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.” (

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.” (

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


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


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



Renovation of the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, Part I: What is a habitat diorama?

In 2011-12, the American Museum of Natural History undertook an ambitious program of renovation to the 45 habitat dioramas in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals.  It was important that the unique features of each diorama be preserved throughout the renovation project, which played a role in deciding what kind of materials could be used for recoloring the faded taxidermy. This post summarizes how the dioramas were constructed – full details on the creation and significance of the Museum’s dioramas are beautifully illustrated in Stephen Quinn’s, Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History.

Some of the earliest collections at the Museum were taxidermy, and the evolution of the diorama was a natural development in the tradition of using art to teach science. Within the museum, dioramas were created to promote the awareness of wildlife and so-called ‘primitive cultures’ as finite. They were also used to stir concern for the populations and habitats that were threatened by unregulated development and hunting. Fusing art and science, these habitat dioramas depict specific locations and exhibit anatomically correct mounted specimens in their natural habitat.

The wolf diorama in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals ©AMNH/D.Finnin

The original creation of the dioramas was a group effort, combining the skills of artists and scientists to illustrate the complex relationships between animals and their environment. Along with the Museum’s curators, they conducted extensive research, visiting each site to draw reference sketches, take photographs, and collect specimens for exhibit. Once back at the museum, every detail of the scene was painstakingly recreated. Careful positioning of specific lighting combinations illuminated the background paintings to create a particular season and time of day in the depicted location, with naturally posed taxidermy among site-specific plants and foreground materials.

 Fred Scherer and James Perry Wilson painting the background of the bison and pronghorn diorama, while George Mason installs grass in the foreground. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature) ©AMNH/Library 296655

Fred Scherer and James Perry Wilson paint the background of the bison and pronghorn diorama, while George Mason installs grass in the foreground. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature)
©AMNH/Library 296655

The dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History are the ultimate mixed-media artifact.  They are made of three main elements: a background painting, foreground materials, and mounted taxidermy specimens. The partial dome-shaped enclosure is created using vertical angle-iron beams and heavy wire mesh. This framework supports layers of plaster, onto which the canvas background painting is attached using a white lead and oil mixture as adhesive. Access to the dioramas is difficult and can only be achieved by removing the front panes of glass or, in some cases, is attained by narrow ladders on the interior extending from the light box to the diorama floor.

The background paintings in the habitat dioramas were examples of the highest form of wildlife artistry in their day, and many consider those in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals to be the most accomplished of their kind. The curved background painting is essential to the overall illusion of space, distance and environment.  It draws on Renaissance techniques such as under-painting, plotting perspective and transferring images with grids. Painters of note included James Perry Wilson, Frances Lee Jaques and Charles S. Chapman. Wilson described his diorama work as “art to conceal art’, in other words, art intended to imitate nature so closely that the artist’s role is not visible (Quinn, 2006).

 James Perry Wilson field sketching at Devil's Tower, Wyoming (1942) ©AMNH/Library

James Perry Wilson field sketching at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming (1942)

The floor of the diorama was built up to the needed height with an underlying structure of wooden beams, over which wire screening was formed to create the desired topography. Features of the landscape were constructed over the wire screening with a mixture composed of plaster, dextrin, whiting, and asbestos fibers.  Plant materials were generally made from painted cotton or paper, sometimes flocked or modeled with wax.

 George Mason laying down wire mesh over the wood structure to create the ground terrain in the bison and pronghorn antelope diorama, 1942. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature) ©AMNH/Library

George Mason laying down wire mesh over the wood structure to create the ground terrain in the bison and pronghorn antelope diorama, 1942. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature)

Broad leaves were made from vacu-formed acetate sheet. Snow was created using combinations of plaster, sand, cotton batting and plastics.  A limited number of real botanical specimens, such as grasses, evergreen branches, mosses, and leaves for ground litter, were collected, sometimes chemically treated with preservatives, and then installed. The mammal specimens were mounted in the museum following procedures developed by Carl Akeley in earlier decades, details of which are also discussed in Windows on Nature (Quinn, 2006). The larger taxidermy specimens are mounted into the diorama floors, and thus cannot be removed for treatment.  Many of the smaller specimens, however, are able to be removed.

 The plant-making process for dogwood flower production, 1933. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature) ©AMNH/Library

The plant-making process for dogwood flower production, 1933. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature)

A large glass panel serves as the front face of the diorama, and is angled slightly to prevent reflection.  A separated light box with fixtures for interior illumination is located above the enclosure. The original lighting scheme from the early 1940’s is known to have included large theatrical lights.  Lighting revisions shortly thereafter, in the 1950s, resulted in a combination of fluorescent and incandescent fixtures.  This scenario caused a number of unsurprising problems.  Temperature inside the dioramas was elevated, often reaching the high 80’s °F.  The relative humidity was low, with daily and seasonal fluctuations.  Light levels were far higher than is recommended for museum collections and, until recently, lamps were not screened for ultraviolet emissions.  These conditions resulted in deterioration, desiccation, and fading of most exhibit materials.

 Lighting technician Arthur Scharf adjust lights in the Timberline group diorama in the Hall of North American Forests, 1954. ©AMNH/Library 323121

Lighting technician Arthur Scharf adjust lights in the Timberline group diorama in the Hall of North American Forests, 1954.
©AMNH/Library 323121

Informed by a 2003 conservation survey of the dioramas in the Museum’s Akeley Hall of African Mammals undertaken at the museum, testing had demonstrated that it was possible to reduce heat and light levels inside the dioramas while maintaining the desired visual appearance through the use of energy-efficient lamps.

In 2010, as a result of the American Museum’s participation in a citywide effort to decrease energy consumption, funding was provided to replace the diorama lights with more energy-efficient fixtures. The goal of the re-lamping project was to achieve a 50% reduction in electric power consumption. Retrofit fixtures were researched and chosen by an outside lighting design firm to reproduce the visual appearance of the original design, using a combination of energy efficient fluorescent bulbs for indirect lighting and LED flood lights and metal halide spot fixtures as accent lights.  All new lighting fixtures are filtered for UV emissions.

The re-lamping project provided the impetus for a broader renovation of the Hall of North American Mammals.  The renovation team began to explore possible methods of restoring naturalistic color to specimens that had become faded and desiccated in the previous damaging lighting environment in hopes of extending their exhibit life.

Just as the dioramas’ fabrication was necessarily achieved through collaboration, this conservation effort also involved a diverse team of participants, including curators, objects and paintings conservators, exhibition department staff, outside scientists, and a master taxidermist.

The next post will examine the many factors that influenced how we decided what recoloring materials to research and test.