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The Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia is a newly open research centre and museum focusing on all thing natural and all things naturally diverse.
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Tuesday
May152007

Taxidermy as Ruination?

During the heyday taxidermy in the nineteenth century, not only were stuffed birds and beasts valued as delightful household ornaments but the practice itself was considered to be a pleasurable and even elevating pastime for all peoples of all ages, and particularly for ladies, clergymen, and young boys. As Joseph Batty describes in his Practical Taxidermy and Home Decoration published in New York in 1885,

“With growing fondness for Taxidermy, many ladies are endeavouring to master the art, and in the variety of work necessary to perfect it, feminine taste and skill can be brought effectively into play. The collector can learn to mount his own specimens, the schoolboy his game, and in the general household, a buck’s head in the dining-room, or a bright oriole in the parlour, presents a pleasing contrast to other ornaments.”

Psycho_taxidermy.jpgBut from this cheerful ambience that taxidermy once radiated, far darker shadows have grown. In fact, taxidermy has come to stand as a symbol of darkness, destruction, and even psychological decay. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film Psycho, for example. The disturbed killer, Norman Bates, has made quite a hobby of stuffing birds. The back parlour of his motel is filled with his handiworks which cast ominous shadows up the walls. Far from the warm glow of Joseph Batty’s bright oriole, Norman Bates’ dark birds are dead giveaways of his aberrant and troubled mind. Hitchcock took taxidermy to its extreme connotations of creepy violence, and I doubt the practice will ever recover the daintiness of a Victorian lady’s feminine taste. Stuffed animals, it seems, don’t need any explanation: they have become unmistakable symbols of ruination.

At the beginning of “Making a Garden” in his recently published book of essays Bringing Back the Dodo: Lessons in Natural and Unnatural History, Wayne Grady finds himself idly roaming through the big iron gates at the entrance of the University of Florence. He wanders into the very room in which Galileo lectured in 1610, and then through the astounding collection of eighteenth-century wax anatomical teaching figures of corpses in various degrees of evisceration, and finally into the galleries of stuffed animals of the university’s natural history museum: a Tasmanian wolf and gazelles, a room of primates that gave “the extremely creepy sensation of being observed by [an] unknown next-of-kin,” a case of extinct birds containing an auk, the head of a dodo, and a passenger pigeon. The experience was not altogether pleasant:

“Walking among the glass cases, each containing pairs of dead, accusatory eyes, I couldn’t help but think of the vast stretches of wilderness that had been emptied to supply them. The sheer number suggested it: could there be any left in their natural habitats?"

Grady suggests that natural history museums of bygone eras cultivated nature into something tamed, pretty, and inherently ornamental. “Wild nature was a museum; somewhat chaotic, perhaps, but full of interesting things. The animals and plants arrayed there had been placed on display by some Cosmic Curator for our amusement or enjoyment.” The dilettantes once danced, Grady seems to be saying, and look what havoc they wrought.

Grady goes on to contemplate wildernesses and gardens and, more specifically, humans wholesale destruction of wild nature. With wilderness at the brink of extinction, Grady claims, our only hope is to plant a new sort of garden, not just any garden and certainly not a garden for recreation, but rather a garden of restorative wilderness: “to make a place where native plants can begin to reclaim their birthright, not merely create something artificial that looks natural.”

But what then is the significance of the galleries of accusatory glass eyes? Grady doesn’t connect the dots.  He doesn't need to. He relies on his faith in shared sensibility about taxidermy, not quite Batesian but hardly Battysian either: taxidermy signifies damage; a sterile and defanged wilderness. Unlike plots of land that might grow back with sensitive plantings, a gallery of stuffed animals will no more flourish into a second wilderness than an ornamental garden of marble statues. Grady muses briefly on the possibilities of repopulating the garden using the DNA trapped within the skins of stuffed extinct species. But what good could come of that? Rather, Grady suggests that museums of stuffed extinct species, some more than centuries old, lingering immortal and musty, should earn the queasy epithet: "the Museum of Lessons Unlearned.”

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