Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

As a tiny tot, I would often visit the elderly couple who lived upstairs and play with their stuffed baby alligator. This wasn’t a Beanie Baby(those hadn’t been invented yet), but an actual young alligator which had been taxidermied and sold in Florida, where the couple vacationed. That experience has undoubtedly led to my mixed feelings on taxidermy. On the one hand, here is a beautiful animal, with real fur or feathers, nearer than most live ones are. On the other hand, here is a beautiful animal–dead.
These conflicting feelings led me to pick up Milgrom’s book, subtitled Adventures in Taxidermy.And she’s certainly adventurous, not only traveling across countries, but seeking out aspects of the trade that most of us don’t even know exists.
For instance, she goes to the World Taxidermy Championship, where people from around the world compete in a judged contest offering money and prestige. She attends a Guild meeting in the U.K. with an artist who works with Damien Hirst. And tracks the progress of a man trying to recreate a stuffed Irish Elk, a prehistoric animal depicted on cave walls in France.
The author compared the difference between European taxidermists, whose roots are in the amateur scientists of centuries past and must be apprenticed and pass an exam to work in their field. Whereas in the U.S. it’s the domain of hunters and gun enthusiasts and a small fee to a government agency will get you a license to practice. She sprinkled in the history of the art throughout the book; the changing styles, the Victorian mania for specimens, the secret recipes of preservative chemicals which often died with their inventors.
One of the most interesting parts of the book was recounting how many museums got their display specimens from the wild, with people often losing their lives in the process. This subject led her to Schwendeman’s Studio in New Jersey where 3 generations have practiced taxidermy and have had a long association with the American Museum of Natural History. At the end of her research, she decides to tackle stuffing an animal herself with their guidance, just for the experience and retells it with self-depreciating humor.
Subtle humor is needed when dealing with such an unusual subject and Milgrom uses it sparingly. She never portrays the taxidermists as freaks or weirdos, yet keeps enough of her personal feelings in her writing to discuss the electronic direction some museums are going in. There’s an excellent section of her sources at the end, not only books, but also articles and websites for anyone interested in exploring this strange, but intriguing art form further.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010 285 pp. ISBN 970-0-618-40547-3

Jackie , a wildlife artist, has used taxidermied animals for reference on occasion(from nature centers), but mostly sketches from live ones. You can see her artwork here .

4 comments on “Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

  1. Anne Brooke
    June 21, 2010

    Ooh, this sounds interesting, Jackie – am certainly tempted! 🙂 Axxx

  2. rosyb
    June 21, 2010

    I’ve been in the taxidermy department in the Museum of Scotland and it really smells horrid! But quite fascinating. I – too – had a strange relationship with stuffed animals as the high point of any trip for me was visiting the stuffed animals in the museum in Edinburgh – most of which had been slaughtered in Victorian times – because i loved animals so much and I loved the displays and the fake scenes and glassy water they make and all those things. I also had – get this – a 1920s fox fur complete with head that I bought with my pocket money from a second hand shop. I loved it because I loved foxes and I don’t think I properly made the connection that the animal had been killed to make the thing in the first place. When I did get older and made that connection it horrified me somewhat! And then that connection being transposed to all my beloved stuffed animals at the museum was a bit heart-breaking. But they are things of their time I suppose. 😦

  3. Moira
    June 22, 2010

    Stuffed anumals have always creeped me out – even as a child. I think it’s those glassy, staring eyes as much as anything else. I can spend hours in medical museums looking at bits and bobs of pickled human anatomy in glass jars without batting an eyelid … (I can thorougly recommend the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons) but show me a stuffed bunny and I get all come-over.

    It’s a fascinating subject though.

  4. lisa
    June 23, 2010

    Great review. I echo moira’s sentiments entirely though. Those creepy glass eyes haunt my dreams…

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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