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How to be a stuffed animal
May 29, 2013 9:00 PM   Subscribe

The bones had been boiled, the skins salted and soaked in formalin, the hoofs and horns measured and labeled, and the disassembled parts crated and shipped to the Upper West Side. There, on Akeley’s production line, the remains were reassembled and processed into a perfect likeness of what had once been, a “real” copy of reality. The animal had become an “animal."

The American Museum of Natural History has recently undertaken a renovation and update to many of their dioramas and taxidermy, especially the Hall of North American Mammals. Watch the restoration, from giving the cougar new whiskers to cleaning up the pronghorns' grass to fixing the bison's nose
posted by ChuraChura (13 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
As long as this guy never gets fixed.
posted by troika at 9:18 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't know what it is about that lion in troika's link. By all accounts it's just stupid and goofy-looking but it is giving me all manner of body-horror chills.
posted by narain at 9:48 PM on May 29, 2013


narain, maybe that feeling is related to the uncanny valley idea, or the uncanny in general? ("Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time.") Real-but-warped things can be pretty nightmarish! I suppose that's part of why successful dioramas have to seem more real than real.

I'm glad the AMNH is renovating its dioramas, but I also like that my small local natural history museum has some slightly shopworn dioramas - they're charming like that, showing that the museum has its own history.
posted by dreamyshade at 10:38 PM on May 29, 2013


I submit that Barnum was evil and that everything about the people and events depicted in this article is wrong, all wrong. I will never understand how people can claim to appreciate an animal that is not, in fact, alive and animate.
posted by quiet earth at 10:59 PM on May 29, 2013


The current ubiquity of affordable digital color printing and high-definition video/audio allows us to forget that until very recently - in my lifetime! - mounted specimens and dioramas were the only realistic portrayals of non-local life most people would ever be exposed to. Well through the early 1990s most mass-media print and film did not much resemble the original visuals - colors, motion, and sound were heavily distorted. Even now, it takes very good quality technology to fully realize the types of recordings we're capable of.

The human desire to record and/or possess seems innate. It's the basis for storytelling and most material culture. While the ethics of collecting, displaying, and interacting with specimens, alive or not, are interestingly complex and evolving, I don't think the interest can be wished away. Even when the specimens are living, possibly sapient, beings. Is it better they be in the equivalent of jails/zoos/aquaria for their own safety? We still want to see them up close and try to understand. And in many cases, the preserved samples may be the only way we can hope to preserve or even re-introduce the species in the wild (Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parrot DNA reproduction, anyone?)

Also, I grew up going to the AMNH - it was just down the street from my cousin's apartment in NYC. I can still recall the hours spent just a few inches, through the glass, from the dioramas. Raised on the east coast, I never imagined I'd ever physically be near what the paintings and and stuffed animals depicted. Now I can go in an hour or two to the Cascade or Olympic mountain parks, and there, depending on the time of year and my patience to wait, are the Wapiti elk, sheep (both native and introduced), antelope, cougars, lynx, bears, wolves, coyote, otter and enormous Pacific salmon. Well, I haven't seen a lynx yet, just the tracks in the snow. The dioramas fed my desire just enough to make me want to see the animals and their contexts for myself.
posted by Dreidl at 11:42 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I used to work in a mail store. We shipped a lot of interesting things - someone overnighted a giant check halfway across the country once ("Need insurance?" "Nope."), disturbingly realistic baby dolls, curiously framed paintings. But the thing that stood out was a two-headed stuffed baby goat.

It wasn't made from a natural two-headed goat - the person who made it took parts from different roadkill and put them together to make things that had never been alive.

I don't know who made it or who ordered, and I don't even remember where I shipped it, and that's probably for the best.
posted by 23 at 12:02 AM on May 30, 2013


Oooh, I hope Te Papa has a chance to do some of this, because their kurī dog , while not as bad as the lions, is a hilariously terrible taxidermy job, and it's been that way for at least a century now.
posted by barnacles at 1:13 AM on May 30, 2013


Well through the early 1990s most mass-media print and film did not much resemble the original visuals

Although, you know, mounted specimens did not always much resemble the original animal either.
posted by Segundus at 4:38 AM on May 30, 2013


For more in this historical vein, check out the surprisingly fascinating Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy by Melissa Milgrom. Though I would not read it while eating.
posted by nicebookrack at 4:41 AM on May 30, 2013


I submit that Barnum was evil and that everything about the people and events depicted in this article is wrong, all wrong. I will never understand how people can claim to appreciate an animal that is not, in fact, alive and animate.

Whilst you're not wrong, you're seeing it through the eyeglass of hindsight. Many things we do now will be considered such by future generations.
posted by walrus at 4:54 AM on May 30, 2013


I'm currently learning how to taxidermy animals and I'm astounded by the strategies used to make animals look as lifelike as possible (e.g. apparently elephants take a couple of years to prep and the wrinkles in their legs are made by placing rope coils underneath the hide). One of the first bits of homework I was set whilst learning taxidermy was to draw animals in ways that made them look active - they're meant to look as if they're in motion, so you need to understand their musculature etc. In short, it is a complex hybrid of art and science and I take my hats off to the museum taxidermists and diorama makers!
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 7:25 AM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


walrus: Having read books about Barnum and his personality and his attitude toward life in general, I can confidently stand by my claim that he was evil, or at the very least not a terribly ethical person. This essay clinches it for me.

Many things we do now will be considered such by future generations.

Well aware! Or at least I hope so. (I'm an animal advocate online and offline.)

I can understand the educational/novelty value throughout history, but I still find modern taxidermy disturbing. It reminds me of animal heads mounted on walls, and perhaps some of my views stem from the fact that I see so many hunters and trappers who like to kill and preserve their quarry for their own pleasure. When I think of taxidermy, I don't think of museums: I think of hunters displaying their conquest over nature. Viewing a museum diorama is one thing. Enjoying taxidermy because of a deep, nigh-spiritual belief that it "preserves life"—the attitude described in the essay—is something else entirely, in my opinion.
posted by quiet earth at 4:24 PM on May 30, 2013


I'm not a fan of taxidermy, but I've gained an appreciation for the technical challenges required for building a lifelike diorama. Thanks for the post!
posted by tickingclock at 9:45 PM on May 30, 2013


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