“Skin arrangement.” That’s the genuine working definition of “taxidermy.” It comes from the Greek words taxis, or “arrangement,” and derma, or “skin.” You should, if you can, try to imagine it being spoken in a cool French accent. Then you will have an idea how it sounded coming from the guy who first coined the word, Frenchman and naturalist Louis Dufresne in the 18th century.
It really was just “skin arrangement” before Dufresne’s time. Up till the late 1700s, animal pelts were crudely stitched together into a rough shape (like this poor lion) and then stuffed with whatever piles of sawdust, feathers, and rags were lying around the workshop at the moment. Sometimes the animal’s own loose bones made it into the mix.
Gradually techniques improved and subjects began to take on the characteristics of life. Some call the Victorian era (1837-1901) the Golden Age of Taxidermy, since no self-respecting middle-class drawing room decor was considered complete without a full contingent of antler racks, pinned insects and mounted birds under glass. Many of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop’s specimens hark back to that era.
But others think the works of Carl Akeley, the King of the Museum Diorama till his death in 1926, better define the acme of the art. His luscious African vistas at the American Museum of Natural History, populated with animal mounts made from creatures he himself took during safari, are breathtakingly beautiful, never to be duplicated. Akeley’s exploits make Papa Hemingway’s pale in comparison. He once killed a leopard with his bare hands (see above photo).
Taxidermy has endured many ups and downs in popularity over the years. Judging from the number of recent books on the subject (and how-to classes increasingly available to the curious uninitiated), it is experiencing a mini-renaissance.
• Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy by Dr. Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein
• Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy by Melissa Milgrom
• Crap Taxidermy by Kat Su
• Taxidermy Art by Robert Marbury
Learn Taxidermy Yourself!
• Taxidermy Classes at The Belfry in Seattle
Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.
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