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Still Life: re-creating nature at Natural History museums

28/03/2013

Recently, I have been watching a new video webseries called the Brain Scoop. It's hosted by Emily Graslie from the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at The University of Montana. The aim of the videos is to see what happens behind the scenes at a natural history museum which I find absolutely fascinating having worked with taxidermied animals during my undergraduate degree.

One of the videos mentioned several books about natural history museums and taxidermy, many of which I found in our collection.  The Authentic Animal by Dave Madden explores the world of taxidermy and follows the life of Carl Akeley, perhaps the man most responsible for how taxidermy is done in museums and beyond today. Madden is a little obsessive over the topic, but is fully aware of his strange interest in taxidermy.  I quite enjoyed this book with its grounding in history, and I learned much about the International Taxidermy Championships, held each year, as well as the current state of taxidermy in museums.

I also read Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy by Melissa Milgrom. This book takes more of a journalistic approach to the subject so it’s a different tone from the slightly obsessive awe of Madden. You do meet quite a cast of characters from Canadian taxidermy champions to the woman who works with Damien Hirst to preserve hyper-realistic animals for his art. You too can follow along as she attempts to mount a squirrel for competition at the Taxidermy Championships.
 

A more light-hearted look at museums can be found in Dry Storeroom No.1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard A. Fortey. This book is a “biography” of the Natural History Museum in London, England and it is an affectionate portrait of a building, its people and the work that is done behind the scenes to present and preserve the natural world. Fortey used to work there as one of the resident paleontologists, and he tells many stories from the museum, but also explains much of the science that goes on behind the scenes to help further our understanding of the natural world.

 

All three books are very enjoyable reads, so next time you are at a Natural History museum (like our local Museum of Nature), you'll know even more about what they do and how important they are. And don't forget to watch the Brain Scoop!