On the wonder of taxidermy
posted November 17th, 2012
Given our efforts in renovating the Ronald and Christina Gidwitz Hall of Hall of Birds and the great reception it has received upon reopening, I wanted to write something more about taxidermy. A new book recently appeared in print entitled The Breathless Zoo by Rachel Poliquin. It is a history of taxidermy and in that sense a lot of research went into the book. However, Poliquin and I do not share the same feelings about taxidermy, which I found disappointing. Included in the book is the follwoing from a placard she found at the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom.
"The [Natural History] Museum [United Kingdom] is concerned about the conservation of animals in the natural world and no longer collects skins for taxidermy displays. The specimens in these displays are from the museum’s historical collections – consequently some are faded or show other signs of their age. We feel it is more important to rely on these collections for display, even though they may not fully reflect the natural appearance of the living animal."
The viewpoint expressed in the quote is something I completely disagree with. During our renovation we knew that we would be unable to do everything we wanted to do, but we looked through the mounts on display in our Bird Hall, and Bird Division staff made note of the most faded mounts. One was a Chestnut-backed Chickadee; another was a young European Starling. In the case of Chestnut-backed Chickadee, I queried colleagues at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley and the Burke Museum of the University of Washington if they had any chickadees in their freezers. They did. Because through the years, Tom Gnoske, our assistant collection manager, has been allowed to develop his skills as a taxidermist, Tom was able to mount one of the these birds and it now replaces the faded mount in the new exhibit. In the Common Birds of the Chicago Area case, Tom and Ben Marks replaced the juvenile starling with an American Robin they mounted (see below). Robin was not represented in the case previously. Another mount that I felt was exceedingly faded was a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Unfortunately, we didn’t have one in the freezer to prepare, but I hope we get one in soon. It would come from the window killed migrants that the Division takes in and prepares as museum specimens.
The Chestnut-backed Chicakdee (Parus rufescens) prepared by Tom Gnoske to replace the faded bird that had been on display in the Bird Hall
The faded specimen that we replaced; it was originally collected for the exhibit before 1920.
But back to The Breathless Zoo, because if the Natural History Museum apparently sees taxidermy as something historical, Poliquin sees taxidermy through the eyes of an artist. While I can accept that as a viewpoint, for me, as a scientist and educator, I value taxidermy for a subset of the reasons she investigates, and while I can to some extent accept taxidermy done for other reasons, it is not something I advocate or take much pleasure in. As a result, her book comes up short.
Poliquin simply has too little appreciation of the scientific and educatonal value of specimens. Taxidermied mounts represent a subset of such specimens at an institution like the Field Museum, but mounts provide such a valuable real image of animal diversity that I continue to be disappointed that today few mounts are made by any natural history museums. When I saw the use of a model albatross in the American Museum of Natural History’s traveling exhibit on Charles Darwin, I was saddened because even though it was a roughly accurate model, that is all it was. It was nothing compared to a well taxidermied specimen. To me, models like this are essentially blown-up mantelpiece tchotchkes.
In one section of her book, Poliquin discusses an exhibit of Polar Bear mounts assembled in England. She expresses various reactions to the exhibit through the information presented including who shot them or what zoo they came from (what corner of a museum they were housed in), but she (and the creator of the exhibit) loses sight of something I always point out in my tours through our exhibits and collections. That is what these specimens have communicated (and can continue to communicate) about the natural world. When presented with a taxidermied mount, Poliquin seems to only experience a melancholy sense of loss (unless it has been altered by an artist), which is not what I sense. I have a sense of wonder. She uses this word also, but I do not think her wonder is the same as mine. Her wonder is enveloped in her sense of melancholy. I think of how many millions of school kids have paused to look at the polar bears on display at my institution; my guess is that thousands and thousands of British kids have marveled at the polar bear mounts that were assembled as well. Where Poliquin presents a picture of a wide variety of mounted dog breeds of dogs on display at the Natural History Museum and considers it off-putting, I see a spectacular display of the outcomes created by artificial selection through thousands of years of domestication. This is an exposé about evolution in a way that is tangible and resonating. In our museum, we have a display not of dog breeds, but pigeons with the incredible variation that was been created by breeders of the domestic birds. The display is a little hidden in the hall behind What is an Animal.
What bothers me about the apparent attitude at the Natural History Museum is that they appear to have given up on how unique collections like their’s are and the wonder they have the potential to create. Of course, people also can see polar bears in a zoo (or on TV), but they will not see a sun bear, spectacled bear, and grizzly bear side by side with information about their natural history. Seeing the real thing even if it is an animal that was killed is not an “uneasy” thing for me (nor do I think it is for many visitors to our institution). It is an opportunity to appreciate biological diversity (real diversity, not something conjured up by a creative artist). Poliquin and the Natural History Museum are entitled to their view of taxidermy, but as someone who has spent a career of learning about the natural world by collecting and preparing specimens, I see continued value in maintaining beautiful mounted specimens at our institution. Thanks to our colleagues at outher museums and our own salvage program, Tom’s Chestnut-backed Chickadee and his American Robin now join a magnificent collection that I hope will be viewed by millions of people in the years to come.
The Birds of the Chicago Area diplay. The faded juvenile starling that we replaced is on top of the wooden feeder in this photo by J. Weinstein.
Tom Gnoske and Volunteer Meera Sethi work on a Great Horned Owl mount. Tom has taught a number of people through the years the basics of how to prepare taxidermy specimens.