Usually I try to read fiction in my spare time (sci-fi or fantasy for preference), because I spend all day in a museum and then most evenings studying about museums (I’m currently halfway through a distance-learning Museum Studies MA). However, occasionally a work-related book catches my eye and I make an exception. This week I read ‘Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy’. Which, you will be relieved to hear, is not a how-to guide, but an exploration of the culture and history of taxidermy (particularly museum taxidermy), written by American journalist Melissa Milgrom. The book follows a number of top modern taxidermists, both museum workers and artists, and puts their work into historical context. Which is really much more interesting than I’ve just made it sound! The book if full of brilliant stories, anecdotes, and fun historical facts (for example, did you know that the 19th century butterfly collector Carl von Hagen was captured and eaten by cannibals in Papua New Guinea?). The author visits the World Taxidermy Championships (usually held in the US, although they are in Salzburg this year!). The WTC includes categories for novices and professionals, as well as a wonderful category called ‘Re-Creations’, in which the mounts cannot include any part of the species they represent (for example, a chicken mount made of bits of turkey). While the idea of taxidermy championships sounds bizarre, it is actually considered a good way of improving standards in taxidermy.
One of the most interesting chapters for me described the 2003 sale by auction of the Walter Potter Museum of Curiosities, which the author attended in the company of historical taxidermy expert Pat Morris. It was quite fascinating to read the inside details of the sale, as well as quite saddening. Potter’s museum was one of the most unique and pristone collections of Victorian taxidermy in existence, and it has now been dispersed to museums and private collectors across the globe. The majority of the collection was reunited in 2010 for a temporary exhibition at the Museum of Everything in London.
I read Still Life in only a few days, and really enjoyed it. It is written by an outsider to the world of natural history, but with great respect for the taxidermists’ work – it never attempts to mock or sensationalise, despite covering some of the wackier side of taxidermy – and with plenty of humour to soften the more gruesome aspects. I highly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in taxidermy or natural history!