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Summary Article: Taxidermy from Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience

Taxidermy is the art of preparing and preserving the skins or parts of the bodies of animals, birds, reptiles, fish, or other creatures, and then mounting them in such a fashion so as to appear in a lifelike state. The craft of stuffing animals is centuries old, but the process was accomplished in a crude fashion until the late 18th century, when somewhat more sophisticated procedures were employed. By the early 20th century, modern taxidermy had evolved and was capable of producing extraordinarily lifelike specimens. Taxidermy has long been popular in the United States because Americans perceive a certain organic beauty in animals and birds, even if dead. Taxidermy converts the corpses of deceased creatures into seemingly live statuary, but frozen in time and place. Taxidermy products are quite diverse and can be categorically divided into eight different varieties.

Taxidermy is both a zoological art form and a thanatological art form. It is a zoological art form in that it produces mounted specimens of animals, birds, and fish in their natural state for the edification and pleasure of those who view them. The mounted creatures may serve a number of manifest functions, including education, enlightenment, entertainment, amusement, utility, attracting interest, and impression, mood, atmosphere, and emotion management. From the thanatological perspective, the practice of taxidermy has latent functions that seek the refutation of death. One latent function of taxidermy is that it serves to acquaint the viewer with the reality of death. Even though the animal is dead, the skilled taxidermist can restore symbolic life to the creature by giving it the impression of both viability and reanimation. Taxidermy can be seen as transcending death by projecting the image of life.

In the past, taxidermy was categorized as a socially marginal art, but today there is a strong emphasis on aesthetics in mounting animals. Taxidermy involves a number of technical protocols, such as tanning the skin, inserting and properly positioning glass eyes into the eye sockets of the form, fitting the hide to the form, and sewing the skin to tighten the hides on the form. Taxidermy is a unique enterprise in that it seeks to create nature in the form of dead animals, imitate art in the shape of organic statuary, rather than art imitating nature.

Taxidermy in American Life

Taxidermy has a strong and visible presence in American culture, as it appears in television, movies, commercial establishments, household items, clothing, and even in humor. Taxidermy has been institutionalized as an American folk craft. At one time, taxidermy skills were so desirable that the Boy Scouts of America awarded a merit badge to scouts who mastered these skills.

Taxidermy can be an avocation, occupation, or both. Many individuals originally take it up as a hobby, but often after acquiring and perfecting their skills and developing a sense of aesthetics and artistic creativity, they pursue the skill commercially. The most remarkable aspect of taxidermy is the fact that the great majority of taxidermists acquire their expertise via mail order correspondence courses.

Taxidermy and Cultural Utility

Taxidermy specimens are employed in various configurations for different social purposes and serve several functions in American culture. An examination of the various categories of taxidermy demonstrates the diversity of forms and functions that taxidermy manifests. Taxidermy can be divided into two distinctive levels of cultural goals:

  1. Specific. The specific goal is to seemingly restore life to dead creatures so that they can be viewed, scrutinized, and admired in their natural appearance at close hand. The mounted specimens provide that opportunity.

  2. Diffuse. The goal is to achieve a more subjective result. The intent is to alter the cognitive attention or emotional state or mood of the viewer upon viewing the specimen.

Patterns of Social Purpose

Both of the previously mentioned goals can be further divided into four patterns of social purpose, namely (1) interest/attention management, (2) impression/image (persona) management, (3) impression/atmosphere (ambience) management, and (4) emotional/mood management. Each of these patterns involves the management of variant types of perception. The resulting typology consists of eight subvarieties of taxiderminological enterprise with widely varying motivations and products. These include:

  1. Scientific or display taxidermy

  2. Trophy taxidermy

  3. Craft (utility) taxidermy 4. Novelty taxidermy

  4. Advertising taxidermy

  5. Fashion taxidermy

  6. Decor or decorating taxidermy

  7. Nostalgia taxidermy

Instrumental Cultural Goals

Instrumental taxidermy involves mounting dead creatures for four special purposes, namely to inform, to impress, to perform tasks, or to amuse. To achieve these goals, the creatures must be preserved in a naturalistic and lifelike fashion to accomplish the first two purposes, but in a convoluted or bizarre fashion to accomplish the last two.

Scientific or Display Taxidermy

Scientific or display taxidermy could be called museum taxidermy. From this perspective, taxidermy is a scientific or naturalist craft and art. The mounted specimens are interesting, enlightening, and educational. This type of taxidermy is used to create, manage, or manipulate interest in zoological topics. It was through such educational interest that taxidermy first entered the American home. A recent variation of the traditional wildlife museum is having mounted animals placed where blind persons, especially blind children, can feel them. Visitation that involves feeling the animals is called sensory safaris.

Trophy Taxidermy

One of the more commonly encountered forms of taxidermy in the United States is that of trophy taxidermy. In some parts of the United States, such as in the South or the West, a great many homes, especially in rural areas and small towns, will have a mounted deer head or a large mounted fish on the wall. These mounted trophies offer tangible, visible evidence of the individual's hunting or fishing success. Such trophies may also be found in restaurants or other places of business. Mounted exotic animals from Africa or Asia may be displayed as status symbols of affluence, foreign travel, adventure, or danger.

Craft or Utility Taxidermy

Early in the evolution of taxidermy, practitioners perceived that there was a utilitarian dimension to the art, and they designed and produced a wide array of useful articles using the remains of dead beasts to shape and form a variety of items for household purposes.

Utility taxidermy might include such useful artifacts as elephant feet waste baskets, lamp bases made of bird and animal parts, or knife handles made of deer feet. The American national character has a penchant for the unusual, such as dead animals being converted into artifacts.

Novelty Taxidermy

Just as some paintings and sculpture may be compelling as an object of attention, taxidermists are capable of producing artistic creations with similar characteristics—novelty taxidermy. By reassembling mismatched portions of dead animals, new and bizarre species are created that have no real live counterparts. Such taxidermy specimens may assume various modal configurations. The production of such chimeras is sometimes referred to as rogue taxidermy.

Another form of novelty taxidermy is tableauxmorts or anthropomorphic taxidermy. In this mode, a group of small common animals, often kittens, puppies, or rabbits, are mounted in human group situations depicting events such as weddings, poker games, or a uniformed band marching down the street with tiny musical instruments.

Diffused Cultural Goals

Taxidermy is used to achieve generalized goals, such as creating a mood or state of mind, or to influence the perception and judgment of the observer. The intent is to enrich the visual inventory of an image and thus influence the viewer's interpretation.

Advertising Taxidermy

Mounted animals, birds, fish, and especially exotic creatures, are eye catching. Accordingly, they are often used as displays and for advertising purposes to attract the attention of prospective customers. Many popular magazines feature ads for products in which animals are included. These are frequently lifelike mounted animals, which are sometimes trademarks.

Fashion Taxidermy

The use of animal parts can also be used in costume, and the animals preserved by taxidermy may significantly add to the construction. Clothing is a costume, and costumes augmented by taxidermy produce a special kind of costume. By wearing a particular costume, the individual can create and project a desired persona. Accordingly, Americans and members of many other societies like to wear costumes that utilize various zoological elements, such as fur, feathers, hides, or even portions of the creature itself. Animal, bird, reptile, or fish skins and parts have always been used as status symbols to create a persona or convey a social message.

Décor Taxidermy

In the early development of taxidermy, mounted specimens of animals, birds, fish, or reptiles appeared in museums and business establishments. They quickly moved to the home, the presence of which was initially rationalized as educational and scientific. Hunting trophies in the form of animal skins, hides, and horns followed. Whether it is in home or commercial establishments, taxidermy products aid in creating an ambience and, thus, a way of managing the impression of others.

Nostalgia Taxidermy

The death of a pet can be emotionally traumatic for many individuals. For such individuals it is difficult to let go, and they seek to retain something of their beloved companion, if even nothing more than a dead body. Nostalgia taxidermy is a way of managing grief and dealing with the emotional loss of the pet. The dead dog, cat, or horse can be mounted and retained. The bonds will not be totally broken as long as the taxidermy effigy of the animal can be seen, touched, and stroked. In recent years, some taxidermists have offered the service of freeze-drying dead pets. By preserving the pet, memories of the past are preserved.

This entry is an abridged and revised version of an article authored by Clifton D. Bryant and Donald J. Shoemaker that originally appeared in Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 16(2), 195-201, November 1988. Adapted with permission.

See also

Depictions of Death in Art Form, Depictions of Death in Sculpture and Architecture, Popular Culture and Images of Death

Further Readings
  • Becker, H. S. Arts and crafts. American Journal of Sociology 83 ((4)) : 862-889., 1978.
  • Bond, S. (1981). 101 uses for a dead cat. New York: Clarkson N. Potter.
  • Bryant, C. D., & Shoemaker, D. J. (2003). Dead zoo chic: Some conceptual notes on taxidermy in American social life. In Bryant, C. D. (Ed.), Handbook of death and dying (pp. 1019-1026). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Christopherson, R. W. From folk art to fine art. Urban Life and Culture 3 : 123-157., 1974.
  • Jones, B. (1951). The unsophisticated arts. Rochester (Kent), UK: Architectural Press.
  • Jones, B. (1967). Design for death. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • Small, L. (2002, October 18). Bats will scatter. Smithsonian Magazine. .
  • Bryant, Clifton D.
    and
    Shoemaker, Donald J.
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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