Sensing Victorian Taxidermy in the Present

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This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars in environmental history who identify as women, trans and non binary people.

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I signed up for a taxidermy class. I am researching nineteenth-century British taxidermy production and wanted some hands-on experience. I had become desensitised to Victorian descriptions of skinning, “defleshing,” and the general manipulation of animal bodies. It is sometimes difficult, as a historian, to understand the material animal from descriptions on the page. Handling, skinning, and stuffing a dead rat was another thing all together.

The animals, in a state between frozen and thawed, were brought out and placed in front of us. Scalpels were distributed. The creatures were cold to the touch, but still soft and uncomfortably pet-like. My rat was very obviously male and looked like he was sleeping. The first incision was the most difficult: it felt peculiar to open up his white fur. It is difficult to know how much pressure to apply to get beneath the skin, but no deeper, and one of our group went a bit too far. The smell doesn’t hit immediately—it creeps up on you, and then lingers. It is sickly sweet, and smells like death.

Historians are largely reliant on visual and textual sources, so accessing the historical smellscape can be a challenge. However, by engaging with material crafts in the present, some olfactory insights can be gleaned. In tropical climates, animal bodies could start to decay well before nightfall, and the British hunter Charles Peel described the pervasiveness of hungry insects. In the 1890s, whilst hunting in Somaliland, “part of the head” of one of his rhinoceros skins had “going rotten, and was full of maggots.”[1] I can now appreciate what an overwhelming sensory experience skinning a carcass in the field must have been. I also have some sense of the time pressure for getting an animal skinned and preserved. I have a greater understanding of environmental factors, and of the body as an ecosystem. If my semi-frozen rat smelled a bit, then a body left out under the blazing sun must have reeked.

I had been slightly seduced by descriptions of the beauty and artistry of taxidermy. Eminent Victorian taxidermist Rowland Ward explained that his “ambition was to make taxidermy a new art […] My method might be likened to that of the painter who first paints his figure in the nude and then clothes it.”[2] Whilst the end result can indeed be beautiful, the process is anything but. It is more visceral and tactile than Victorian taxidermy handbooks let on and involves breaking bones and scraping at flesh. It produces an array of noises. The taxidermist advised us not to wear gloves so that we could have a better hold on the body. I wasn’t expecting this and wished there was some sort of barrier between me and the creature; between my skin and the rat’s skin.

Victorian taxidermists don’t mention the brute force required. What these handbooks don’t say—what they leave out—became strikingly obvious when I attempted taxidermy. These absences and omissions may stem from the nineteenth-century familiarity with skinning and meat preparation, and with death more generally. We are now a lot more distanced from both non-human and human bodies. It may also be linked to expectations of masculinity; of physical strength and strong stomachs. Most Victorian taxidermists were male, and taxidermy and hunting have long been associated in academic scholarship with promoting patriarchal, colonial, and racial hierarchies.[3] I was surprised at how disgusted I felt doing taxidermy. Whilst I am a vegetarian, I am not very squeamish. Yet it felt strange to have such prolonged contact with a dead being. I felt a little disappointed in myself for feeling so repulsed. I also had to contend with a constant internal debate regarding taxidermy ethics. If I wouldn’t eat animals, then why would I stuff them? These animals were supposedly ethically sourced, but the details of their deaths and procurement were left a bit vague. My rat’s deadness made me think of the thousands of dead animal bodies that fed the Victorian obsession with natural history. Those creatures certainly weren’t ethically sourced. The desire for taxidermy led to mass slaughter, endangerment, and extinction.

Almost complete taxidermized mouse.
Almost finished, moulting hair. Photo by author.

We washed the skins in soapy water to remove any stains. Surreally, we then blow-dried the furry side with hairdryers, ruffling the fur with toothbrushes to create a sense of movement in the hair—a very twenty first-century technique. To prevent insects from feeding on the mounts, and therefore making the taxidermy appear less alive, we painted a tanning solution across the inside of the skin. We then sprinkled Borax salt across any fleshy areas. This helps to dry out any remaining “meat.” Putting the animal back together is where the real artistry of taxidermy begins. As we were using small animals, we stuffed their bodies with wood-wool. Larger animals, both in the nineteenth century and today, require a more elaborate framework. We then wired the legs so that they could be positioned either in a natural crouch, or in bizarre anthropomorphic arrangements. Feeding the wire along the skin of each leg, out through the paw, and then hooking it onto the stuffing ball in the main cavity, was as fiddly and frustrating as it sounds.

However, things did get better. We stitched along the belly and made our animals whole again. As our taxidermy teacher reminded us, once the glass eyes are in, a semblance of liveliness returns. I was surprised at how life- like my finished rat looked. And yet he was simultaneously very dead. His back is a little lumpy, reflecting my inexperience in stuffing. A blob of glue rests under one eye. Stitches run up his stomach, causing the fur to part, and strands of wood-wool poke through. He also leaves traces of his deadness upon his surroundings. His fur moults, and he smells. We were given instructions to massage our mounts every day for the few weeks after the course, to mould them into the desired shape. However, my disgust won out, and I was reluctant to handle the creature. Over time, he has become stiff and brittle.

The course really helped me to engage with taxidermy beyond the abstract realm of the Victorian handbook. I have a new understanding of the sensory nature of the craft, and its entangled materialities. Taxidermy has been de-sanitised, and enhanced by smell, touch and sound. I just don’t think I’ll rush to do it again.

[1] C. Peel, Somaliland (London: Bloomsbury, 1900), 118.
[2] R. Ward, A Naturalist’s Life Study in the Art of Taxidermy (London: Rowland Ward, 1913), 42.
[3] D. Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936,” Social Text 11 (1984): 20-64.

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