Museum Specimens across Time

Today’s blog introduces Alice Would’s new article in Environment and History (Fast-track December 2020), ‘Tactile Taxidermy: The Revival of Animal Skins in the Early Twentieth Century Museum’

In 2019, Bristol Museum veiled the endangered and vulnerable taxidermy animals in its World Wildlife Gallery for the Extinction Voices exhibition. Black fabric was draped either across display cabinets, or the specimens themselves, partially obscuring the visitor’s view of the creatures within. Human eye could no longer take in the rich detail of an animal’s scales, feathers, or furred coat, nor meet a specimen’s glass-eyed gaze. The animal body became hazy, exhibited yet not fully on display. This curatorial decision was fronted by the curator of natural sciences, Isla Gladstone, to draw attention to species loss in our current age, this pressing time of mass extinction.

A veiled Reeves’s Pheasant in the Extinction Voices exhibition at Bristol Museum. Photograph taken by the author.

My article in Environment and History is not about current curatorial practices, and neither is it specifically about extinction. It is, however, an exploration of the tactile relationship between the taxidermy animal, the natural history curator, and the taxidermist – the dead animal skin and the human body – in Bristol Museum. Many of the veiled animal specimens were originally placed on display in my period of study, the turn of the twentieth century. These (now aged) specimens inhabit the same wider museum space, the same bricks and mortar. Time both contracts and extends in relation to taxidermy creatures. Whilst they are now inscribed with very different meaning and intention, most recently with loss, mourning and grief, with warning and urgings for environmental action and change, they have always been displayed to reflect a human interpretation of the world beyond the museum. Creatures that were once positioned to demonstrate what could be found, now encapsulate what may already have been lost. In Extinction Voices, it was the material deadness of the animal rather than its replication of liveliness – the latter being the obsession of Victorian taxidermists and natural history curators – that mattered. 

I am drawn to the physicality of the act of veiling. People like to touch animals, we are comforted by stroking and there is something about the reassuring warmth of the underlying animal body, the human hand sheltered in dense fur. Touching extends to the fondling of dead animals, to eating, flaying, and making things with body parts. Such contact is always an epidermic meeting, the dead animal skin both touches and is touched by our own skin, a coming together of fur or flesh and hands or lips. The Victorian and early twentieth century animal trade, the mass movement of living and dead animals that fed museum collections, depended on cutaneous contact between species. My article focuses on these interactions within the museum, as curators and taxidermists continuously worked on and with skins; skins that could sometimes be consumed by rot, by insects, by age. 

Architectural plan from the turn of the twentieth century. Bristol Museum’s Archives. ©Bristol Culture.

Veiling the animal, as in Extinction Voices, seems at first to have little to do with touch. As Dominic O’Key suggests in a recent article on extinction and curatorship, veiling is a visual act.[1] The visitor cannot see the specimen clearly, the animal is nearly lost to us, and it is vocality, or finding the animal’s voice, that is encapsulated in the exhibition’s title. Yet I was struck by the tactility of the process of veiling, of lifting material and allowing it drop and cover. The Victorians popularised the glass display case to protect specimens from exploratory hands, as museums were made public and visitor numbers rapidly increased at the end of the nineteenth century. Many twenty-first century museums are now uncasing their animal objects, bringing touch and interactivity to museum spaces. However, in ExtinctionVoices, Bristol Museum did the opposite. They added an extra layer, an extra skin, if you will. Specimens were shrouded in skins of fabric, in addition to the barrier of glass. The cultural historian Constance Classen argues that ‘most tactile sensations reach us indirectly, through the eyes. Our physical environment feels ineluctably tactile even though we touch only a small part of it. Reddish fluffy surfaces are warm, light-blue glittering ones cool.’[2] What we see in skin is texture as well as colour, and texture is always tactile. In Extinction Voices, with the veiling, our ability to both see and feel the animal was reduced. A colleague of mine commented on their frustration at visiting the museum for the first time whilst the exhibition was on. They wanted to see the creatures, and they could not draw on past visits and sightings to recreate what lay beneath – to fill in the gaps. Nevertheless, they chose to make their visit during this time, even though the museum, and its animals, had always been just down the road from our office. The concealment and the absence of contact spoke to visitors.

In the early twentieth century, Bristol Museum’s natural history curators saw the accessibility of animal bodies as being key to the museum’s development. Architectural plans for an extension to house natural history specimens depict human bodies encircling glass cases and peering at specimens. I wrote the article for Environment and History, about Bristol Museum’s turn of the twentieth century taxidermy, in 2020, in the first British lockdown, as COVID-19 spread across the globe. I write this blog post in the second, and British museums are once again closed. A year on from Extinction Voices, the taxidermy animals are no longer veiled within Bristol Museum, but there is now another obstacle shielding them from view. Pandemic closures, unlike veilings, do not prompt us to reflect on species loss. Even as many pandemic narratives centre on physical animal-human interactions – on bats, fish, pangolin, mink, and chimpanzee cold viruses – we risk the erasure of the physical spaces to encounter and think about such relationships. I was struck by the parallels and the striking contrasts in sight, touch, and access to animal bodies between these three different times, in the museum. 

[1] D. O’Key, ‘Why look at taxidermy animals? Exhibiting, curating and mourning the Sixth Mass Extinction Event’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, (Published online: November 2020).

[2] C. Classen, The Book of Touch (Oxford: Berg, 2005), p. 76.

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