Getting stuffed (animals, that is): Rachel Poliquin on The Breathless Zoo

First aired on NXNW (01/09/12)

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Taxidermy animal dioramas are undeniably fascinating, even if they are profoundly unsettling. Academic Rachel Poliquin has studied the history of this bizarre habit, and her new book The Breathless Zoo features a collection of strange and arresting images of stuffed (or mounted, as modern taxidermists prefer) animals over the years. She spoke about her odd passion with Sheryl MacKay on North by Northwest earlier this month.

Poliquin's interest in taxidermy evolved naturally out of her background in the history of natural history. "That's really how it started. I spend a lot of time in old natural history museums," she said. "But the clincher, what really made me write this book, was this odd encounter I had at this little natural history museum in England called the Saffron Walden Museum, and I kind of stumbled across this extraordinary story."

The story is from 1959, when a young curator set out to modernize the museum and decided that the taxidermy collections were completely outdated. "So with the exception of a lion, who had been this famous menagerie creature, and a collection of particularly beautiful Victorian birds, she hauled the entire collection of animals to the city dump and set them on fire," said Poliquin. "Hearing about that story really shaped my whole attitude towards taxidermy. What was burnt? What were these animals? Were they just outmoded technology? Like bad video cassettes? You wouldn't burn your cultural artifacts in the same way, you wouldn't burn other loathsome imperial archives. So why were these things burnt?"

Taxidermied animals are unique objects. "I tend to call taxidermied animals 'animal things,'" said Poliquin. "They're unlike any other cultural objects that we might make from animal skins. They're fundamentally unlike a leather chair, or a pair of leather shoes, because the animal presence really remains...So it's that kind of weird limbo that you find between this thing that is both and object but not any more, and both an animal but not any more."

Poliquin's book contains a number of fascinating images of taxidermied animals, mostly from the Victorian era, when taxidermy hit its peak in popularity. "Victorians just loved nature literally to death," she said. "Up until the Victorian era, most taxidermy was what we call 'stuffed,' which means the skin was literally stuffed with straw or bits of paper. So there was no sense of musculature, or skeletal structure, it was just kind of a blobby beast."

But the Victorian era saw a number of improvements, most particularly the use of anatomically correct sculpture to ensure that the animal's form would be realistic. The Victorian era also saw a rise in bizarre popular art featuring dioramas of, say, bunnies attending school or kittens getting married, like the work of Walter Potter, whose strange collection of tableaux sold at auction for over half a million pounds in total (British artist Damian Hirst reportedly offered a million pounds for the full collection, but was rebuffed by the auctioneers).

So what is it about taxidermy that it continues to haunt us? "Taxidermy is a longing to capture the animal in some way," said Poliquin. "But that longing can never come to fulfillment." Below is a photo gallery of some of the strange and evocative images collected in Poliquin's book.

Images courtesy of Penn State University Press