Still Life The KMA Taxidermy Collection

SandHill Crane (detail). Credit: KMA, Kelly Funk.

Still Life presents the KMA’s considerable collection of taxidermy to explore ideas and values that inform the practice of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals. Viewing taxidermy as a quintessential feature in the traditional Museum, the show also explores the "taxonomic" activity of collecting, numbering, describing and photographing animals as artifacts within a museum catalogue.

Through artifacts, photographs, text and participatory features, the exhibition touches on the historical role of taxidermy in museum and scientific collections, highlights the effects of time on the condition and interpretation of collection artifacts, and showcases an evolution in the practice.

Still life has been re-constructed as a feature in the KMA’s permanent gallery, riverpeoplenationstatepeople

At 2200 BC, Egyptians were preserving animals and burying them in pharaoh’s tombs by injecting them with oils, spices, and other materials. Indigenous peoples in North America, early Greeks, Romans and other groups tanned skins for clothing and decoration. The oldest known mount—a crocodile in Ponte Nesso Italy—is reportedly 500 years old.

But the modern tradition that unfolds in tandem with the research of naturalists is primarily rooted in 18th century Europe and coincides with the development of taxonomy—a discipline for collecting naming and organizing—and foundational to the development of the modern museum.

Taxonomy

From the Greek words, taxis (meaning arrangement), and, nomia, (meaning, law or custom), taxonomy is the set of signs, symbols and practices concerned with creating classifications and identifying relationships.

Taxonomy as a Way of Knowing

An attempt to formally and finally classify and organize living things corresponds to a way of coming to know the world that uses rationality, measurement and objectivity to understand but also assert control over the natural environment. This way of knowing tends to see things as “objects of knowledge,” implies a separation of between a “knower” and a “known,” and casts the knower in a position of power relative to the object of knowledge.

It is a product of the elaboration and formalization of the sciences during the European Enlightenment (late 17th C. early 18th C.) and, earlier, European exploration of distant lands during the “Age of Discovery” in the 16th and 17th centuries. Explorers (and, later “naturalists” such as Charles Darwin) would return home with examples of plants and animals, which were then described in Latin—the language shared by scholars—for the purposes of study.

Types

Two broad types of taxonomy distinguish the cultural practice of naming and recognizing important properties of living things from the deliberate application of formal linguistic and practical activities for purposes of classification, organization and documentation.

Folk Taxonomy makes reference to the common—vernacular—set of names emerging from a particular cultural community used to describe classes of objects that applies to virtually all areas of human activity. Its terminologies derive from traditions and common, everyday languages; eg. "cherry tree," "fly," "dog," etc.

Scientific Taxonomy, which is what is commonly meant by the use of the word “taxonomy,” refers to the structured classification and organization of things and concepts as well as the ideas that support those structures. Often, but not always, Scientific Taxonomy creates and makes use of hierarchies to facilitate the organization of things into groups or taxa. Critical to the modern Western study of organisms or systematic biology, taxonomists have, historically, viewed their work as existing apart from social relations and therefore capable of bringing objectivity to the project of cataloguing the natural world. Manifold critics have since pointed out that (the always elusive goal of) scientific objectivity and the process of cataloguing are both value-laden ways of understanding nature.

Origins

Taxonomy is tied to the origin of language and the necessity to differentiate and share information about the natural word; for example, which local plants could be eaten and which were poisonous. It emerged as a vital, collaborative mechanism for survival.

While taxonomy is conventionally understood as a product of the Western world, the earliest evidence of the practice of naming, recording and classifying natural phenomena is from China. It is a pharmacopoeia—or list of medicinal properties in plants, minerals and animals—written by Shen Nung, Chinese Emperor in about 3000 BC. In about 1500 BC, medicinal plants were illustrated in wall paintings and papyrus scrolls in Egypt.

Scientific Taxonomy is typically generally traced back to Aristotle. Some of the philosopher’s broad categorizations, such as the division of living things into Plants and Animals and (roughly) Vertebrates and Invertebrates, are still used today. His student, Theophrastus, under Alexander the Great, continued Aristotle’s work during military conquests across Europe, where he went on to classify the properties and uses of 500 plants in his Historia Platarum.

During the Middle Ages, scholastic thinkers would take up Aristotle’s approach to classification and introduce a hierarchical order among animals of the world. Later, during the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, the project of categorizing life was propelled by optical technologies that revealed new detail, paired with burgeoning scientific disciplines that categorized creatures in new ways. One of the first to take advantage of these advancements was Italian physician, Andrea Cesalpino, often referred to as, “the first taxonomist,” who, in 1583 published De Plantis, describing 1500 species of plants.

It is Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), however, who is credited as having ushered in the modern era of taxonomy. In two major works, Species Planetarum and his tenth edition of Systema Naturae he standardized and simplified the nomenclature used to identify botanical and zoological specimens. Distilling complex names to only a genus and a second term, Linnaus revolutionized the identification process to such a degree that any name published before his two works is called, pre–Linnaean.

In the period since Linnaeus’s establishment of taxonomic naming conventions, there has and continues to be a range of attempts to establish and refine an organization of taxa within taxonomic ranks. Combining historic (perhaps most famously, Darwin’s Origin of Species) and recent work, taxonomy now positions living creatures within evolving and often disputed or fragmented organizing structures that seek to account for evolutionary relationships and common ancestry.

Collections Management in Museums

In accordance with a particular institution’s stated objectives or mandate, Collections Management is the strategy and activity that oversees the development, documentation and care of cultural heritage collections.

Collections management requires the coordination of activity intended to preserve and protect physical and digital objects and records; track the life of and produce clear and accurate information about objects; and develop policy and practices intended to secure and advance procedures in support of the collecting objectives, including the acquisition of new objects, collections care and emergency response protocols.

The management of institutional records, including accession registers, catalogues, databases, etc. is crucial to the security of museum collections, and the data they provide is constituent to the role museums play as purveyors of cultural information.

Catalogue

A catalogue is a formal, structured document or database consisting of individual records of each artifact in a collection which, at minimum, contains information that allows for the identification and retrieval of collection objects.

Mounts

A mount is a general term describing a finished taxidermied object. There are two broad types:

1) Specimen/ or full mount: full replica of animal as it appeared in life

2) Trophy or (sometimes) shoulder mount: head, neck and sometimes shoulders, often mounted on a wall or plaque

Methods

Skin Mount

A common or "traditional" approach, where the animal's skin is removed carefully, in many cases leaving the carcass relatively untouched and intact. The skin is preserved using chemical agents or by tanning, then stretched over an armature, typically a mannequin or form.

Mannequins are commonly made of wood, wire and wool. A customized mannequin is the product of multiple measurements taken of the original animal and may incorporate the animal's skull and leg bones for lifelike effect.

Forms are typically created by making a plaster mould of the animal carcass, then casting it, typically in polyurethane. Forms can also be bought through taxidermy suppliers in a variety of sizes.

Freeze Dried Mount

In this approach, only the animal's organs are removed prior to a process in which the animal is configured into a desired pose, then subjected to a low temperature dehydration process. The body is placed into a sealed machine that first freezes it, then reduces air pressure to turn moisture in the body into vapour (sublimation). The rapid freezing of the corpse makes it resilient to tissue distortion caused by the dehydration process. This application is often used by pet owners who wish to preserve a dead pet since the process can capture distinct facial and bodily features.

Tanning

Tanning is the process by which skin or hide is processed into leather. It has been practiced for millennia. The word "tanning" links to the longstanding use of tannins in the leather–making process. Tannin is an acidic, brown or yellow coloured organic substance derived from plant tissue, notably, oak bark. Tannin and similar materials have the effect on hides of removing moisture between protein fibres to allow them to form stronger bonds resistant to agents of decomposition.

Early Western techniques for tanning subjected the tanner to a host of unpleasant smells ranging from rotting flesh to solutions of urine and feces. Modern tanning procedures remain essentially unchanged in that animal skins are placed in increasingly potent liquid extracts (tannin among them), but chemical solutions have now, by and large, replaced the use of slower more expensive natural materials.

Decay and Degradation

All taxidermy is susceptible to damage by insects. While little to no tissue is left in skin mount applications, insects such as moths and beetles of the sort that can infest clothing, can also derive nourishment from natural fibres found in the treated skins. Freeze–dried mounts, which contain large amounts of dried meat and fat, are much more vulnerable to damage from insects and, as a consequence, require much more maintenance and upkeep.

There are no freeze–dried specimens in the KMA Collection.