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«Merle M. Patchett Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ. ABSTRACT When is it that an animal becomes ...»

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Animal as object: taxidermy and the charting of afterlives

Merle M. Patchett

Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ.


When is it that an animal becomes an object? In the case of a taxidermy mount, is it when the

animal is set in a rifle sight, or at the moment of death? When it is mounted, or added to a

collection? Or perhaps when it is put on public display? The taxidermy specimen differs from certain orders of museum object in that it was once animate. Like almost all museum contents, it is possible to chart its object biography and to talk of its after-life (Kopytoff 1986). This paper considers the afterlife of one particular taxidermy mount: the Leiden Blue Antelope. By exemplifying recent research charting the complex object histories of the blue antelope, theories of the animal as object and the distributed agency of museum objects are scrutinised, and an argument is made for a ‘geobiographical’ approach to museum curation, where wider stories of collection, practice and display are told through the mount. A spatial study of taxidermy specimens would consider the mechanics enabling dead animals to be trafficked across different sites and states.

Movement from the field to the workshop to the museum (and from life to death and back again) required differently placed people and their skills in various sorts of operation and arrangement.

The work undertaken here is part of a larger collaboration, enlisting an artist-in-residence, geographers and a museum curator in efforts to re-map, re-label and re-present the blue antelope and its museological remains. Such a project introduces diverse possibilities to re-frame and re-tell taxidermy collections – and all museum collections for that matter - where the status of object may not contain all that the animal still has to offer.


Text © Merle M. Patchett 2006 – please do not cite without author’s permission. 1 Email: Merle.Patchett@ges.gla.ac.uk


Garry Marvin, in a recent paper1, offered some thoughts on the journeys or passages that some wild animals make between the contested terrains of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, and ‘life’ and ‘death’. In his paper – Transforming the beast: the cultural life of dead animals – he tries to develop some ideas about ‘taxidermy and to think about what sort of animal/object the taxidermised creature might be’ using the example of a taxidermised polar bear2. On wondering what sort of animal the taxidermised animal might be he poses the questions: How is it an animal? Is the polar bear in the museum a dead polar bear? How much of an animal has there to be for it to be a dead animal? In response to James Ryan’s claim that taxidermy animals are ‘a recreation of nature as apparently authentic yet utterly docile’, the word docile struck Marvin as crucial (Ryan 2000: 206). The word suggested a body receptive to social/cultural imposition and social/cultural control, or in his words ‘a body that is utterly domesticated… one we can approach without any danger to ourselves’. I would like to explore the notion of taxidermy as ‘docile’ a little further.

To achieve this I would like to move away from polar bears to consider the case of Blue Antelope – and the ‘Leiden’ Blue Antelope specimen in particular. On a recent visit to view this ‘animal’ at Naturalis in Leiden we3 were able to approach the Leiden ‘BlauBok’ without any danger to ourselves. However, this did not mean that it did not have the power to effect us; the power to make us reflect upon it as a once living/animate creature. The fact that it happened to be only one of four mounted specimens known to be in existence added to our sense of wonder and awe. Of course, we came armed with the knowledge that we were about to witness The paper was given at a ‘talks event’ which accompanied the installation ‘nanoq: flat out and bluesome’. The project ‘nanoq: flat out and bluesome’ (2004), led by artists Bryndis Snaebjornsdottir and Mark Wilson, set out to amass and document all taxidermic polar bears currently in the UK.

According to Snaebjornsdottir and Wilson, “the bears remain a legacy of two hundred years of enterprise and attitudes with which, in many ways, we are now uncomfortable” (www.valand.gu.se/personalen/bryndis/index.html).

Taxidermy is the preparation and mounting of animal skins to a likeness of living creatures.

‘We’ are the “Blue Antelope” collective: Kate Foster (artist-in residence) Hayden Lorimer (Human Geography lecturer), Maggie Reilly (Huntarian Curator) and myself Merle Patchett (PhD student).

Text © Merle M. Patchett 2006 – please do not cite without author’s permission. 2 Email: Merle.Patchett@ges.gla.ac.uk a rare relic of a long extinct grazing Cape antelope, which was also ‘type’4 specimen for the species Hippotragus leucophaeus, and that fact, of course, anticipated a sense of knowing. And yes, had we not come with that prior knowledge it may have just blended in with the thousands of dead animals in storage at Naturalis. This said, the vast quantity of taxidermised animals stored in Naturalis’ purpose built twentystorey specimen storage building - what we affectionately came to term ‘the tower of dead animals’ - had a profound effect upon us in their own right. Encountering these ‘anonymous’5 animals, forever frozen in their various poses on rows of what seemed to be never-ending shelving could do nothing but affect us. While no obvious narrative accompanied these creatures, their looming and spectral presence worked on the imagination. For some, taxidermy is enchanting, and encounters with it bring out a compulsion to touch. For others, or often at the same time, such encounters unsettle, repulse and unnerve. Such conflicting responses exist at one and the same time precisely because of taxidermy’s ability to unsettle perception – like Garry Marvin suggests, questions are raised about the status and liveliness of such ‘creatures’: are they animals? If so, in what way are they animal? Or are they objects? If so, what class of object are they? Such questions bring into focus ideas about the agency of these curious animal-object hybrids.

But again, let us return to the Blue Antelope. Coming face-to-face with the precious remains of a zoological specimen of such rarity one is forced to reflect upon: what it was like as an animate being? What were the processes/practices/people through which it came to be a taxidermy specimen in a large European collection? And if it was ever, in fact, blue6? Such effects and responses suggest the possible agentive qualities of a taxidermy mount – perhaps not an ability to act in and of itself but that it can activate, by being caught up in relational networks of distributed agency. This idea is supported by the object history of the Leiden specimen. A patchwork history of the animal’s afterlife was (painstakingly) pieced together by two curators at Naturalis, A. M. Husson and L.

I.e. the specimen exemplifying the species, formally described by Pallas in 1766.

Anonymous to the novice at least.

The animal-object we encountered was, if anything, a dusty fawn colour – not remotely blue.

Text © Merle M. Patchett 2006 – please do not cite without author’s permission. 3 Email: Merle.Patchett@ges.gla.ac.uk B. Holthuis, in 1969. Their paper – written largely in response to Erna Mohr’s monograph (1967) on the species which questioned the authenticity of the Leiden specimen as ‘type’ – was an account of the specimen’s career pieced together from various records, fragments of skull, photographs, old illustrations and especially the advertisement and receipts documenting the sale, purchase, and transportation of the animal from an Amsterdam auction house to Naturalis. It not only proved the specimen’s authenticity as ‘type’ but also charted what Marvin would term ‘its cultural afterlife’ from 1764 until the 1890’s. The story told of the Leiden specimen in Husson and Holthuis’s paper and in the up-dated object history file kept in the Museum, was as enchanting an object as the ‘animal’ itself. Such detailed object histories, even in such historic and well-managed collections as those at Naturalis, can be considered as ‘gold-dust’ in the museum world. Prompted by this case, Naturalis even organised an international conference entitled ‘Lost, stolen or strayed’, to discuss the problem of the loss (sometimes deliberate) of collections and their records. Pat Morris’s paper at the event noted that even if specimens survive, ‘separated from their documentary context they loose much of their significance’7.

Therefore, on a second viewing of the ‘Leiden’ Bluebuck the significance of it as the material evidence of a distinct species – but also, I would like to suggest, as an exemplar of the possibilities for researching the cultural afterlives of taxidermy specimens and collections – was not lost on us. As Steven Jay Gould’s account of the bluebuck argues, if preciousness were to be defined by rarity then ‘by this criterion, hardly anything in natural history can be more valuable than a scrap of blaauwbock’. The ‘Leiden’ Bluebuck being one of the oldest examples of taxidermy, and with one of the most detailed object histories8, seemed to embody

the rich potential for researching the cultural history of taxidermy collections:

from hunted live animal in the colonial field - where it was shot and then shipped ‘Lost, stolen or strayed: the fate of missing natural history collections’ took place at Naturalis Museum, Leiden, The Netherlands from the 10-11th of May 2001 and was organised by the Society for

the History of Natural History. An


for Pat Morris’s paper entitled ‘Lost found and still looking:

tracing some examples of ancient taxidermy’ can be found at http://www.shnh.org/MTG_past_LSS_abs_K-M.html#Morris.

It is important to note here that the ‘Leiden Blue’ had such a detailed object history not so much for its cultural significance and rather for its scientific significance as the ‘type’ specimen of an extinct species.

Text © Merle M. Patchett 2006 – please do not cite without author’s permission. 4 Email: Merle.Patchett@ges.gla.ac.uk as a skin - to Amsterdam, where it was then recorded by science as the type specimen (a claim which has been contested in more recent scientific discourse9), to be then sold at auction to a taxidermist, set-up and displayed in an institutional museum (Naturalis10), where it has remained to witness the evolution of the museum itself with its changing site and politics. The specimen’s various movements and stop-offs’ from field to museum and its accompanying shifts in meaning (ascribed and generated) illustrate how colourful and contested the cultural after-life of a dead animal can be.

Yet, what the ‘Leiden’ Bluebuck also alerted me to was the potential power of a spatial analytic for exploring animal afterlives/biographies. The possibilities for charting the movement of such curious animal-objects from field site to the museum site, also provides a space for considering and working through theories of the animal as object and the distributed agency of museum objects. As part of my PhD research I am currently working through theories of

1. the animal as object and,

2. the distributed agency of museum objects, whilst developing,

3. a spatial analytic in the exercise of (animal) biographies.

In the remainder of this essay I would like to offer a review of my current lines of inquiry and in so doing raise wider questions of curatorial practice. As I mentioned earlier, on encountering taxidermy mounts questions are often raised about the status of such ‘creatures’: are they animals? If so, in what way are they animal? Or are they objects? If so, what class of object are they? Such questions bring into focus See for example van Bruggen 1959; Klein 1974; Roomaaker 1992; Groves and Westwood 1995 and Robinson et al 1996.

The mount was first housed at Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Histoire before being re-located along with most of the other specimens to the new purpose built site re-named Naturalis.

Text © Merle M. Patchett 2006 – please do not cite without author’s permission. 5 Email: Merle.Patchett@ges.gla.ac.uk ideas about the agency of these curious animal-object hybrids and it is to this line of questioning I would like to turn to now.


First I would like to ask: When is it that an animal becomes an object? In the case of a taxidermy mount, is it at the moment of death? When it is added to a collection? Or mounted? Or put on public display? And is it even useful to think of a taxidermy mount as an object?

The taxidermy mount can be differentiated from other orders of museum object in that it was once animate. Crucially, actual parts of original animals form a prominent and necessary feature of the mount, a characteristic James Griesemer has cleverly captured in the term ‘remnant model’ (Griesemer 1990). Indeed, Lynn Nyhart (2004: 308) in her study of natural history museum exhibits, which interrogates the notion of authenticity as a guiding principle of such display, argues that in comparison with other museum models, the key quality of such models is not ‘their analogical power, their manipulability, or their ability to render things on a human scale, but rather their authenticity’. She continues by stating that, ‘no matter how complex the process of reconstruction, this experience of authenticity depends on the fact that the skins and feathers of the animals displayed once covered living creatures’ (Nyhart 2004: 308). This characteristic is of crucial importance when considering the status of a taxidermised animal. In her examination of the processes through which dead animal bodies are manipulated taxidermically, Jane Desmond is in agreement that the presence of actual animal

skin makes a fundamental difference:

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