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Monday, 19 January 2009

An exploration into the mysterious history of taxidermy

Whilst at the Independent I was working on this piece.

An example of the Feegee mermaid, and an anthropomorphic monkey

Taxidermy is one of the more bizarre products of man’s interpretations of nature. This method of the preservation of animals has been instrumental in our understanding of nature, delighting and educating generations of visitors to Natural History Museums. But in addition to this, fantasists and fraudsters have used this practise to create creatures that bear little relation to anything found in nature.

With the recent opening of ‘Darwin, Big Idea, Big Exhibition’ at the Natural History Museum, people are able to see the preserved animal specimens that are integral to the revolutionary ideas that Darwin pioneered. You can view in close quarters the very animals that helped bring about such radical thought. The exotic and the mysterious are accessible for close inspection.

The word ‘Taxidermy’ stems from the Greek words ‘Taxis’ (arrangement) and ‘derma’ (skin). It means ‘ the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals with lifelike effect’. It has its scientific merits, as, before the advent of television, the Internet, and modern Photography the Natural World was less well documented and in some areas unknown. Preserved specimens were educational and exciting. From the general public to men of science, these objects helped to unlock the secrets of the Animal Kingdom.

Yet representing the real world is not the only domain for taxidermy - there are the beasts that have come from some very murky imaginations, the hoax creatures of myth. The excitement and furore that surrounded Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection, also gave inspiration to tricksters and fraudsters who traded upon a na├»ve public. Examples abound, such as the mysterious Victorian, Professor Copperthwaite, who’s collection of exotic beasts resides in ‘The Brading Experience’ Museum on the Isle of Wight.
Ralph Edermaniger of the Brading Experience told me that ‘in their heyday these fraudulent animals were marvelled over and many believed them to be genuine, The Feegee Mermaid is a fine example of Taxidermy trickery’. This hideously ugly creation was he says ‘originally purchased in Calcutta from Japanese sailors, she was then bought to London where she was exhibited in a Piccadilly coffee house’. Curiously this ‘Mermaid’ is in fact the preserved head of a Tamarind Monkey sewn onto the body of a fish.

These popular attractions were exhibited across the world, and made a fortune for many of owners wiley enough to market them as ‘Genuine Mermaids’. One such circus and sideshow owner, PT Barnum, even coined the famous phrase ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’ when speaking about how keen people were to believe in his ‘Mermaid.’
Some pieces of hoax Taxidermy have fine tales were woven around them in order to intrigue the audience. ‘The Unicorn’ is one such creation. According to The Brading Experience it is a medieval beast with ‘the head and body of a horse, the hind legs of an antelope, and the tail of a lion.’

Apparently the manner in which one would catch a ‘Unicorn’ is as follows: ‘ The approved method of capturing such an elusive and fearsome beast, is to tether a virgin to the trunk of a Coolibah tree at full moon, the Unicorn thus irresistibly attracted by the seductive vision of a creature as rare and chaste as itself would thereupon approach the defenceless damsel and meekly lay its horned head in her lap. The Unicorn, while thus entranced, became easy prey to the hunter.’

These are without a doubt odd, sometimes unsettling, pieces to view and provoke a real ‘Marmite’ reaction in the viewer. People are either drawn to the specimens or repulsed by their macabre nature. They do, however, provide an interesting insight into the eccentricities of the past, and show the extraordinary lengths that people sometimes will go to make money. (sewing monkey heads onto fish)
Another particularly Victorian trend was for the creation of Taxidermy animals in the Anthropomorphic style- where the preserved animals would be inserted into scenes of human activity. Often representing characters from fables. This meant Kitten weddings and Squirrels reclining in armchairs, amongst many other creative Tableaux.
These are painstaking, unusual creations, but they are quite creepy with the static dead-eyed animals indulging in human role play. This harks back to an era where death was prominent within the daily culture, and animals were there to be hunted, collected and catalogued.
These artefacts provide an insight into the Victorian world view – people the world over were convinced by the Mermaid and her contemporaries such as the Unicorn. This really illuminates the mind-set of those rapidly changing and confusing times, when almost anything seemed possible.

Darwin ‘big ideas , big exhibition’ from Nov 14th - 19th April

The Brading Experience - Sandown, Isle of White.

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