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Heads and Tales: A Little Menagerie | Project Space

July 4th - August 16th, 2014

Thomas Smillie (American, 1843-1917), cyanotype, 1890. Collection of the Smithsonian Museum Archives; RU95_Box76_096. Reproduced with the permission of the Smithsonian Institution.


by Alex King

The exhibition Hide, [con]currently showing in Gallery 1, displays the work of contemporary artists David Diviney and Jamie Wright. Their art works critically engage with the intersection between man and nature, examining our relationship with the rural and the pastime of hunting.

Humankind’s thirst for both collecting objects and learning about the natural world generated spaces designed for looking at nature up close. Functioning as archives, showcases and schools, museums of natural history offer a menagerie of genus and species, many of them originally hunted for the purpose of display. But what cultural meanings occur when we select, hunt, preserve, label and display animals? Is a stuffed coyote simply a coyote, or does it accumulate new meanings within the framework of a museum display? What tales do these objects tell?

Taxidermy involves removing skins from bodies, discarding all flesh and viscera, and rearranging the skins in a lifelike manner.1

On a singularly aesthetic level, taxidermy objects speak to certain skills and craftsmanship. They express a poetic irony in that the skill of the taxidermist’s hand is evident only where it is not seen. That is to say, the poorly rendered creatures produced by under-informed or amateur taxidermists become objects of ridicule. The taxidermist’s understanding of aesthetics and display is also presented in their choice of pose; to bear a snarl, to prowl, or to lie in repose.

As Donna Haraway points out in her essay Teddy Bear Patriarchy (1984-85), the power of taxidermy lies in its ability to enchant: “What is so painfully constructed appears effortlessly, spontaneously found, discovered, simply there if only one will look.”2 Indeed, with taxidermy, “artistic realism and biological science”3 make excellent bedfellows.

Until relatively recently, museums functioned as cabinets of curiosities, or libraries of objects. These institutions share the basic principles of preservation and display, motivated by a thirst for preservation and education. There is no area more curious to mankind than nature, and it was this that directed a huge number of great historical collections, informing what we view in natural history museums today. Therefore, these artefacts of natural origin are both, as the philosopher Jean Baudrillard noted, “the cause [and] subject of a passion”4.

This passion drives a narrative connecting the desire for knowledge, and the desire to tell a cultural biography. In Haraway’s essay, Teddy Bear Patriarchy, she traces the history of the African Hall in the American Museum of Natural History, and the cast of characters formative in its existence. This essay describes the hunter and taxidermist, Carl Akeley, driven to re-present nature as authentically as he recalled. The Hall is accessed through the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial (the “Conservation President”). Akeley’s and “Teddy’s” presence and values suggest that in hunting lies the making of men. Amongst their other meanings, the objects in the African Hall and here at the EAGM are also trophies.

Whilst the official museum narrative speaks about Africa, Haraway makes clear that the space communicates something else. In man’s dominion over beast, a hierarchy is proclaimed. By choosing what to hunt and display, we assign value to particular species, age and gender, and create a ‘natural order’ with ourselves at the top. In this hierarchy we covet the exotic over the commonplace and the game that poses the biggest challenge to hunt. And in preserving and displaying the prize, the experience of capture is memorialized and made public.

In their suspended spaces, museum spaces enable visitors to do what they cannot in nature: to gaze upon an animal up close, in communion with nature. But it’s clear that – dead and displayed – taxidermy animals have transitioned from natural to cultural objects. In her book, The Breathless Zoo (2012), Rachel Poliquin asks to what extent they speak about their makers and their original selves? But answers are elusive. These fossils of knowledge offer a very human interpretation of nature, with all the fictions, truths and untruths that we inevitably create. Of taxidermy’s diverse meanings, Poliquin notes it is always “…deeply marked by human longing. Far more than death and destruction, taxidermy always exposes the desires and daydreams surrounding human relationships with and within the natural world.”5

Bibliography Baudrillard, Jean, “The System of Collecting”, in The Cultures of Collecting, by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (eds.), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994 Haraway, Donna, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936”, Social Text, No. 11, Winter, 1984-85, pp. 20-64 Poliquin, Rachel. The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012.


Footnotes 1 Poliquin, p. 23 2 Haraway, p.34 3 Ibid 4 Baudrillard, p.7 5 Poliquin, p. 23

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