and dioramas have been foundational to the construction and arrangement of all natural history museums, while taxidermy has been a fundamental tool in their public education programs. Taxidermy made theories of systematic classification, evolution, and ecology visually interesting and engaging. Habitat dioramas, in particular, which faithfully recreate the plant, bird, and animal life of different regions of the world have been highly popular museum displays, allowing visitors to appreciate animals not as separate species but as part of a complex system of life. As Louis Agassiz claimed, the “value of a museum does not consist so much in the number as in the order and arrangement of the specimens contained.” By arranging animals in naturalistic poses and surrounding them with examples of their local plant and animal life, habitat dioramas have visually demonstrated without lectures or textual accompaniment the importance of ecological balance for sustaining all forms of life.

This section examines taxidermy as a tool for museum edutainment and considers how changing attitudes towards taxidermy might affect the future of its use in museums.