Frequently Asked Questions in Taxidermy

Written by Ella Berry (also available here), amateur taxidermist & MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University. An extended version of this blog was published here on 12 March 2020.

In March of this year I helped out on the Conservation stand at an evening event as part of my role as Volunteer Intern at National Museum Cardiff. It was a fun event, with a turnout of 852 curious visitors. Art conservators and natural history conservators collaborated to show how natural history specimens could inform and create imagery and art.

Photo of me (left) talking to guests at the National Museum Cardiff ‘After Dark’ event alongside Vertebrate Curator Jennifer Gallichan (centre) and local artist Nichola Hope (right) drawing. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Jenkins.

Throughout the event both children and adults came up and asked a lot of questions about the objects, and I noticed some reoccurring queries, especially around the ethics of taxidermy. I have attempted to answer some of these here, so that if anyone else reading this faces the same conundrums, this article will set their mind at ease, or enable them to answer the questions confidently.

Is it ‘ethical’?

‘Ethical’ is a subjective term, therefore what is considered ethical varies between taxidermists. Whether the preservation of animal remains, without the inherently unobtainable consent of the animal, is in itself ethical is up to each individual to decide. ‘Ethical-taxidermy’ has become a more frequently used term generally referring to the animal not being killed specifically for the purpose of becoming a mount. However, this refers to a wide range of sources and can range from accidental deaths such as finding an animal dead or road kill, right through to by-products of culling, pet food supply animals and pest control salvages.

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Museums Beyond Covid

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth.

The sun was hot on my neck as I walked up the stone steps of the largest museum in America. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is on every natural curators museums to visit list, and I was full of youthful excitement!

Inside was cool, and I was met with a grand hall, with a beautiful taxidermy elephant in the centre. The space buzzes with the echoing chatter and the scuttling of excited little feet. I walk on to the stairs, past the large mass of people queuing for the lift, and head up the stairs, patiently waiting for people to pass, so I can meet my ancestors. Here in the Human Origins gallery, there are wonderful displays and interactives all about the evolution of our species. Children run from case to case. Prams block display panels. Interactives are bashed.

I move along to the mammal gallery, where it seems like twenty different schools have chosen to visit at the same time. The cases are two deep with visitors peering at mammals from continents away: children squashed at the front, adults squeezing and pushing to get a glimpse. Reminiscent of a Friday night at our student bar. The air is stale and dry. The noise of a thousand different conversations ring loud in my head. There’s a feeling of being moved along by an invisible force of hunger: not for food, but to ‘see’ the next thing.

Beautiful taxidermy work of lions attacking a buffalo. I patiently waited 15 minutes until the case was clear of visitors for this photo. Photo by Jan Freedman.

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The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and author of Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects.

A good title goes a long way, and based on that alone I was excited to receive a review copy of Ross Barnett’s new book through the post. I knew of Ross from Twitter – and I can heartily recommend following him for a whole host of natural history-related wonders, particularly around climate change, ancient mammal DNA and palaeontology. As a result, I was slightly surprised that he had written a book that I assumed – from the clever title – was about reintroducing the lynx to Britain.

That is, in fact, not what the book is about. Instead, it takes us species-by-species, chapter-by-chapter, through the incredible range of beasts that have disappeared from the British Isles in recent millennia (I should have paid more attention to the subtitle). We learn about the woolly mammoths and rhinos, the huge cave bears and their slightly smaller relatives, cave lions and cave hyenas, sabretooth cats, massive species of cattle and deer, as well as wolves, beavers and, yes, lynx. All of these stories are told in the voice of a person clearly fascinated and excited by the things he has been studying all his life, and with a dry sense of humour.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – March

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

It’s that time again when we look at some great events and conferences, writing, and jobs, chosen just for you!

What Should I Read?

Dodo’s in Leeds. Not alive, obviously, but still extremely fascinating. A lovely post by Clare Brown at Leeds Museums and Galleries. Harry Higginson: Distributing dodos in the 1860s.

Plants. Pressed. Old. Difficult to look after. Here’s a nice post by Imogen Crarey: Five lessons for life from working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium.

How do you print a dinosaur to make it look lifelike and realistic? Let Alex Peaker tell you: Printing a dinosaur.

Want to discover some incredible women in science? Of course you do! Scroll through excellent, engaging and accessible blog posts all about female archaeologists and palaeontologists on the TrowelBlazers website.

What Should I Do?

Perhaps the biggest event of the year, the annual NatSCA conference, is now taking bookings!

Dead Interesting: Secrets of Collections Success
Wednesday 1st – Friday 3rd May 2019
National Museum of Ireland, Dublin – Collins Barracks site
The #NatSCA2019 conference aims to unlock the secrets of collections success by sharing how our members and colleagues in the wider sector have used collections to benefit their organisations, communities and the wider world.
We will host three themed sessions, with a focus on:
Collections: Reveal your collections care, research and access secrets.
Engagement: What are your engagement success stories and how did you make them happen?
Museums and Tech: How has technology helped you unlock, understand and unleash your collections?

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Collectors, Collections and the Geology of SW Britain – A View from the Audience

Written by Nadine Gabriel, a recent UCL geology graduate and an emerging museum professional.

This article is a joint paper for the Geological Curators’ Group and the Natural Sciences Collections Association, and has subsequently been published on both blogs.

On the 18th September 2018, I attended the Collectors, Collections and the Geology of Southwest Britain meeting. This joint meeting between the Geological Curators’ Group (GCG) and the History of Geology Group (HoGG) was held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI), and it was also my first ever GCG event! If you have an interest in British geology, you probably know that the southwest of Britain has amazing geology, but this meeting – with around 80 attendees – also looked at the people who have dedicated their lives to exploring this geologically diverse region.

The day started off with a keynote speech from Steve Etches who spent over 35 years collecting fossils from the Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay deposits of southwest England. His collection of over 2,300 fossils found an exciting new home in 2016; the Etches Collection museum in Kimmeridge, Dorset. It was interesting to find out about the difficulties associated with starting a museum from scratch, but despite the initial challenges, the museum looks incredible and is filled with a diverse array of scientifically important specimens.

Many of the talks focused on the enthusiastic collectors of the southwest. My favourite story was about Charles Moore (1815-1881), a palaeontologist from Ilminster, Somerset. In 1858, he purchased three tonnes of gravel from Holwell, Somerset for 55 shillings. This massive purchase turned out to be filled with Rhaetian (208.5 to 201.3 million years old) fish, mammal and reptile fossils. Moore also collected fossils from the Lower Jurassic limestone of Strawberry Bank in Ilminster, and these fossils are now cared for by our hosts, the BRLSI. During the coffee break, Matt Williams (the BRLSI collections manger) showed us a selection of Moore’s stunning fossils.

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