Friday, May 14, 2010

Real from the skin out

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, art, taxidermy

I've always loved museums, formal or informal. I have a mini-museum of my own mineral and fossil specimens, and a few skulls I found (house cat, shrew, robin). I even like those displays one sees in some restaurants of trophy heads of deer, moose, whatever, or plaques with prize-winning fish. But I particularly like large museums with their dioramas of animal scenes and rooms full of skeletons, dinosaur or otherwise. The last time I was at Wall Drug in South Dakota I almost bought a jackalope; that is a large stuffed rabbit with antelope horns attached, sometimes also with pheasant wings; an amusing conceit. But I really have no place to put it on display.

Melissa Milgrom, initially spurred by a chance comment, spent more than two years doing a lot more than looking. She dug into the world of taxidermy, taxidermists, and a couple of "taxidermologists" (the Schwendemans, father and son), and taxidermy shows and contests. She wound up preparing a New Jersey squirrel, mentored by Bruce Schwendeman, and entering it in a show in the Novice division.

Taxidermy is a pursuit that partakes equally of art and skill. Those who do it best have the eye of an artist and the skilled hands of a sculptor. At one time it was necessary for any aspiring naturalist to practice taxidermy. While that means many naturalists did a lot of shooting, some eschewed killing and used only the "naturally dead" for their specimens. In fact, collecting road kill is how many of them got their start.

In Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, Ms. Milgrom has written of all facets of the hobby of preserving an animal and trying to reproduce its "life look". Hobbyists abound, and hunters who learn to mount their own trophies sometimes go on to win recognition in this misunderstood fraternity. So many people are repulsed by "stuffed animals" that it is hard for a taxidermist to get much respect. But in their own circle, the gifted amateur can gain respect equal to many professionals.

Taxidermy initially became popular during the early Victorian period when every aristocrat (and many aspiring wannabees) had a "cabinet of curiosities", which included not just shells, rocks and bones, but mounted animal and fish specimens. Things have gone both down and up ever since, and there is perhaps a bit of a recent upsurge, as museums, for example, have found that you can't do everything with lasers and computers. People still love the dioramas packed with animals that look like they are doing what animals do. The "fierce beast" fashion for mounting with every tooth and claw ready to rend is, thankfully, passing away.

Standards of technique have also morphed over the years. When the author took her squirrel to a World Taxidermy Championships (WTC) show, a friend quickly pointed out that she'd been taught an out-of-date technique, relying on wax where she ought to have used epoxy. She barely had time to re-mold the odd bit here and there before the judging. But one friend—what's the word for a female curmudgeon? Emily Mayer just calls herself a Bitch—has developed a technique of "erosion molding". Somehow, only the hair itself is preserved, so "taxidermy", which means "manipulated skin" doesn't really apply; there is no skin in the finished product. At the moment, her innovation is denigrated by show judges, but she is gaining respect.

I was quite interested to read the stories of some of the greats of museum preparation. Many of them had such passion for their craft that they had cut short on formal schooling, yet rose to pinnacles of respect usually reserved for PhD's. Hornaday and Astley come to mind. It was equally interesting to read about the passionate amateurs who mount various animals as a sideline of providing wild food for their families, or who mount only "found" specimens. A few have the privilege of producing specimens for museums. Some will mount your favorite pet when it dies. Some folks make a business of producing mainly curios (see below).

I am most taken by mounts, such as this, that simply capture a moment in the life of a creature. This muskrat was probably shot for the purpose, but it is his life that is celebrated by this preparation. He's just chewing the bark off a twig, after all.

Exceptionally well done slice-of-life mounts often earn the WTC best-of-show, edging out tours de force such as a re-created Irish Elk (there is a special category for specimens that are either made up or created from parts of other animals, so that a Panda mount might contain no panda parts, being a combination from various white- and black-furred bears or bearlike mammals).

A curio such as this canoeing muskrat can be quite popular. We like to anthropomorphize animals. Some folks specialize in it. One chapter of the book documents the auction of Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities, which included The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, complete with a bird parson, birds digging the grave, mourners and so forth. When the collection was sold off, the world lost the last of the Cabinets of Curiosities.

Preserved and mounted specimens are getting popular again. Whether one wants a realistic pheasant or wildcat, or to have a favorite pet stuffed (I couldn't bear to do so myself), or an anthropomorphic critter, such mounts can be purchased or commissioned at establishments such as Mac's Taxidermy, where I got these images. This is one of many, many taxidermy businesses whose products range from novelties to serious scientific specimens.

And just by the bye, nearly all mounted fish one sees are casts. It isn't possible to remove the oils from fish skin like you can for birds and mammals. Making the attempt destroys the skin.

No comments: