It's easy to dismiss taxidermy as a kitschy or morbid sideline, the realm of trophy fish and jackalopes or an anachronistic throwback to the dusty diorama. Yet theirs is a world of intrepid hunter-explorers, eccentric naturalists, and gifted museum artisans, all devoted to the paradoxical pursuit of creating the illusion of life.
Into this subculture of insanely passionate animal lovers ventures journalist Melissa Milgrom, whose journey stretches from the anachronistic family workshop of the last chief taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History to the studio where an English sculptor, granddaughter of a surrealist artist, preserves the animals for Damien Hirst's most disturbing artworks. She wanders through Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities in the final days of its existence to watch dealers vie for preserved Victorian oddities, and visits the Smithsonian's offsite lab, where taxidermists transform zoo skins into vivacious beasts. She tags along with a Canadian bear trapper and former Roy Orbison impersonator--the three-time World Taxidermy Champion--as he resurrects an extinct Irish elk using DNA studies and Paleolithic cave art for reference; she even ultimately picks up a scalpel and stuffs her own squirrel. Transformed from a curious onlooker to an empathetic participant, Milgrom takes us deep into the world of taxidermy and reveals its uncanny appeal.
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2010: For many, taxidermy summons images of wildlife frozen in menacing poses, teeth bared in an eternal rictus; or maybe it's the lamented family cat, forever curled in purr-less slumber. With Still Life, Melissa Milgrom peels the skin back on Norman Bates's favorite pastime, dutifully tracking taxidermy from its 19th-century heyday (the beneficiary of a natural history boom), to its nadir as a reviled predilection in the age of PETA and conservation. It will tell most readers as much as they need to know about erosion-molded rats and replacement lips, ears, and eyelids, but it's the culture of iron-stomached men (and occasionally, women) that practice the art of skinned carcasses and stretched hides--those who wield "the calipers and the brain spoons"--that Milgrom's after. Beginning as a wide-eyed visitor to a third-generation stuff shop, she moves through an underworld of auctions, artisans, scientists, and the ultra competitive (albeit insular) World Taxidermy Championships, ultimately trying a queasy hand at squirrel-stuffing herself. Still Life an entertaining and illuminating adventure. --Jon Foro
Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Melissa Milgrom, Author of Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy
Dear Amazon Reader,
People--even my own parents!--ask what sparked my interest in taxidermy. I tell them that in 1994 I went on a safari gone awry, which led me to the family workshop of the last chief taxidermist of the American Museum of Natural History. I was expecting him to be creepy like Norman Bates in Psycho, but he was a gentle naturalist, and his studio with its skeletons and birds, the beauty and the strange tools, evoked Darwin's study. The contradiction pulled me in, and still does.
Still Life took more than six years to write and that's because I had to shift my perception from one of skepticism to one of empathy and respect. I just saw Fantastic Mr. Fox and thought if Wes Anderson had been alive in the 1850s he'd have been a Victorian taxidermist, making little scenes of kittens dressed as brides. It's ironic--Victorians needed taxidermy to see exotic species from other continents, and we need taxidermists for the same reason--we long for animals as they disappear. Taxidermy evokes grandeur, which may help us comprehend the present mass extinction.
Another reason I find taxidermy engrossing is because it combines art, science, and hunting. In Still Life I shadowed the most gifted taxidermist I could find in each area: an artist, a field naturalist, and a hunter, each of whom is on a quest to understand nature on its own terms. English sculptor Emily Mayer preserves animals for Damien Hirst's most provocative artworks; her dogs are so boggling you have to poke them to see if they will move. Ken Walker, the hunter from Alberta who recreates extinct species, is self-taught. He won the World Taxidermy Championships three times and was a Roy Orbison impersonator, which actually makes perfect sense. Taxidermy is like karaoke. The person who loves the singer the most gets the voice right.
I hope you will enjoy the people you meet in Still Life whose obsessions and uncannily lifelike replicas create an art form that once was sublime and may be again.Melissa Milgrom
(Photo © Ulalume Zavala)
A Look Inside the World Taxidermy Championships with Author Melissa Milgrom
(Click to Enlarge)
|Ken Walker's Panda "Thing Thing"--recreated from bear skins-- Best of Show Recreations 2003|
"Who knew a book about dead animals could be so lively? This is a wonderful look at a quirky, passionate, sometimes fanatical subculture." —A.J. Jacobs, Author of The Know-It-AllTaxidermy is everywhere these days—from hip restaurants to posh clothing stores. Yet few realize that behind these "stuffed" animals is a world of intrepid hunter-explorers, eccentric naturalists, and gifted museum artisans, all devoted to the paradoxical pursuit of creating the illusion of life.
Melissa Milgrom has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, the Daily Beast and Salon, among other publications; she has also produced radio segments for public radio. Visit www.melissamilgrom.com.
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