Return of the Dead: Taxidermy in Contemporary Culture

The American Museum of Natural History is famous for its dioramas that include expert examples of taxidermy. But taxidermy is encountered in other types of museums and facets of contemporary life, especially since it has been gaining popularity in art and elsewhere. This post explores (and celebrates) the expected and unexpected spaces where taxidermy is displayed. Add your own observations and favorite websites, artists, and taxidermy sightings in the comments.


Art & History Museums

Keep an eye out for pieces of taxidermy when visiting the following museums:

Van Gogh Museum – Look for a mounted bat on display next to Van Gogh’s painting Flying Fox (1884), shown below. As the website reveals,

“This is a type of tropical bat – an unusual subject for an artist. The one painted by Van Gogh was stuffed and mounted. . . Van Gogh knew a man in Eindhoven (NL), Antoon Hermans, with a collection of more than 300 mounted exotic animals. This bat may have come from that collection. Van Gogh wanted to depict the translucent wings clearly, so he placed a light source behind them.” (www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0136V1973)

flying fox

Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum.

National Air & Space Museum – Look for Able, a taxidermy rhesus monkey in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition.

“She flew inside a Jupiter nose cone with Baker, a female squirrel monkey on May 28, 1959, in an Army experiment designed to test the biomedical effects of space travel. Launched from Cape Canaveral, they reached a maximum altitude of 300 miles and travelled downrange 2,000 miles at speeds reaching 10,000 mph before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and being recovered by Navy ships. Both monkeys survived the trip well, but Able died from the anesthesia during a routine post-flight operation.

The Army transferred Able to NASM in 1960 and the National Museum of Natural History preserved her.” (www.airandspace.si.edu)

National Postal Museum – Look for famous Owney the dog, the unofficial mascot of the Railway Mail Service in the late 19th century.

Owney

Owney the dog. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

 


Hipster Spaces

In the past few years, we’ve seen taxidermy in tattoo parlors, hip new restaurants, bars and coffee shops, and incorporated into contemporary interior design in homes. Representation in these spaces shows how taxidermy is no longer reserved for Wild West-themed restaurants and honky-tonks.

taxi and tattoos

Taxidermy mount in a tattoo parlor. ©AMNH /F. Ritchie

 

Buecherts Saloon

Taxidermy bisons above the bar at a hip restaurant in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. ©AMNH /F. Ritchie


Reality Television

Although each series was short-lived, several reality televisions shows have been based upon creating taxidermy. Check out episodes that are still available on YouTube:

Mounted in Alaska (History Channel, 2011)

Immortalized (AMC, 2013)

American Stuffers (Animal Planet, 2012)

 


Professional Taxidermists

Unfortunately when many people think of taxidermy, they conjure images of the “stuffed” animals of past centuries, or worse – the bad taxidermy that fills internet memes. Those stuffed examples did not accurately resemble their living counterparts. The late 19th and 20th centuries saw a dramatic shift in the quality of taxidermy. Top taxidermists in the field today create beautiful and scientifically impressive mounts that present the viewer with an ever increasing sense of realism. Encountering taxidermists is not new, but this crop of wildlife artists may be unexpected to some.

Watch how the AMNH recently preserved Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise of  Pinta Island, by working with taxidermist (and member of the Project’s External Advisory Committee) George Dante.

 

If you’ve ever wondered where the best of the best showcase their talent, attend the World Taxidermy Championship that is held each year. The Field Museum’s Curiosity Correspondent takes us through a tour of what it’s like to see phenomenal examples of taxidermy:

 


Rogue Taxidermy

Fran_rogue

Project Conservator Fran Ritchie preparing to mount her own rogue taxidermy piece.

Taxidermy art, or rogue taxidermy, is a genre of art that incorporates preserved animal parts, or as the founders of the artform define it, “A genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed media sculptures containing conventional taxidermy-related materials that are used in an unconventional manner.” (Sarina Brewer, Rogue Taxidermy Society)

If you’re interested in learning rogue taxidermy yourself, there are typically classes available in larger cities. New Yorkers can contact us for recommendations for taxidermy classes for amateurs.

 


Art Galleries

Fine art galleries did not typically display mounted animals, until contemporary artists began incorporating them into their artwork. If you were able to see any of the following exhibitions, tell us about it in the comments section.

Fluff it Up: Make Taxidermy Great Again, Grant Museum of Zoology; June 2017

Dead Animals, or the Curious Occurrence of Taxidermy in Contemporary Art, Brown University List Art Center, David Winton Bell Gallery; January 23, 2016-March 27, 2016

Ravishing Beasts: The Strangely Alluring World of Taxidermy, Museum of Vancouver; October 21, 2009-February 28, 2010

 


Contemporary Artists

Interested in seeing more taxidermy-based contemporary art? Research these artists to see what’s happening in the art world today. Did we miss any of your favorites?

Petah Coyne

Project Conservator Fran Ritchie viewing Petah Coyne’s Untitled #1336 (Scalapino Nu Shu) (2009-10).

Richard Barnes

Maurizio Cattelan

Kate Clark

Petah Coyne

Mark Dion

Nicholas Galanin

Jules Greenberg

Thomas Grünfeld

Cai Guo-Qiang

Damien Hirst

Karen Knorr

Claire Morgan

Sarah Cusimano Miles

Polly Morgan

Javier Perez

Deborah Sengl

Angela Singer

Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir/Mark Wilson


 

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