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 HistoryThe 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 MuseumAnd 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?