Taxidermy: A Brief(ish) History

“Taxidermy, which is derived from two Greek words, a literal translation of which would signify the “arrangement of skins”.[1]

Fig 1: Cover image of montague Brown’s (1891 2nd Ed) Practical taxidermy: manual of instruction to the amateur in collecting, preserving, and setting up natural history collections of all kinds. Alfred Bradley, 170, Strand, London. Image: Merle Patchett.

Taxidermy is the art or craft of preparing and mounting animal skins so that they appear ‘lifelike’. The craft emerged in response to one of the major technical problems confronting eighteenth century European naturalists, that of how to preserve animal specimens for study:

‘During the eighteenth century European naturalists and collectors came to possess an enormous quantity of information and material sent back from Africa, Asia, and New World by explorers, colonists, and professional naturalist-collectors. The resultant expanded empirical base for natural history raised technical, theoretical, and philosophical problems’.[2]

Taxidermy was thus initially considered to be a scientific preservation technique, a tool for amassing the empirical base for natural history study. René-Antoine Réaumur, an eighteenth-century French naturalist, was the first to publish on the matter. In 1748 he published a small pamphlet describing all known methods for preserving dead animals, which included embalming, pickling and simple stuffing. However many of these techniques were inadequate for maintaining permanent collections as they all failed to tackle the problem of insect attack. A solution to this vexing problem was developed in the 1740s by french apothecary Jean-Baptiste Bécœur who devised a preparation, incorporating arsenic, that served as both a skin preservative and effective insecticide.While the formula remained unpublished during his lifetime the widespread use of Bécœur’s ‘asenical soap’ was popularised by the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, in the nineteenth-century and iterations of this formula have been used by museum collections around the world until very recently:

Recette du Savon arsenical.
Camphre - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 once 3 gros.
Oxide blanc d’Arsenic pulvérisé - - - 8 onces.
Savon - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 8 onces
Carbonate de Potasse - - - - - - - - - - 3 onces.
Chaux en poudre - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 once. [3]

With the problem of preservation largely overcome thanks to the wonders of arsenic, technicians and preparators of natural history collections became increasingly concerned with developing techniques and methods that would produce more life-like specimens for display purposes. This move was in part inspired by the hugely popular taxidermy displays at The Great Exhibition of 1851. Before this time French and German taxidermy was considered far in advance of the kind practised in Britain, and the engaging and dynamic displays showcased at the Great Exhibition gave considerable impetus to the anatomically correct and artistic delineation of animals as this quote from a British preparator makes clear:

“In nearly all of these groups the modelling and the varied expressions of hope, fear, love, and rage, were an immense step in advance of the old wooden school of taxidermy; specimens of which are still to be found in museums – stiff, gaunt, erect, and angular.” [4]

Fig 2: A picture from the Illustrated London News showing John Gould’s popular hummingbird displays at the Great Exhibition 1851. Image source: NHM

Fig 3: Taxidermist at the Royal Museum in Stuttgart, Hermann Ploucquet’s prizewinning “Hounds pulling down a stag” taxidermy vignette at the at the Great Exhibition 1851. Image: A case of Curiosities

The expressive and decorative scenes at the Great Exhibition galvanised both British practitioners and the general public to take taxidermy seriously as a distinct artistic practice or ‘zoological artform’. Moreover the demand for trophy and decorative mounts by private collectors had given rise to taxidermy as a commercial enterprise. The commercialisation of taxidermy, bringing with it an inevitable atmosphere of competition, did much to improve the standard of taxidermy as the large taxidermy firms of the time were competing to secure lucrative commissions from wealthy sportsmen-naturalists and the fashionable elite. For example, the firm Wards of London, affectionately known as ‘The Jungle’, developed a method of modelling that would give animal mounts a more realistic form. Instead of the old method of preserving the skeletal composition and merely ‘stuffing’ the skin with wood-wool, which often resulted in an ‘over-stuffed’ look (see Fig. 4), Ward taxidermists would model a body either using the skeletal structure as a base or using an accurate replacement structure out of wood and iron, onto which they would then model the flesh and muscles using clay (see Fig. 5). This method, which required the taxidermist have a thorough knowledge of the animal in life and death, worked to give the mounts a more realistic appearance and opened up the possibilities for displaying animals in more dynamic poses (see Fig. 6).

Fig 4: Over-stuffed Lion at the Saffron Walden Museum in Essex. In a former life this lion had been a star in George Wombwell’s nineteenth-century traveling menagerie of exotic beasts and birds. Image: Ravishing Beasts.

Ward Tiger.jpg

Fig 5: Illustration of Ward’s modelling technique from Rowland Ward’s The Sportsman's Handbook to Practical Collecting, Preserving, and Artistic Setting-up of Trophies and Specimens (1880). Image: The Sportsman's Handbook.

Ward exhibition.png

Fig 6: Rowland Ward & Co. exhibition group of beasts in fierce combat. "Elephant Hunting" scene at The Colonial and Indian Exhibition, 1886 London. Image: Rowland Ward LTD.

The museum’s function and design was also evolving in response to the populist demand for more engaging and dynamic displays after the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886. The result being a move away from the ‘old wooden school of taxidermy’ which merely attempted to produce a representative form for the purpose of classificatory displays towards the more realistic and artistic modelling of animals for the purpose of educational display. This also conveys the shift in museum’s function more generally from ‘scientific storehouse’ to ‘public showcase’. American taxidermists are generally recognised as being the most innovative in terms of museum display towards the end of the nineteenth century, largely because of their advancement of the diorama display. Diorama displays attempted to not just portray the animal’s form as realistically as possible, they also sought to offer a representation of the animal’s natural habitat (see Fig. 7).[5]

Fig 7: “Four Seasons of the Deer” diorama or group by Carl and Delia Akeley 1902. Field Columbian Museum. Image: The Field Museum, Photographer Charles Carpenter.

The Akeley African Hall of Mammals at the The American Museum of Natural History, New York, is considered to house many of the finest taxidermy dioramas in the world. Conceived by taxidermist Carl Akeley in 1909, Akeley led several collecting trips to Africa to study the wildlife and collect skins and plant life to create the twenty-eight dioramas that were to make up his African Hall. Back at the museum Akeley gathered a team of the best taxidermists and scenic and ground-work artists to painstaking and as faithfully as possible recreate his scenes of African wildlife. Although designed and built by teams of people, each with their own specialism, the dioramas were held together by Akeley’s ruling artistic vision, which saw the process as ‘a “recreation” of nature based on the principles of organic form’.[6] To achieve this Akeley and his team developed and advanced the manikin method, clay modelling, plaster casting and vegetation modelling techniques to produce large realistic dioramas of animals in their natural habitats (see Figs. 8, 9 & 10). Taxidermy to Akeley and the American Museum of Natural History was an attempt, not just to arrest processes of decay, but to suspend time itself and present an unblemished vision of nature, or as Donna Haraway has put it: ‘a brief frozen temporal section of nature in perfection’.[7]

Fig 8: “Mr. Clark fitting animal skin on clay model of Indian Lion #1” at the American Museum of Natural History, 1930. Image: AMNH Image Library.

Fig 9: “Mr. Clark fitting animal skin on clay model of Indian Lion # 2” at the American Museum of Natural History, 1930. Image: AMNH Image Library.

Fig 10: “African Lion Group in preparation”, March 1935. Image: AMNH Image Library.

However, in achieving visions of ‘nature in perfection’, Akeley and the AMNH had inadvertently initiated taxidermy’s decline. Once the dioramas had been completed in the large institutions across Europe and the US, it meant that many taxidermists and associated crafts people were out of jobs. While taxidermy had always oscillated between art and science throughout the nineteenth century, the commitment to artistic-realism in the early twentieth century meant that it was ultimately delegitimated as a tool of science, which worked to diminish the status and work of the taxidermist. Moreover, an increasingly conservation-conscious museum public was unsettled by the craft’s association with killing practices and began to question the legitimacy of having ‘death on display’. Taxidermists were accused of supplying the public with a neat world devoid of smells, toil, commercialism and dirty politics and that, consequently, taxidermy had ‘cleaned up the mess of colonialism, patriarchy and violence against nature’. [8]

As a result displays intended to be unambiguous are today understood as time-capsules that reflect historical ways of seeing and constructing nature. Acting as uncomfortable reminders of past scientific and colonial practices that sought to capture, order and control animated life, many taxidermy displays have been dismantled and mounts relegated to ‘backstores’ to gather dust, while those left on display often linger as crumbling relics of the ‘heyday of natural history’.[9]

Yet it is precisely this sense of entropy and resultant promiscuity of presence that has inspired a new wave of artists and commentators to engage with and re-use taxidermy specimens and displays. As the art historian Steve Baker has commented: ‘if tattiness, imperfection and botched form count for anything, it is that they render the animal abrasively visible’.[10] Most contemporary artists using taxidermy specimens draw upon the enlivening effect of bodily presence to variously inspire shock, poignancy and/or melancholia (see Fig. 11).

Fig 11: An example specimen from Thomas Grunfeld’s ‘Misfits’ series. Thomas Grunfeld has exploited the Frankensteinian aspects of taxidermy practice to create his own ‘misfit’ specimens composed of unrelated animal parts in critical commentary of human manipulation of and control over nature. Image: Susan Eyre.


However through joint work with the artists Kate Foster and Andrea Roe, Merle has sought to emphasise the potential of working intimately with the unique histories of zoological specimens to elicit different kinds of knowledge and viewpoints about them beyond, yet still informed by their uses, in biological science.[11] Andy, meanwhile, has a particular interest in the stories embedded in the connected creatures of living and dead menageries.[12] Conceptualising our combined approach as ‘interventions in animal afterlives’ we view zoological collections and specimens as resources for telling complex histories of human-animal relations.

The Curpanion project aims to develop this artistic and academic work by prototyping an internet-connected personalized curatorial device that will allow visitors to unlock, collect and share the wealth of stories each specimen/display contains. Imagined as as a 'pocket beastie', the Curpanion will guide visitors to where these animals sit patiently waiting to share their hidden (un)natural histories, enabling the visitor to construct, explore and share their own online menagerie of amazing animals and the beastly tales they tell.

Merle and Andy

[1] Taken from Browne, M. (1891 2nd Ed). Practical taxidermy: manual of instruction to the amateur in collecting, preserving, and setting up natural history collections of all kinds. Alfred Bradley, 170, Strand, London. Pp 1.
[2] Farber, P.L. (1977). ‘The development of taxidermy and the history of ornithology’. Isis: p. 551.
[3] Daudin, F. M. (1800). Traité élémentaire et complet d'ornithologie, ou, Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, Volume 1. A Paris. p. 445.
[4] Browne, M. (1878) Practical Taxidermy: A Manual of Instruction to the Amateur in Collecting,
Preserving, and Setting Up Natural History Specimens of all Kinds, London: and DiUpcott Gill. p. 15.
[5] Wonders, K. (1993) Habitat Dioramas: Illusions of Nature in Museums of Natural History,
Uppsala: Almsqvist and Wiksell.
[6] Haraway, D. J. (1989). ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden New York City, 1908-1936’. Chapter from: Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York, Routledge: 26-58. p. 40.
[7] Ibid: 42.
[8] Star, S. L. (1992) ‘Craft Vs. Commodity, Mess Vs. Transcendence: How the Right Tool Became
the Wrong One in the Case of Taxidermy and Natural History’ in A. E. Clarke and J. H. Fujimura
(eds) The Right Tools for the Job: At Work in Twentieth-Century Life Sciences, 257-286,
Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 281.
[9] Barber, L. (1980) The Heyday of Natural History 1820–1870, London: Cape.
[10] Baker, S. (2000) The Postmodern Animal, London: Reaktion Books. p. 62.
[11] Patchett, M (2014) ‘Witnessing Craft: employing video ethnography to attend to the ‘more-than-human’ craft techniques of taxidermy practice’, Bates, C. (ed) Video Methods: Social Science Research in Motion, Routledge: Advances in Methods Series; Patchett, M. (2012) ‘Alternative Ornithologies’, Guest-edited special issue of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual CultureIssue 20: 5-8 to coincide with the exhibition Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade at the Royal Alberta Museum (march 24, 2012 - January 6, 2013 - see www.fashioningfeathers.com for more deatils) ; Patchett, M. Foster, K. and Lorimer H. (2011) ‘The ‘Biogeographies’ of a Hollowed-Eyed Harrier’, in Alberti, S. (ed) The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie, Virginia: University of Virginia Press; Patchett, M. (2010) Putting Animals on Display: Geographies of Taxidermy Practice, University of Glasgow: Enlighten; Patchett, M. (2008) ‘Tracking Tigers: Recovering the Embodied Practices of Taxidermy‘, Historical Geography 36, 17-39; Patchett, M. and Foster, K. (2008) ‘Repair Work: Surfacing the Geographies of Dead Animals‘, Museum and Society 6(2), 98-122; Patchett, M. (2006) ‘Animal as Object: Taxidermy and the Charting of Afterlives’ – web-essay accompanying the Blue Antelope exhibit and website, www.blueantelope.info
[12] Flack, Andrew J. P (2013) 'The Illustrious Stranger: Hippomania and the Nature of the Exotic', Anthrozoos 26:1; Flack, Andrew J. P (2013) 'Science, Stars and Sustenance: Animal Acquisition and Display at the Bristol Zoo, 1836-c. 1970', in William Beinart, Karen Middleton and Simon Pooley (eds.), Wild Things: Nature and the Social Imagination (2013); Flack, Andrew J. P (Exhibit curator) (2014) ‘Animals and Empire: Forgotten Foot Soldiers and Immortal Icons of British History’, http://animalhistorymuseum.org/?page_id=4439

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