Story by Elizabeth Rogers
Photos by Andrea Laue
Hundreds of eyes stare down at me, none of them living. It is a curious feeling, and also an exciting one, one that’s drawn generations of school children to museum halls, and what drew me to the world of taxidermy.
I’ve never heard of a red-face mousebird, let alone seen one before, but I fell instantly in love from the moment I saw its little glass eyes and delicate feet, permanently curled on a carefully curved wooden perch. Its feathers were dark gray on top, soft enough that I wanted to touch them, feel their individual, long-dead filaments. It was lighter on its underside, bringing to mind other examples of Thayer countershading -- blue sharks and killer whales.
Against all this gray, its face was startlingly red, only fading down to black along its beak. It stood out all the more against the drab olive walls, and I had to know more.
The last time I’d visited a place with a lot of taxidermy it was a few years ago, when I was a fresh graduate and visited the Natural History Museum in London. It was undergoing an upheaval. Half the displays were empty, and the rest were hopelessly faded, packed with animals stuffed and mounted back in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when a taxidermy craze revolutionized the way we displayed animals and, more importantly, the human relationship with living wildlife. The Victorians revolutionized taxidermy as both an art form and a way to commemorate their own achievements, abandoning the traditional tanned hides of prior years to focus on molding the skins onto lifelike forms, which could then be shaped into savage, snarling poses that emphasized the bravery of the hunter who took the animal down. The idea of taxidermy as art was also born, with artists experimenting with tableaus of mice and rabbits at tea parties, or engaging in other daily household tasks. Taxidermy as interior decoration and taxidermy’s inherent value in presenting specimens from far reaches of the globe were born almost simultaneous, spurred onward by advances in the science of preservation, particularly during the 1851 Great Exhibition in London.
In the present day Natural History Museum, there were signs proclaiming the museum would be permanently removing most of their collection and going with models, in keeping with the idea of a modern institution. I thought of my childhood again, and of long hours spent nose to nose with elephants in a hall of mammals, or staring down a hawk in a room full of stuffed birds. It was reflective of a broader movement, one that stepped away from stuffed and mounted animals to digital ones, or clever animatronics that none the less could not capture the essence of life in quite the same way. Taxidermy had been so formative in my own relationship with nature, constantly pushing me to discover more. Without it, would the next generations find that same spark? As I watched an animatronic frog shudder and jerk to bored eyes, I wasn’t so sure.
“I remember being a little kid in a stroller, and seeing dioramas and being captivated,” Alicia Goode told me. The eyes in Goode’s workspace also stare: birds on perches in every corner of the small, white space, and a pheasant flying through the middle of the room with outstretched wings. There’s a sloth skeleton in a corner box. Soon the entirety of the room will be filled with two bear skins from the California Academy of Sciences, which need cosmetic re-touching. There are patches in the hide that will need filling, fur that will need some retouching and recoloring.
Goode recently helped create dioramas at the Oakland Museum of California. She made two of them from scratch -- a pronghorn exhibit and a tule elk. She even made the background plants, bringing out a chunk of foam embedded with what looks like real grass stems. On closer examination, they’re made of paper, but they look as lively as everything else in the room.
Goode paints extra luster on the feathers of a small common starling, nearly complete. She adds extra black, putting more depth to it. When the starling is done, she’ll put it up for sale, reaching out to connections she has built over the years, taxidermy aficionados. “Museums aren’t building dioramas anymore; they’re focusing on more interactive exhibits instead,” she tells me, head bent over her bird. Occasionally she uses tweezers to delicately place a feather one way or another, holding them in place long enough for another spot of paint.
A Vital Record
The battle for the value of preserved specimens has spilled recently into the pages of scientific journals. In 2014, when Science published an article that criticized collections in favor of non-lethal preservation, and suggested that early collectors were responsible for several mass species extinction, curators around the world were quick to retaliate in favor of taxidermy museum collections. Luminaries like Harvard Biologist EO Wilson weighed in, saying, “Studies of morphological diversity and its evolution are impossible without whole specimens. Preserved specimens also provide verifiable data points for monitoring species health, distribution, and phenotypes through time.”
Collections remain vital, the argument went, in providing unparalleled research opportunities into the lifestyle of an animal that couldn’t be provided by just a small piece. Where an animal was collected, the condition it was in, the contents of its stomach- all can be recorded to provide a snapshot of the native environment and the conditions the animal has undergone throughout its life. Even locked away in drawers, they’re useful.
Even stuffed and stored collections are still taken out and looked at periodically. In March of this year, a study spearheaded by University of Arkansas biologists Michael Douglas and Marlis Douglas, subsequently published in PLOS one, found that the long held assumption that all Western Rattlesnakes were subspecies of one another was incorrect -- there are, in fact, six different species that comprise the former “Western Rattlesnake” single species designation. Six new species could have been left undiscovered if the collections had not been placed in museums throughout the country, allowing the scientists to examine head shapes and scale patterns in depth, creating comparisons that required hours and hours of holding the preserved specimens.
Six species may not seem like much, but it makes our world that much more wealthy, and provides a further understanding of the environment we share. One of the six rattlesnakes could hold important properties in its venom, and all six should be admired on their own terms, as distinct scaly bodies that soak up the sun. They share a common ancestor, but they also share a lineage that could not be discovered without taxidermy. It highlights the rich data held in every museum specimen -- the DNA that Victorian explorers could not have imagined existing when they first brought the animal in from the field, or the parasites hiding, smaller than microscopes could see at the time.
The California Academy of Sciences still hosts an impressive collection with 96,000 bird specimens and 28,500 mammal specimens alone, though many animals are still locked away in orderly wooden drawers, hidden out of public view. Still, the Academy acknowledges its own beginnings as an institute dedicated to showing off research specimens collected on trips throughout the newly founded state and then swiftly expanding to include international treasures.
Through several earthquakes, their taxidermy collections have remained an integral part of the museum. The African Hall of Mammals in particular remains a prominent part of the public-facing museum, dark and traditional and always popular with groups of wide-eyed children. They spent millions of dollars to redesign and rebuild the museum several times, but the most beloved part -- the taxidermy -- has always stayed intact.
“Natural history specimens can’t be replaced -- there’s nothing like seeing the real thing,” Goode says. “There are a lot of museums that still feel the same way. Would you take down a historical painting and replace it with an iPad?”
Her way of thinking isn’t unique -- that desire to connect more directly with nature is what lets collections survive, allowing people to get face to face with leopards and feel just the right amount of danger. “Collections are the most tangible, complete, permanent record of life on earth,” says Jack Dumbacher, the Curator of Ornithology and Mammology at the California Academy of the Sciences.
“For folks who study biodiversity, the collections are kind of like our Large Hadron Collider,” Dumbacher says. Scientists return to collections when they’re looking for a record of where animals have lived in the past, or when they’re seeking to tell one species from another, all taken from a period when species were taken in large numbers by scientists eager to figure things out.
Repair, Not Replace
Things have changed though, and taxidermists are very aware of our evolving world. Taxidermy collections used to be full of species that were collected in mass, with little regard to species numbers -- hence the hundreds of drawers that are still in storage somewhere, barely examined since they were first mounted. With conservation very much in mind, museums try and recycle their exhibits as much as possible, choosing to repair the holes in hides rather than obtaining an entirely new animal. It’s better for the world, but it leaves less and less work for the taxidermists, most of which rely on taking on other projects to make a living.
Goode takes on custom work, though she won’t use animals hunted unethically, or those hunted that weren’t shot for consumption purposes. Through working relationships with wildlife rehabilitation facilities and breeders, she has a fairly steady stream of wildlife floating through her shop, all of which would otherwise been thrown away. Instead, they’re memorialized, paused in one moment of movement, beaded eyes bright.
Leah Wade is now studying forensics, but she got her start with animal deaths, not human. “A big reason I wanted to get into taxidermy was actually my keen love for animals and desire to see them protected,” she said. She saw a disconnect, she says, between urban environments and nature, and how taxidermy could bridge that gap and let people see something they would otherwise never see.
“For these people, a natural history museum might be their only opportunity to see a pine marten or a ruffed grouse in person,” Wade says, “or to even know they exist.”
My mousebird came from a private collection, not a museum, but the point held even there: it was a concrete example of discovering something I hadn’t even known existed, thanks to taxidermy.
I thought about the number of times I had gone hiking, only to see only a handful of birds, and the museum dioramas full of winged things that had inspired me to go hike again. Some hikes I was unobservant and some hikes I was unlucky, but those dioramas showed me what I could see by returning, and show me what to look for the next time I did go out.
Nature in the Perfect Moment
Dioramas also represent nature in a perfect moment. There’s no discarded water bottle in a diorama, and no noise from the freeway. No power lines block the painted blue sky, and no group of strollers and Teka walking sticks startling deer back into cover. The taxidermy animals provide a pure experience that simply isn’t possible anymore, for better or for worse. It’s a glimpse of the world as it must have been once, but isn’t anymore, and it provides a moment of peace and stillness.
Surrounded by so much death, we should feel uncomfortable, that deeply ingrained fear rising up to overwhelm us. Instead, taxidermy specimens have an almost home-like quality about them. They seem respectful, a tableau of the animal a permanent preservation to the beauty of a single moment of outstretched wings and leaping haunches. The care Goode takes is evident in every display she creates. She goes back to work on the pheasant, pulling up the little feathered tufts behind its head, spreading each individual wing feather so that they look even and natural.
“Natural history dioramas are really what got me interested in nature as a small child,” Goode told me. I hold onto my own early memories from museum corridors, my nose plastered against the glass as I tried to take in every individual exotic bird, or as I looked at animals from California -- animals I had never seen, but that I vowed I would see in person. I wouldn’t have known what was in my own backyard if it weren’t for those early trips, those hours spent devouring every single blade of grass in the scene of a wild Bighorn sheep and his females. I always loved animals, but seeing their picture in a book and seeing a preserved specimens were two different things entirely, and in that fragile connection my love truly bloomed.