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03.11.10

Cool, Dead, and Stuffed

How did taxidermy become so hip? Melissa Milgrom on why the Victorian fascination with stuffing animals has become the hot new thing among hipsters and urbanites.

Sitting in Observatory, an art galley and events space in the newly hip Gowanus section of Brooklyn, Joanna Ebenstein clicked JPEGs of taxidermy that she has traveled the world to photograph. Her passion for the preserved is as far from country-kitsch as the toxic Gowanus is from the meandering Mississippi. “Taxidermy is more acceptable now. It’s the embarrassing thing in the basement, but now it’s cool.”

For Ebenstein and a growing number of urban enthusiasts, taxidermy is more than just a stuffed animal; it’s an experience, the tactile opposite of a world that communicates in bits and bytes. “It is a deeply intimate encounter,” explains Rachel Poliquin, curator and scholar, whose taxidermy blog Ravishing Beasts began as a post-doctoral project; now it gets around 800 hits a day. Last month, Poliquin curated a taxidermy exhibit at the Vancouver Museum; wildly popular, the exhibit aroused deep empathy for animals in a city the museum thought would balk at the show.

“If the mainstream reaction to taxidermy is to be creeped out—a reaction that produces a strong reaction on its own—the counter-culture reaction is to be fascinated and unflinching.”

Mike Zohn, co-owner of Obscura Antiques and Oddities, has sold taxidermy from his East Village shop since 1991. But lately the shrieks of horror have become squeals of delight. No matter that these folks can’t tell a deer head from a moose, or that they were raised in the suburbs and do not hunt. “I just sold a half-dozen antelope, deer, and elk heads to Juicy Couture to use to decorate their stores,” he says.

Walk around New York City and you’ll find taxidermy everywhere. It’s in hip restaurants such as Freemans and in the display windows of posh stores such as Bergdorf Goodman; even Urban Outfitters sells cardboard deer heads. Taxidermy is used as movie props, in fashion shoots, in sculpture, and in shelter magazines. What is Build-A-Bear Workshop but taxidermy for kids? As our collective experience becomes more urban (and suburban), what once was familiar—wildlife and the outdoors—is now exotic.

“Taxidermy offers a unique opportunity: to own an animal. In a big city, a stuffed pheasant is strange. In the country, it is rote,” says Scott Bibus, a taxidermist and prop maker in Florida who co-founded the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, a collective of artists who use unconventional taxidermy in their artworks.

In the Victorian era, taxidermy was a craze. As naturalists brought exotic species home from other continents, armchair enthusiasts filled their parlors and drawing rooms with domed birds, butterfly cases, even their stuffed pets. Back then, every hoof and claw was transformed into some exciting new object: everything from “zoological lamps” (kerosene lamps made out of preserved monkeys, swans, and other creatures) to “His” and “Her” elephant heads. Some hairstyles even incorporated preserved humming birds. Soon every town in England could support a part-time taxidermist. In fact, taxidermy was a prerequisite skill for any serious naturalist—including Charles Darwin, who hired a freed Guyanese slave to give him lessons; otherwise he never would have qualified for the position of naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle.

book-cover---still-life
Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy. By Melissa Milgrom. 304 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25. ()

We may need the illusion of nature more than the Victorians needed the exotica of it. As animals vanish at an alarming rate of 1,000 times faster than in the past, we crave facsimiles. No wonder taxidermy is making a comeback; nothing is a more visceral souvenir. Because taxidermy uses “derma” (skin) to create a lifelike replica, a preserved creature triggers deep emotions in us. Indeed, the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire likened the “brutal and enormous magic” of dioramas to theater: “These things because they are false are infinitely closer to the truth.”

We, like the Victorians, are ravenous collectors. Yet in addition to being a generation of “cabinetists” (people who form collections of natural history artifacts), we are increasingly willing to get our hands bloody because that’s an even more direct experience. Brooklyn-based Melissa Dixson has become the media’s poster child for urban taxidermy, even though she’s only been a taxidermist for three years. “I’m in my thirties. I’m not part of the hipster subculture. But at the same time I get emails every day from art students and they’re all women—vegetarians who want to learn taxidermy.”

Dixson recently competed in the Secret Science Club’s annual taxidermy competition. The Secret Science Club is an underground lecture series based in New York City. Only two or three actual taxidermists out of a crowd of 500 people attended the 2009 contest, but who cares? Unlike, say, the World Taxidermy Championships, where hundreds of taxidermists celebrate mechanistic perfection, here people want to be shocked and entertained by the distorted and the bizarre. “For the urbanites, it’s not just straight taxidermy—it’s more twisted—and fun. Everyone loves a jackalope postcard and this is taking that to the nth degree,” says Secret Science Club co-founder Margaret Mittelbach.

“Part of being cool is to appear fearless in the face of the intentionally ignored and frightening. So if the mainstream reaction to taxidermy is to be creeped out—a reaction that produces a strong reaction on its own—the counter-culture reaction is to be fascinated and unflinching,” says Bibus.

Unlike Victorians fascination with freaks (two-headed lambs; pickled Siamese piglets) and anthropomorphic scenes (kittens dressed as brides; athletic toads), traditional taxidermists prize the ideal specimen, the archetype. No two animals are alike, so each mount is one-of-a-kind. It is an incredibly difficult and exacting process. And when you consider that a fleshy-faced gorilla is nothing like a delicate tree sparrow or that a rhino’s thick hide is completely different from a python’s scales, you can understand how far-ranging a taxidermist’s anatomical knowledge and artistic skill must be. Some taxidermists actually remove and reinsert each whisker individually by hand to support their biological narrative. A tiger’s whiskers can purr or attack depending on how they are manipulated. This striving to duplicate what nature has already created is the taxidermist’s gift to a culture that has become estranged from nature yet desires it, and it’s fascinating to watch urban enthusiasts re-contextualize this in their own idiosyncratic ways.

In a digital culture where images are disseminated in nanoseconds, taxidermy is a tactile reminder of what it means to be human, an integral part of the natural world. “You might feel distanced from your food, then read Omnivore’s Dilemma and want to explore sustainable agriculture,” says Rogue taxidermist Robert Marbury. “This is also a means to battle disconnectedness.”

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Melissa Milgrom has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Travel & Leisure, among other publications; she has also produced segments for public radio. Milgrom lives in New York City. Please visit www.melissamilgrom.com.