You’re walking through the aisle in a museum. You eagerly get ahead of the crowd to see the wildlife section. You’re looking through the glass, and you’re shocked by the appearance of the animals you see. They look so real; you could almost picture them moving. You turn around and ask the curator a barrage of questions, and you’re even more stunned when he tells you that the animals you see have been preserved that way for over 100 years through the art of taxidermy.
On several occasions, many people have experienced the scenario described above: animals mounted on a frame and displayed in a vast glass-box. This phenomenon, called taxidermy, is the art of preserving dead animals’ bodies using unique techniques for study and display purposes. The word gets its name from two Greek words, “taxis” and “derma.” “Taxis” meaning arrangement, and “derma” meaning skin. The addition of these words can be crudely translated into “arrangement of the skin.”
Louise Dufresne, a famous French taxidermist, was among the first to discover the use of arsenic soaps in preserving animal skin. People like John Hancock and Walter Potter were soon to follow and later popularized the art of modern taxidermy.
When did Taxidermy become Popular?
The process of preserving bodies originated from the Egyptians, who were incredibly skilled in the art of mummification. However, storing the remains of animals started in England, sometime in the 19th century. Although back then, techniques used were relatively primitive, and it wasn’t until much later, during Queen Victoria’s reign, the art gained massive popularity, the queen herself, an avid collector.
Till today, a handful of people still hunt beasts for stuffing and use them as trophies. Special hunting equipment such as crossbows that make stealth possible is a hunter’s favorite tool. Furthermore, since crossbows are relatively light and arrows do minimal damage to animal skin than other hunting weapons, a hunter can conveniently sneak up on an animal while it’s looking the other way.
Contrary to what many think, taxidermists don’t cut through an animal’s body and don’t have to deal with a gory, bloody scene. The entire process doesn’t involve butchering and spilling of blood but the careful removal of the animal’s skin. First, the taxidermist removes the animal’s skin and preserves it in chemicals to keep it from decomposing. Next, he fashions a clay mold that depicts the animal’s real-life stance using fiberglass as bones. Finally, he covers the frame with the treated animal skin and stitches it up, ensuring it appears as realistic as possible.
There’s also the reproduction mount method. Here, taxidermists use pictures and exact measurements in conjunction with different materials to recreate the structure of the animal they intend to bring to life. With this method, taxidermists don’t require any animal’s skin. Substances like fiberglass and resin are the chief materials used in the reproduction mount method. This process proves to be incredibly efficient when replicating fish or endangered species.
Taxidermy serves a dual purpose. The first purpose is purely aesthetic; many mounted animals are auctioned in art fairs to the highest bidder. The stuffed animals add a touch of elegance to homes and offices and are fast becoming a widespread consideration for interior decorating. The second purpose is academic. The art creates the right atmosphere and engenders intellectual discussions surrounding human-animal relations. And since stuffing preserves animals for many years, this discourse can carry on into the future, with later generations studying and addressing the conversation with greater insight.
Many taxidermists are self-employed and get direct requests from clients. Seasoned experts can set up workshops or host art fairs periodically. However, most taxidermists work in museums, where they help to stuff and mount animals.
Taxidermy as art is awe-inspiring and captivating, so it’s no wonder if you’ve developed an interest to know more. The art comprises many disciplines such as anatomy, woodworking, and tanning, painting, and sculpturing. Taxidermists devote considerable amounts of time practicing and perfecting the craft. After all, to make something dead look unbelievably real, it must have the marks of perfection. If you’re undeterred by the massive commitment required, you can begin by going through every book on taxidermy you can find in your local library.
In conclusion, taxidermy is a fascinating branch of art that is gaining popularity today. Although done for aesthetics and public admiration, the act is a way of storing animals, especially endangered species, in their original form for future reference and study.