How Real is Real?


In a previous entry, David made a very interesting and thorough discussion of Rossendale’s Tiger and Boa. He explained how the boa of the display was actually made from composite materials and more than one reptile. It is also observable at Rossendale, Blackburn and other museums that older examples of taxidermy display the animals in unrealistic postures. This is an image of Ken Walker’s Thing Thing, Best of Show Recreations from the World Taxidermy Championships, 2003.

We see a panda happily and meditatively munching at a bamboo leaf, blissful and at peace with its world. It, like Balasana is a remarkable work of illusion, made from bear skins into the likeness of a panda. There is no part of this work that came from an actual panda. Yet it has the feel of authenticity; or does it?

What is it that the viewer is seeing? Is this any more ‘real’ than Rossendale’s Tiger and Boa? The above uses fur from an animal, but not the animal it represents. The Rossendale boa used reptile parts but not all from the same reptile. What if I make an exceptionally realistic interpretation of an animal but use nothing but synthetic materials to create it; is it still taxidermy?

A display that has nothing of the bone and skin of the animal it is supposedly representing isn’t as useful from a zoological research standpoint, as is a display that is formed of the skin and bone of the animal represented. If ‘pure’ research is the priority then a fabricated panda or boa won’t do.

 

Research is not the only purpose for displays however and hopefully one would be hard-pressed to find a naturalist that would support killing an endangered species for the purpose of conserving it!

Ideally, displays which are meant for didactic use, to raise social awareness of environmental concerns, or support a mental shift away from anthropocentrism toward ecocentrism, should accurately convey the habits of the animal represented. If for example, a child walks away from a display thinking that the standard posture of a wolf (for example) is to be aggressive and bare its teeth, then the museum becomes accomplice to misinterpretation of wolves, no matter how much of the bone and skin of the wolf is ‘real’.

Authorial proviso: if this sounds/reads a little non sequitur to recent discussions, it’s because this was meant to be posted about three weeks ago as  followup to ‘Balasana’ and as such, doesn’t reflect the extremely engaging contributions currently being made to weblog discussion under other entries.  Please accept my apologies for the delay, and thank you.


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7 Comments

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7 responses to “How Real is Real?

  1. David Craven

    Well, etymologically “taxidermy” comes from the Greek ‘taxis’ and ‘derma’, so means ‘an arrangement of skin’. On that basis, if there’s nothing of the real animal, it’s not taxidermy. The python does incorporate real python skins, but is arranged to create a false impression, something more dramatic than the real animal. So it’s taxidermy, but perhaps not honest taxidermy?

    But, as you say, if our purpose is to educate, then does it need to be ‘real’ in the truest taxidermy sense? Perhaps not.

    However, the ever-popualr “Is it real?” implies people do want some sense of honesty in this. If it’s a model, a fabrication, then do you lose some level of emotional resonance?

  2. David Craven

    “Ideally, displays which are meant for didactic use, to raise social awareness of environmental concerns, or support a mental shift away from anthropocentrism toward ecocentrism, should accurately convey the habits of the animal represented.”

    I fully agree. The violent shock and awe displays rarely convey a realistic picture of animal life. “Nature red in tooth and claw” represents a fraction of an animals life on Earth. I think it’s interesting museums in modern displays are moving away from that, to a more naturalistic mount.

    But, the Victorian style has a place, not least because it allows us to talk about changing attitudes to the natural world.

    • Though hunters catching the big 5 today still want their lions looking fierce, or at least majestic. And so on. How much have our attitudes towards the natural world changed? Obviously they have, but many so called Victorian traits/attitudes still seem to be ingrained in contemporary culture and/or human nature. Maybe more marked is the change in attitude towards taxidermy itself (or perhaps towards death). From the relatively recent days of popular DIY taxidermy guides for young enthusiasts, to a time when people recoil at the mention of stuffing animals. We certainly haven’t come across many museums in the UK that actively present, or even mention, the process of creating taxidermy as part of their natural history collections.

  3. Don Stenhouse

    I am a liittle confused by this:-
    A display that has nothing of the bone and skin of the animal it is supposedly representing isn’t as useful from a zoological research standpoint, as is a display that is formed of the skin and bone of the animal represented. If ‘pure’ research is the priority then a fabricated panda or boa won’t do.

    Research is not the only purpose for displays however and hopefully one would be hard-pressed to find a naturalist that would support killing an endangered species for the purpose of conserving it!’

    Would someone put something on display for research purposes?

    Don

    • David Craven

      I think that’s Stena’s point. That a ‘fake’ item wouldn’t do for research purposes, but may be fine for display. By “display” in the first line you’ve quoted she’s meaning “object”. It does make it a little confusing.

    • From a zoological point of view. But from a social or cultural history point of view it’s just as interesting and valuable for both research and presentation, if not more. Just depends on how you frame the object.
      PS. How do you define ‘pure’ research?

  4. Hi Stena and thanks for the post. A very interesting example of exchanging animal skins to create taxidermy was done by a German artist called Tim Ulrich. The piece is called ‘Wolf in Sheep’s clothing and sheep in wolf’s clothing’ (http://www.dewezet.de/portal/kultur/lokale-kultur_Der-Wolf-im-Kuenstlerpelz-So-vielschichtig-ist-Timm-Ulrichs-_arid,296056.html). I’m also getting interested in stuffed wolves due to an upcoming project about fairy tales!

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