By Dr. Ebony Andrews
Left: An ‘escapee’ taxidermied grey wolf on the fringe of the ‘Living Planet’ gallery, Great North Museum: Hancock (2010). © Image by the author; Right: ‘Abel’s Ark’, Hancock Museum (c.2004). © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock.
For the past four years I have been researching changes in the use, display and interpretation of taxidermy in three regional museums in the North of England. These museums are: Leeds City Museum, Museums Sheffield: Weston Park (more commonly known as ‘Weston Park Museum’), and the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle, (previously the Hancock Museum). The culmination of this research is the completion of my PhD thesis, entitled: Interpreting Nature: Shifts in the Presentation and Display of Taxidermy in Contemporary Museums in Northern England (2013).
In the study, I mapped out some of the wider trends in changes to the display and interpretation of museum taxidermy spanning roughly the last century across all three of the case study museums, but with a particular emphasis on the more recent display histories (from 1950-2013).One of the primary aims of my research was to challenge the idea that the unpopularity of museum taxidermy displays at different points in history, but particularly following the rise of the conservation movement in the UK, was exclusively related to the ‘controversial’ materials of taxidermy’s construction (ie. the use of animal derivatives). Rather, I proposed that much of the perceived ‘problem’ with taxidermy, both public and institutional in the latter part of the twentieth century, could be attributed not only to what was being presented, but also to a significant degree, to how it was being presented. In other words, how and through what mechanisms, public museums were interpreting their taxidermy collections for their public audiences.
Left: The ‘Bird Room’, Hancock Museum (c.1966) © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock; Right: ‘Bio-Wall’ display (detail) featuring ‘Sparkie’ the budgerigar (centre bottom), from ‘Living Planet’, Great North Museum: Hancock (2011). © Image by the author.
In a period where museum taxidermy is once again being afforded a considerable amount of attention, my research investigates some of questions that are now being asked about recent shifts in the use of taxidermy in museums along with some of the issues now facing museums in regard to the presentation of historical collections. My thesis is available through White Rose eTheses Online, see: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/6637/ or simply go to http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/ and search the database by author or publication title to gain access to the complete document. Access to this resource is free, and you are not required to register your details to use it. With full colour illustrations and an extensive bibliography, I hope my thesis may be of use to those interested in the history of the display and interpretation of taxidermy, the impact of shifting cultural and ethical positions on the popularity of taxidermy, and the fascinating politics of both past and present approaches to the display of taxidermy in regional museums.