Saturday, January 9, 2010

Review: Still Life - Adventures in Taxidermy

Still Life:  Adventures in Taxidermy
Title:  Still Life - Adventures in Taxidermy

Author:  Melissa Milgrom

To be published by Houghton Miller Harcourt in March 2010.

This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.

Still Life is Milgrom's journey through the history and world of taxidermy, starting at a taxidermist shop in the US, continuing through museum displays, attending world taxidermy conferences, bidding at an auction of fabulous works by Mr. Walter Potter (of Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities), meandering through modern art, and finally culminating in her stuffing and mounting a squirrel herself.  Throughout the book, Milgrom comes back to how taxidermy has evolved, how museums present information and how people react to things of wonder.  As the book is really a series of essays in which Milgrom accounts her experiences and the people she meet, I'll just spend time highlighting things that stuck out for me.

A taxidermist's job (and a dying breed of a job it is, too) is to show animals exactly as they would be in life.  Their whole work revolves around an animal dying and then working with the animal to recreate it in detail so that it looks just as it would while it was alive.  In an era where countless species go extinct before we even discover them, this profession is alternately beloved and reviled- beloved for preserving for posterity things we might never see again, and reviled for the death of those animals.  This is further complicated by the fact that most taxidermists in the past could only make a living by stuffing hunting trophies for big game hunters.  Now, though, the serious ones work for the museums, attempting to catalog lives of animals that may or may not last much longer in the wild.  It was fascinating to meet the taxidermists referenced in this book.  I didn't think they would be so conservative and religious and pro-guns and hunting, but I suppose it makes sense.  I always thought a taxidermist would love all Earth's creatures, but I never considered that they all have been somehow linked with big game and hunting at some point in their lives.

The Death and Burial of Cock Robin
My favorite chapter was the one on Mr. Walter Potter's Museum of Curiosities.  Potter was a Victorian naturalist who stuffed animals in really odd ways.  He had cats sitting to dinner, a bird funeral, and all sorts of situations in which animals would act like humans.  He also had a lot of "freaks" in his collection- two-headed dogs, Siamese piglets, five-footed dogs.  Before you start thinking that I have really disturbing taste in art, let me explain myself.

The chapter on Victorian museums of oddities and curiosities, and the Victorian predilection for the odd and wonderful, made clear to me just how much our collective imagination and sense of wonderment has decreased as technological output increases.  Yes, the Victorians liked very odd things.  But there was no shame in it.  Rather, in that exciting era in which imagination and tradition and science were all clamoring against each other for attention, there was such an interesting melding of so many schools of thought.  Walter Potter personified this.  He was a naturalist who wanted to preserve his world.  He also had a sense of humor and an artistic bent.  And he noticed the class system prevalent in the world around him.  He managed to convey all of those societal influences in his taxidermy work, using animals as stand-in humans.  And Victorians flocked to see it!  It's amazing how many small, quirky, bizarre museums existed in the Victorian era.

I particularly liked how much the book made me think about the modern learning and museum-going experience.  Gone are the dioramas of the past, with carefully created scenes of the jungle or a prairie, complete with plants and stuffed animals in their native environment.  Instead,we have cutting-edge museums with lots of glass, interactive displays, computer screens, movie theaters, 3-D everything and all sorts of technology.  This is great, but how does it compare to the completely freakish and sometimes condenscending nature of those Victorian museums?  Yes, past museums may not have been quite as politically correct, but at least they showed us actual things, not digitized versions of them.

As Milgrom asks, have museums now become "too scripted," too sterilized?  Have exactitude, perfection and meticulous attention to detail taken the fun and wonder out of our lives?  Have we gotten so sophisticated and proud of our scientific knowledge that we have lost what made us go out and find that knowledge in the first place?  It's a compelling question and it's interesting to think about it from the perspective of a dying profession that is both vital to nature and so dependent on lax rules regarding the preservation of nature.


  1. Okay that is just a too scary looking cover for me...LOL

  2. You know what, I don't even have to read the post - that cover is disturbing. And I see that Diane said it was creepy too, lol! :D

  3. This reminds me of the house I was in yesterday. It was a really nice house,but I couldn't get passed the deer head that was hanging on the wall when you walked in the door... Which is weird because growing up my father had animals hanging all over the walls.... It really bothers me! They used to be alive. I don't need anyone pretending they still are!

  4. I find taxidermified animals a little alarming in real life, but I'd like to know more about the people who do it. I read this book Gig earlier this year, and there was a section with a taxidermist talking about his job; it piqued my interest, and so does your review! I'm excited to read this when it comes out properly.

  5. how cool! ! !

    It kinda weirds me out that I am kinda digging this whole taxidermy thing.

  6. Diane & Amanda- The cover freaks me out, too! I would have preferred a duck, perhaps... or a bunny.

    Kelly- It's really strange, I agree. I don't know why I feel taxidermy for science is ok, but not for hunting trophies. Really, there shouldn't be any difference. But with so many endangered animals, maybe that's the only way to really keep any sort of record of how they really looked...

    Jenny- Ooh, I will have to look into this Gig book. I've never heard of it.

    She- It weirded me out, too, but it's really fascinating!

  7. I liked the museums of the past, they were nice :(

  8. To be honest, I prefer today's digital versions :P All those old Victorian museums give me the creeps, and I don't feel less of a sense of wonder with what we have today. Well, I wasn't alive then to compare it, but you know :P But anyway, this does sound like an interesting book, even if taxidermy creeps me out :P

  9. I think this book sounds quirkily awesome! I saw it on the early reviewers page either at Book Browse or LibraryThing, I can't remember which. I'll be keeping an eye out for this one once it's published.

  10. Blodeuedd- Yes, they seem so bizarre and interesting :-)

    Nymeth- I admit I don't know if I'd feel comfortable in Victorian musuems, but I just like the IDEA of them. That people came up with such random and bizarre ideas and then charged people admission to see them. I like today's museums, too, but sometimes it would be nice to see something less intense.

    Bookshelf Monstrosity- Yes, it's definitely quirky! Let me know if you read it.

  11. Very interesting review! I think that reading this book really gave you a lot to think about in a lot of different areas, and this is a book I would be curious to read for myself. It seems a bit odd, but it also seems very interesting and provocative in a way and I am going to see if I can lay my hands on a copy. I think a lot of the points you made in your review were extremely insightful and well considered. Another book to add to the ever growing wish list! I can always count on your reviews to do that for me!

  12. What an interesting topic for a book! Or should I say intriguing?
    I had never thought that much about this kinda stuff, I have seen the sad looking stuffed animals in peoples houses (not very often, mind you) but have never thought as to how they came to be there.
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  13. Sorry, I didnt mean to add that last bit to my comment!!! I just clicked paste to add my URL to my comment and forgot that it wasn't just my URL I had been cutting a pasting... So Sorry!

  14. Zibilee- I'd be happy to send you my copy, if you'd like. Let me know! It only has one particular section highlighted, I think, if that bothers you.

    Nicole- No worries at all- I know you're not a spammer :-)

  15. This book cover scares me!


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