Last Friday I travelled to London to attend “Taxidermy: curation, care, context and creativity”, a day devoted to short lectures about taxidermy from a multidisciplinary approach. Speakers included taxidermists, curators, conservators, artists, photographers and historians. Much is made about art versus science in the museum sector,which is a bit sad, as the two have many ideas to offer each other. The taxidermy day certainly offered the opportunity for everyone to share those ideas.
First up was Errol Fuller, the fine art critic and historian who gave a lecture on the history of taxidermy and some ways to recognize the particular styles of famous taxidermists. He has a new book about the history of taxidermy out next week, Voodoo Salon.
Next, historian and curator Merle Patchett from the University of Bristol gave a fascinating talk on the Victorian “Plume Boom.” This was the period between 1880 and 1914 where thousands of exotic birds were killed for the feather markets in London. Many of these survive only in legacy, in the form of millinery trimmings. As natural history curators, we were asked by Merle to identify a black bird with an iridescent green throat. When none of us could guess the species, it was revealed to us that it was a greater bird of paradise that had been dyed black to match the hat it was pinned on. Also dyed black for the millinery trade was a Carolina Parakeet, a species that is now extinct.
These birds were part of a social history collection, and it was interesting to see how social history curators viewed what we consider natural history specimens. Many natural history specimens could be sitting in social history collections- but have we thought to explore these as natural historians? Perhaps both social history and natural history curators could share collections knowledge?
I highly reccomend reading Merle Patchett’s blog (link above) to learn more about the feather trade and the social and environmental movements that stemmed from it.
Next, natural history curator Joanne Hatton from the Horniman Museum and Gardens talked about the popularity of taxidermy and many taxidermy themed events and projects at the Horniman. The event “Taxidermy Late” was so popular there were queues round the block for it. Over 850 people attended the event, which included a taxidermy demonstration, films about taxidermy and a taxidermy “photo booth” where members of the public could have their photos taken with natural history specimens. Photographers and artists also used the Horniman’s taxidermy collections for exhibitions. The famous Horniman walrus recently spent 6 months in a gallery space which was good publicity for both the gallery and the Horniman.
Conservator Charlotte Ridley gave us a talk on how to care for taxidermy and some tips on repairing damage on stuffed mounts. Some tips I learnt on the day are:
- Walrus ivory is very suspectable to fluctuations in relative humidity, and should be padded when being moved from one environment to another.
- Proabsorb is a product that is specially confitioned silica gel that buffers the environment. It absorbs or deabsorbs moisture to regulate RH in an enclosed case.
- Lascaux 498V is a good adhesive to use when using Japanese tissue paper for repairs on taxidermy skin.
There was some discussion about pest management in museums and how future legislation may make it difficult to control pests in collections. Many of the insect traps and deterrents used might be banned by 2017, which would make life for natural history curators very difficult.
After lunch and discussion we had a talk by taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long on the ethics of modern taxidermy and its subcultures. Taxidermy is an extremely skilled trade and is not something you can learn in a few days. It takes years of practice to become an accredited taxidermist. Jazmine, and many other professional taxidermists are not a fan of anthropomorphic taxidermy and the short inexpensive day classes springing up in London recently because she feels it cheapens the profession. Dressing up a taxidermied mouse in a tutu is definitely not the same as applying the skill and patience to a taxidermy mount that looks like a living thing. This is one of the hardest things to capture in taxidermy- the “personality” of the animal.
Next artist and lecturer Andrea Roe talked to us about the time she was an artist in residence at National Museums Scotland. While there, she also worked as a specimen preparator. This led to her using ideas about specimen preparation, taxidermy and collections in her work. Entomology specimens and the pins on which they were mounted on inspired her to create pieces such as mounted paper illustrations from different editions the Observer’s book of butterflies. Due to different printing runs or light damage, each butterfly from the same plate is a slightly different colour. Roe arranged these in a line in the same way that forms and aberrations of real butterflies are arranged in collections. In another piece, a taxidermied animatronic blackbird sounds an alarm call as it watches itself be prepared as a museum study skin. Roe said she was inspired by wondering what the animal would think if it knew it was to become a stuffed mount after death.
The final talk of the day was by Photographer Sean Dooley, who photographs rare and extinct examples of animals in museum collections. Many of the specimens he photographed were from the D’arcy Thompson Zoology museum which is only open to the public once a week on Friday afternoons. The museum, however houses some amazing rare specimens which are the subjects of Sean’s photography. Extinct birds such as the Pink-headed duck and the Huia are portrayed in front of a white backdrop and the specimens are a representation of the vunerability of the environment and species and show that museums are an important resource for the study of these species. However, as Sean and many other artists pointed out, many museums are not receptive to the idea of artists and photographers using their collections, or want to charge them a hefty fee for doing so. Photography policy varies from museum to museum, and while I personally do not find it unreasonable to charge a major publisher or artist a small fee for collections use, the idea that artists should hand over all copyright to the museum or pay large sums of money in order to create art seems baffling to me.
Hopefully, after this event, museum people, taxidermists and artists can collaborate in a more accessible way. We have so much to learn from each other and NatSCA’s taxidermy day was an excellent starting point. Many thanks to all the speakers for a brilliant and thought-provoking conference!