Animal Afterlives: Photography, Dioramas, and Forgetting that Taxidermy is Dead

Written by Jack Ashby, Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

A key aspect of taxidermy is that it permits the viewer to forget the animal is dead – something that is rather hard to miss when considering skeletons, specimens preserved in fluid, or insects with a pin stuck through them. Allowing ourselves to be tricked into thinking we are looking at a living, breathing – albeit very still – creature is surely one of the reasons that museum visitors so often ask, “Is it real?” when encountering taxidermy on display.

Eventually, it is the stillness that breaks the illusion, along with the obvious realisation that, no, it simply isn’t possible for a live tiger/antelope/walrus to be sat there behind glass in an urban building.

And yet, when taxidermy is photographed, it can strip away those cues that tell our rational minds that the animal is an artefact, and no-longer living. This is one of the themes we are exploring in Animal Afterlives: a photography exhibition on taxidermy, here at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. In it, Alexandra Murphy has photographed different taxidermy specimen collections in UK and US museums, in an exploration of the photograph’s relationship with preservation, representation, life and death, past and present.

One of the images from the series Dogs: An Inert State, in which taxidermy dogs at first glance appear to be living. © Alexandra Murphy

For one of the large-scale installations, Alexandra photographed habitat dioramas in three museums famous for their taxidermic masterpieces: the Field Museum in Chicago, the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent and the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a trend emerged for displaying taxidermy specimens in three-dimensional representations of their habitats – dioramas. This was meant to heighten the impression that the animal was “real”, as well as do a better job at communicating the creature’s true wild nature. While in Britain, this mainly manifested in small “boxed taxidermy”, particularly of mounted birds, in America, from the 1880s there was a trend for dioramas on a wholly different scale. Legendary taxidermists like Carl Akeley produced astonishing creations that were the size of a small room, with numerous large animals interacting with each other amongst elaborate recreations of their habitats.

Among the Akeley dioramas at the Field Museum is a display requiring the most jaw-dropping effort I have ever seen in a museum. Four Seasons is a rotunda of four cases showing a total of 17 perfectly presented white-tailed deer as they appear at the peak of the given season – each case displaying a family group among a seasonally-appropriate habitat. The deer themselves are astonishingly life-like, but the most incredible thing about this exhibit is that it includes 17,000 artificial leaves, which were cast in wax by Delia Akeley from plaster moulds, and then hand-painted and attached to fake branches or strewn on the ground. It took the husband-and-wife team four years to create.  

Some of Akeley’s dioramas – particularly in New York’s American Museum of Natural History – were the result of massive-scale hunting trips by the Akeleys themselves during which they not only collected the animals, but also the plants they would need to recreate the scenes in which they were found. They took with them artists to paint the dioramas’ backdrops to reflect the real locations, and pioneered filming techniques that would have a huge impact on the documentary industry. These included a motion-picture camera invented by Carl Akeley which allowed him to study the animals’ movements and ensure the specimens were mounted correctly. The legacies of the Akeleys’ time in Africa are often celebrated, but there were some serious ethical problems with these fieldtrips – including the poor treatment of the people they worked with there, as Rebecca Machin discusses in our paper on the legacies of colonial violence in natural history collections.

Carl Akeley’s snow leopard diorama, part of Alexandra Murphy’s series Specere II: Tableaux Vivants. © Alexandra Murphy

Akeley’s dioramas are so lifelike that when Alexandra Murphy photographed them in such a way that the edges of the cases were not in frame, and no reflections from the glass are visible, the viewer is tricked into thinking they are looking at living animals in a living landscape. Not only does the taxidermy itself allow you to forget the animal is dead, but by setting up the shot in this way she strips away any suggestion that the photograph was taken in a museum, adding a second layer of false reality. She gives us no reason to think the animals are not alive: it proves Akeley’s work was truly at the very epitome of the artform.  

The diorama series forms just one part of our exhibition – elsewhere Alexandra explores the organic, impermanent nature of museum specimens by photographing damaged taxidermy and printing them in the style of memento mori or carte-de-visite albumen prints. Another series recreates the style of portrait paintings hung in a Victorian salon, but with photographs of taxidermy pet dogs from the Natural History Museum at Tring – again, at first glance these appear to represent the living beasts.

Animal Afterlives: a photography exhibition on taxidermy is at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, until 30th January 2022. Admission is free.

One thought on “Animal Afterlives: Photography, Dioramas, and Forgetting that Taxidermy is Dead

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