In 1992, the artist Fred Wilson was given free reign over the collection of the Maryland Historical Society to create whatever installation he wished. It was a collaboration with the The Contemporary Museum of Baltimore, which leveraged its partnerships to give Wilson unfettered access, and the result was Mining the Museum, a number of displays that exploded the relationship between artist and curator by treating the museum collection as a manipulatable archive rather than a static repository of objects. Displays included Metalwork 1793–1880, a glass case displaying the museum’s collection of 19th-century silver next to iron slave shackles, and a series of empty pedestals that greeted the museum goers with labels reading “Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, and Frederick Douglass,” all important Black figures in Maryland who had been left out of the collection. In Wilson’s own words, his displays foregrounded “the power of objects to speak when the ‘laws’ governing museum practices are expanded and the artificial boundaries museums build are removed.” The immediate response from both the general public and institutional stakeholders was mixed. There was no rush by artists after Wilson to replicate his example, and the monolithic view of history presented by most mainstream museums has not granted the kind of unfettered access to others that Wilson enjoyed. But Mining the Museum has endured as an example of how artists can engage with museum collections as source material to interrogate histories told by the powerful (often) men who governed their acquisition.
As of yet, there is no Fred Wilson of the natural history museum, someone who deeply shakes up specimen and artifact displays, questions the possession of human and animal remains in museum collections, and shatters the boundaries of what a 21st-century natural history museum should look like. Instead, art museums display taxidermy work as fine art, uncritically, while indigenous art is relegated to pedestals inside natural history museums. Some groups have stepped into the minefield of museum politics, impending environmental disaster, and histories of settler colonialism, to highlight the culpability of museums and curators in perpetuating a version of history that ignores or largely overlooks the genocide of Indigenous people. Decolonize This Place, for example, is a New York-based group that has occupied the American Museum of Natural History every Indigenous People’s Day (formerly Columbus Day) since 2016, and presented alternative tours to museum exhibits that highlight the often violent circumstances behind their acquisition and display.
The road from Wilson to Decolonize This Place is beyond the scope of this essay. Rather, I will focus on one practice that straddles the boundary between natural history museum and art museum, preservation and display, animate and inanimate, and even, to an extent, life and death: taxidermy. An examination of how artists have used taxidermy, which artists can get away with calling taxidermy ‘Art,’ and what the acquisition and display of these works in galleries and natural history museums does to our collective notion of the place of the animal in popular culture, is long overdue. I argue that it is not just important but also necessary for artists to reckon with taxidermy’s history of exploitation or risk condemning their work to mere decoration, little more than a trophy head mounted on a wall. As we’ll see, rearranging or otherwise editing displays of taxidermy is not be enough to disturb sufficiently institutionalized power behind the natural history museum in the manner of Mining the Museum; other strategies involving craft and human intervention may be necessary in this process.
Animals On Display
The goal of diorama builders and exhibit designers in early natural history museums: to create exhibits to completely immerse the viewer in a scene plucked from the savannah or the arctic or another totally “foreign” environ. Harold Anthony, curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1930s, said of an exhibit of mammals from the Indian subcontinent that “no intrusive details are permitted to work against the creation of an illusion which will transport the visitor into the heart of India.” Ostensibly this was to educate viewers in the diverse ecosystems and strategies for survival found throughout the world, but in practice, it served to prop up unrealistic notions of mythic wilderness untainted by human, and a hierarchy of races. In this it was joined by the burgeoning field of anthropology which, especially in its early days, was defined by the contributions of men like Ales Hrdlicka, who traveled the globe stealing the remains of indigenous people to bring back to the AMNH, again for display.
Enter taxidermy. Nothing was more persuasive and “transporting” than a herd of stuffed antelope or a pride of lions that the audience had never seen outside of illustrations. According to Karen Rader and Victoria Cain in their exhaustive book Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century, the formula for the modern natural history diorama was locked in place in the 1930s when curators “recessed exhibits into the walls so viewers could only approach displays from a single, carefully planned perspective. They tilted display glass […] darkened museum halls and lit dioramas from above to make it seem as if natural light emanated from its painted skies.” Carl Akeley, who is considered the father of modern taxidermy for advancements in making natural history exhibits more realistic, developed his own method that blended art and biology by creating a clay or plaster sculpture of the animal based on its physiology and stretching the skin over the form. The result was lifelike, awe-inspiring scenes in which animals acted out the very human dramas of their lives, soaking up any and all meaning accorded to them like a sponge.
The conundrum of taxidermy — a skilled craft that demonstrates respect and awe for the animal through the macabre preservation and display of its carcass — was largely ignored by early dioramists and museum curators. Taxidermy was a way of knowing about the natural world, and its use inside natural history museums reinforced a certain politics of the human-animal world, a politics that was familiar to a general public reared on stories of President Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting trophies and westward expansion. Taxidermy, in subject and substance, is not quite free from the politics of 19th-century natural history museums, when Western culture viewed nature as little more than harvesting grounds.
These days, museums are competing with Twitter and Netflix for visitors, and as a result, along with the shift toward species conservation, the diorama is disappearing. This shift presents an opportunity to reexamine the role of the animal and taxidermy in art and the popular imagination; I argue that if it is left unexplored there, then we run the risk of losing the larger meaning of our relationship to nature and animals. If we let artists uncritically use taxidermy as just another color in their palette, we inch closer to forgetting that animals are not solely specimens, and that they can communicate something beyond the fact of their objecthood, their preservation. As our understanding of nature evolves, so too should our perception of taxidermy in art.
Of the contemporary artists working with taxidermy, Damien Hirst comes to mind most readily, given his use of cloned sheep, a room full of butterflies waiting to die, and his infamous shark in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). When his original shark (hunted down and killed for the artwork) began to deteriorate due to improper preservation, Hirst hired a curator of fishes from the Natural History Museum of London to inject the perfect chemical formula into a new specimen to replace the old one. In a perhaps unintentional collaboration between the world of fine art and natural history museums, the conservation of Hirst’s work shows that no matter where it’s exhibited, the meaning of taxidermy hasn’t changed.
Others, like artist Kate Clark, rely on traditional taxidermy processes like the Akeley method to create sculptural amalgamations. Clark follows this method to the letter, and it shows in her creatures’ affecting poses—a mother bear and cub huddled close together for protection, a pack of coyotes playfully romping. But she takes it a step further and replaces the animals’ faces with human ones, erasing what Akeley would consider the animal’s crucial essence. Her Licking the Plate, for example, confronts the viewer with a diorama straight out of the American Museum of Natural History: the mountainous background is painted with moody pastels; the antelope has been expertly stuffed, mounted, and posed to show the muscles rippling beneath the hide, and its spiral antlers tower overhead. The animal appears to have paused simply to listen to the sound of an approaching predator, an illusion that is shattered when you realize that the creature staring back does so from a distinctly human face. She never puts her sculptures inside the glass box of a diorama but rather strands them awkwardly in a white-walled room, on a pedestal the viewer can easily approach or, as in the case of My Heart Beats Like Thunder, seated on a carpet made from the hides of their wild relatives. Clark’s creations live between two worlds -- the natural history museum and the art gallery-- at home in neither environment, just as humanity flounders between nature and culture, unable to reconcile the two.
But while her work might shock on first glance, it’s not exactly a subversion of the the natural history museum and traditional taxidermy. In an interview with National Geographic, Clark explains that she uses hides of animals whose faces are damaged in some way—by buckshot, flesh-hungry insects, or the rapid decay of time—thus ceding the more valuable skins to curators. Because Clark replaces the animal’s face with a human one, she has no need for pristine heads. Both Clark and Hirst’s work value the look of the animal over meaningful engagement with the colonial history of the taxidermied specimen, thus perpetuating the hierarchies that separate animal, art, and artifact. At best, the history of taxidermy is incidental to these artists’ work; at worst, it’s crucial to the production of the work in the first place.
In both Hirst and Clark’s sculptures, the animal is still raw material that leaves the infrastructure of natural history museums and their centuries of exploitation untouched. A better contender for “Fred Wilson of the natural history museum” in the 21st century (so far) may be native artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. Best known for his mirror protest in which participants held up full-length mirrors to the National Guard during 2016’s Dakota Access Pipeline, since then he’s been creating performances inside museums of all kinds that push curators and visitors to reconsider how they observe and display art, animals, and “art.i.facts,” his term for the colorful, sometimes whimsical, objects handmade by the artist to resemble highly valuable tools and indigenous artifacts held hostage by both art and natural history museums around the country. His most recent effort is a life-size buffalo skeleton made entirely by his own hand. He makes the bones of the animal himself out of ceramic, and instead of trying to perfectly sculpt the body to mimic nature’s form, mixes it with the smooth lines of Anime characters and the bright colors of pop and native art. He avoids the main conundrum of taxidermy by crafting from scratch pieces of an animal important to him and his ancestors. In an artist statement often printed on the wall accompanying his work, he writes:
"These are not ancient artifacts.
These are not culturally specific artifacts.
These will not be found in the historical record.
These do not shine light on a lost civilization.
These were not dug from pits by devoted scholars.
These were not stolen from burial grounds.
These were not gifts from a fascinated collector.
These are not donations from friends of the museum."
I’ve read this wall text in both a public university’s natural history museum and a contemporary art gallery during a performance art festival. Viewed alongside Luger’s work, they make for a powerful reframing by an indigenous artist of the context in which his work is shown and digested. More than a simple rearranging or new display of taxidermied specimens, Luger’s work inserts the human back into taxidermy, and indeed museum curation, beyond just replacing the face of the animal with a human one.
As seen in Luger’s work, a little struggle is welcome from artists whose creations rely on the use of animals as material. Should Clark hoard prized hides from curators and fellow taxidermists for her art as a political statement? Should Hirst have let his shark — hunted and killed specifically for the work — dissolve into oblivion? Maybe. As the specimen diorama dies off in natural history museums in favor of high-tech, interactive exhibits that better engage viewers, a growing number of contemporary and folk artists might assume its mantle in a new era, one in which taxidermy transcends its history rather than hides it. And especially in an era of extinctions and accelerated climate change due to human causes, that may mean reinterpreting humanity’s role in how to make an animal whole again.