Steve the Stuffer

Thanks to Vern Cummins and Jamie Gallant for sending me their documentary video of Steve Massam, chief taxidermist at the Falkland Islands Museum and National Trust in Stanley. As Cummins and Gallant write, Massam "sees his work as a means to bring about awareness and understanding of the plight of animal species in this part of the world. If there was one animal he’d have liked to work on that he hasn’t, it would have been a Bee Hummingbird, but his eyesight, he feels is past it now." 

See more here: http://51degreessouth.com/no1-steve-the-stuffer/



Have you already visited the online Preserved Project?  It is a great site showcasing short pieces about particularly special specimens -- animal, human, or otherwise.  Mark Dion writes about a polar bear, Joanna Ebenstein about the Anatomical Venuses, and Pat Morris has a piece about a tiger head, just to mention a few of the articles.

Check out the piece I wrote about a mysterious albino wallaby from the Natural History Museum, London more than a century ago.  Can you see him there, in the back corner? http://www.preservedproject.co.uk/albino-wallaby-natural-history-museum-london/


Special Issue of Antennae out now

Make sure to take a peek at this special issue of Antennae co-edited by Merle Patchett and dedicated to art, plumage and birds. Merle Patchett has developed an international reputation based on her contribution to the subject of animal surfaces and geography. Curating the exhibition Fashioning Feathers provided the perfect platform to gather a unique army of artists and academics with a soft spot for the subject.

Along with contributions by Amanda Boetzekes, Kate Foster, Liz Gomez, Kirsteen Greer, Hayden Lorimer, Kate MccGwire, Marine Pacault, Perdita Phillips, Andrea Roe and Maria Whiteman, check out my interview with fabulous feather artist Kate MccGwire.

Download the journal at www.antennae.org.uk


6 Questions with Jay Kirk

Perhaps you haven't yet read Jay Kirk's Kingdom Under Glass. Good news!  It is now out in paperback.  The book tells the story of the remarkable career of Carl Akeley, the taxidermist who in 1909 dreamed up the African Wing of the American Museum of Natural History. Along the way, Kirk creates a kind of cyclorama of the early twentieth century: eugenicist museum curators; Teddy Roosevelt on safari; “Kodak King” George Eastman baking huckleberry pies in Kenya; and the forty-six-pound heart of P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo, preserved in alcohol. Harper’s asked Kirk six questions about the boundary between history and fiction, navigating racism in primary sources, and Akeley’s artistic legacy.

And in case you need a little more incentive, here is Harper's Magazine's recent interview with Jay, here is a little sampler of interview. (Well, not really a sampler.  Just the first questions.)

1. You first stumbled across Akeley while writing a story for Harper’s. What made you identify him as a subject for a book?

The Harper’s piece was about the non-existence of the Eastern Panther (Puma concolor couguar). I’d been reading a lot of natural history to understand how it had gone extinct in the nineteenth century before making a return as Bigfoot’s feline cousin, and I came across something in passing about a “famous taxidermist” who had once strangled a leopard with his bare hands. When I realized this was the guy behind the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, I immediately became intrigued. I grew even more so when I learned of his obsession with being a True Artist, and how, in order to fulfill that obsession, he had not only strangled a leopard, but gone on these insane, massive expeditions, dragging with him small armies of painters and sculptors, and terrorizing his African porters along the way. I think what I found so compelling was the idea of anyone going to such preposterous lengths for something that, in the end, as art—or even as the “scientific” contribution it purported to be—was dubious at best. I also liked having a story where I could meditate on the absurdity of adventure in general—for me, it kind of throws a cheery light on the pointlessness of all human ambition. Most appealing, though, was the paradox of Akeley’s character: he killed animals in order to save them.

Read the interview here: http://harpers.org/archive/2011/12/hbc-90008352


Hot of the Press! 

I just received my copy of The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie in the mail! This is a great book with chapters written by academics, artists, journalists, curators, and yours truly. Each essay traces the life, death, and curious "afterlife" of a specific creature.  The beasts include Queen Charlotte's pet zebra, Maharajah the elephant, and Balto the dog -- just to name a few. 

My chapter is on Balto, a black Siberian husky and the lead sled dog of the final leg of the "Great Race of Mercy" during the winter of 1925.  Perhaps you know the story.  Diphtheria had broken out in the tiny town of Nome on the western tip of Alaska.  There was no way to get the antitoxin to Nome, except by dog sled. The extraordinary 674-mile (1,085-kilometer) run -- through blizzards, across a frozen inlet, and in temperatures that dipped below minus sixty degrees-- kept the nation enthralled for five-and-a-half days and was commemorated with the Iditarod Race.  Balto was a hero.  As you might expect, Balto was stuffed after he died.  And of course, that wasn't the end of him.

Buy it online here: http://www.amazon.ca/Afterlives-Animals-Museum-Menagerie/dp/0813931673


Taxidermy Down Under 

I just received an e-mail from Martha Sear, the Senior Curator at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.  For any readers with an interest in taxidermists -- and particularly women taxidermists -- working in Australia, Sear is your woman.  She did her Ph.D. on colonial women taxidermists and women's participation in international exhibitions. In 1996 I co-curated an exhibition called 'Most Curious and Peculiar: Women Taxidermists in Colonial Sydney' for the Macleay Museum in Sydney: 


The New Yorker talks taxidermy

Check out the recent article in the New Yorker about the restorations underway at the American Museum of Natural History.  The dioramas are getting an overhaul. The task at hand is to restore the works to their original state while gently emending wall labels and the like to reflect new knowledge about the animals who gave their lives, and skins, for the depictions.  The scene surely looked something like a Richard Barnes' photograph:

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2011/08/15/110815ta_talk_gopnik


The Beastly Art of Taxidermy 

Read my article in TREK Magazine on my adventures with taxidermy.  A short teaser for you:

"No photographs exist from the taxidermy bonfires, but the picture is clear enough. A disorderly mountain of stiffened lion cubs, lemmings, civet cats and barking deer. A smouldering llama, a black tailed wallaby, a polar bear – more than two hundred Victorian stuffed beasts had been discarded as refuse. No museum would ever dream of burning its unpopular cultural artefacts, but these century-old pieces of nature had been heaped on top of each other and set ablaze.

I first heard about the bonfires in the spring of 2005, when I spent several weeks in England visiting family. I had recently finished my PhD at UBC in comparative literature and just wanted to see relatives, go for walks – anything but think about what was next. When I visited a little museum in the countryside, I never could have guessed that a lion with wooden teeth named Wallace, the first lion to be born in Great Britain (in 1812) and one of the few survivors of Saffron Walden’s bonfires, would determine the next six years of my work.

Opened in 1834, the Saffron Walden Museum is the second-oldest purpose-built museum in England. Throughout the 19th century, like so many Victorian museums, it collected and exhibited a random assortment of specimens: mummies, Roman coins, Anglo-Saxon swords, a motley array of stuffed beasts. The artefacts are still on display, neatly labelled and arranged behind glass. But with the exception of Wallace and a few birds, every once-living creature had been destroyed.

Short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)The story goes like this. In 1960, a young curator with a verve to modernize wrote a persuasive report to the Saffron Walden District Council. It was time to sluice out the museum’s taxidermy, which she viewed as musty relics from a less enlightened era. In an age before colour photography and wildlife documentaries, taxidermy had been the cutting-edge technology for showcasing the fauna of distant lands. But those days were long gone. She argued that television and zoos gave children a better idea of nature; taxidermy had become crassly old fashioned. Plus, 19th century taxidermy was shabby; no doubt more than a few hides were cracked with age and sprouting straw. And so, having convinced the council that the museum’s taxidermy was a nostalgic embarrassment, the vigorous young curator hauled the antique beasts to the city dump and lit a match. The bonfires lasted three days."

Read the whole article here: http://www.alumni.ubc.ca/2011/trek/2011-spring/the-beastly-art-of-taxidermy/


Taxidermy in the Guardian, or Taxidermy, my dad, and me

Check out the snippet of Tom Cox's latest book, Talk To The Tail: Adventures In Cat Ownership And Beyond in the Guardian online. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/apr/21/taxidermy-stuffed-animals



Schieferstein in Husk Magazine

Iris Schieferstein was recently interview by Philipp Humm with Husk magazine.  Check out the interview at http://www.huskmagazine.com/ 


Mary Frey's Imagining Fauna

I think I mentioned this last year, but Mary Frey's exhibition catalogue of her Imagining Fauna series is now for sale.  The images reveal an almost forgotten taxidermy collection and are printed on black glass using an ambrotype process.  The catalogue includes an essay by me.  See (and maybe buy!) the catalogue here + 




Montechristo Magazine and the Beaty Museum

Check out the article on the Beaty Museum in the latest Montechristo Magazine.  The article discusses the birth of the museum and its current stylistics. The lovely people at Montechristo created these exquiste animal groupings with genuine period props including a first edition (I think) of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species.

Read a pdf of the article here + or find it in your favourite magazine store.


Book: Beauty and the Beast

Perhaps a little bedside reading?  Beauty and the Beast: Human Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photo Postcards 1905-1935 by Arnold Arluke and Robert Bogdan is now available from Syracuse Press. Hopefully the book lives up to its alluring title.  The book explores the relationships between humans and other animals through postcards from the first few decades of the twentieth century. What the authors say:

"It was during this period that both photo postcards were most popular and Americans experienced profound changes that altered their connection with animals. America was in transition from being predominately rural to a country dominated by cities, from a society where everyday contact with a variety of animals was common to one in which such contact was limited. Cars and trucks replaced horses. Viewing animals, other than pets, came to be done mainly in circuses, zoos and in the movies not in peoples’ own backyards. Food production became industrialized making the animals that are the source of our produce almost invisible. Our book documents the range of roles animals played from pets to vermin. We look at live as well as dead creatures, real as well as fantasy, loved and hated. We explore the contradictions, dualisms and paradoxes of our connection to animals, illustrating how animals were distanced and embraced, commoditized and anthropomorphized."

Accompanying the book is an online exhibit of some of the postcards inlcuded in the book.  Here is a quick sampling.  See more online here + 



Book: Curious Collectors, Collected Curiosities 

Check out a new collection of essays on the curious art of collecting curiosities published by Cambridge Scholars Press.  With essays by editors Janelle Schwartz and Nhora Lucia Serrano and your truly, this collection of eleven essays delves into Renaissance collections, Captain Cook's explorations, Eadweard Muybridge's image of animal motion, just to name a few curious excursions. I can't really tell you much more at the moment since I've only just received my copy in the mail this morning.

My contribution to the volume, "Botched Animals and Enigmatic Beasts" explores the world of bad taxidermy and the sort of knowledge that could be squeezed out of their strangeness. 

Curious to know more?  Buy the book through my online bookstore here + or Cambridge Press here +


What to read: Trigger in Salon.com

Trigger rides again!  Read Melissa Milgrom's article in Salon.com about the recent auction of Roy Roger's iconic horse, Trigger, and various other Roger memorabilia.  Click here + 

Apparently Trigger's reins went for $266,500. Wow. Read more here +  


Also make sure to check out Milgrom's new book - Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy published by Houghton Mifflin earlier this year.


CZC interview with Magenta Magazine

Check out Magenta Magazine's interview with Morgan Mavis - curator of Toronto's rather unique Contemporary Zoological Conservatory at 


The CZC was also recently featured in a photo shot with author Yann Martel whose latest book, as you may or not already known, discusses taxidermy and the holocaust.  hmm.. 



Taxidermy is Cool?! 

Check out Melissa Milgrom's article in the Daily Beast "Cool, Dead, and Stuffed." 

"How did taxidermy become so hip? Melissa Milgrom on why the Victorian fascination with stuffing animals has become the hot new thing among hipsters and urbanites.

Sitting in Observatory, an art galley and events space in the newly hip Gowanus section of Brooklyn, Joanna Ebenstein clicked JPEGs of taxidermy that she has traveled the world to photograph. Her passion for the preserved is as far from country-kitsch as the toxic Gowanus is from the meandering Mississippi. “Taxidermy is more acceptable now. It’s the embarrassing thing in the basement, but now it’s cool.”

For Ebenstein and a growing number of urban enthusiasts, taxidermy is more than just a stuffed animal; it’s an experience, the tactile opposite of a world that communicates in bits and bytes. “It is a deeply intimate encounter,” explains Rachel Poliquin, curator and scholar, whose taxidermy blog Ravishing Beasts began as a post-doctoral project; now it gets around 800 hits a day. Last month, Poliquin curated a taxidermy exhibit at the Vancouver Museum; wildly popular, the exhibit aroused deep empathy for animals in a city the museum thought would balk at the show.

But you knew all of that already, if you're already reading this. Read the whole article at http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-03-11/cool-dead-and-stuffed/?cid=topic:mainpromo1 


once again ... 

sigh... once again I have received comments about how I'm sick, disgusting, and morally reprehensible.  (For the last one: http://www.ravishingbeasts.com/what-to-think/2008/10/21/what-do-you-think.html

Here are the latest comments posted in my Guest Book on July 7th, 2009:

From Steve: "Wow, I thought my uncle Bob was twisted with his moose head perched on the wall of his office. This goes far beyond that. You really should think about using things that haven't died for such a useless reason. Ouch." 

And from Linda: "You use dead animals to create art? You're really quite sick. I'm sure many if not all of these animals are kills for this purpose which makes you quite disgusting....as is your art."

I must presume that Steve and Linda are friends since they both posted their comments on the same day.  Friends in outrage, but also friends in vagueness.  What is it that got them going? Steve's "this" is a vague reference, which does nothing except highlight the perils of starting sentences with nebulous pronouns. 

Steve, if you happen to read this, can you let me know what it is that is so twisted?  As those readers know who have actually read through ravishingbeasts, this site is dedicated to all things taxidermy, both past and present, from sixteenth-century cabinets of wonder to contemporary art.  In other words, a pretty wide range of stuff.  Perhaps, Steve's "this" is the entire ravishingbeasts.  Fair enough.  I don't presume everyone will like my site, and I am always open to a lively debate about hot topics.  Taxidermy is challenging.  Some contemporary art is offensive.  But we can't have a debate if I don't know what offends.  So, Steve and Linda, can you let me know?

But please, please readers ... read through the site before you get on your high horse.  I do not create any of the posted art myself.  I am not an artist.  I have never myself done taxidermy.  Don't go throwing around insults about how my art and I are "quite disgusting" when I make no art. 

Steve & Linda, hoping to hear back from you... 


Taxidermy in Wallpaper*

Check out Francesca Gavin's article on taxidermy in the April 09 issue of Wallpaper*.  She discussed the work of contemporary artists Polly Morgan, Alex Randall,  Sebastian Errazuriz, Joss Mckinleu, and Kelly McCallum and includes a quote from ravishingbeasts.  As Gavin writes, "Victorian taxidermy was all about scientific study and the natural world.  Now it's about inserting narrative, emotion and wit into everyday spaces."  Sebastian Errazuriz's duck lamp (below) is certainly an example of that.



What do you think?

Yesterday I received this e-mail through my ravishingbeasts account:

I have seen your web page, and I just wanted to say that you and your practice is absolutely disgusting. I do not understand how you can even think this is appropriate at all. You are just as bad as those who look into your services. I see nothing wrong with taxidermy, but you, modifying one animal with a different animal, is completely unethical. How would you feel if you got cut in half, after you were dead, and were sewn together with another half of something else? Pretty fucked up. There are not many things in the world that I am ashamed of, but you are one.

I assume that the writer (who shall remain nameless) thought that I was the creator of some item of fraudulent taxidermy.  Perhaps the work of Iris Shieferstein that caused the outburst of disgust.  Or Thomas Grunfeld's Misfits or maybe even Ophelia by Idiots.  Who can say?  Thank god the writer didn't get a peek at the Popple or who knows what I would have been called. 


From "Life Can Be So Nice" by Iris Shieferstein

But despite the writer's misdirected anger (I have never created a single piece of taxidermy) and totally inappropriate language, s/he does raise an issue which is worth raising: how appropriate is the work of contemporary taxidermy artists who combine the parts of animals?  Many artists are in fact using taxidermy to make strong statements for animal rights (for starters, read Angela Singer's interview in Antennae's issue on Botched Taxidermy here +). Personally, I have never been a huge fan of the sort of combinatory works that uses big theory to legitmise its existence [read here+].  At the end of the day, whatever has been said about certain works and however they might be theorised, there are certain emotional and ethical fundamentals that remain.  In the writer's words, "How would you feel if you got cut in half, after you were dead, and were sewn together with another half of something else?"

So that's my question to you, readers: is the work of many contemporary taxidermy artists appropriate or not?  In manipulating real animals into new and sometimes horrifying creatures, has art gone too far?  You tell me.  Check out some of their work here +  Please leave your comments by clicking the *comment* tag above in the headline of this posting.