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.
In April 2019 Holly Morgenroth (Collections Officer at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum) gave me a call to say she had acquired a dead beaver that was in good condition for taxidermy. This was significant because this beaver was part of the River Otter Beaver Trial. All deceased beavers should now be sent to the Zoological Society of London for medical autopsies, which means they are usually not in good enough condition for taxidermy after the procedure. This particular beaver, originally from a population of beavers in Scotland, had been introduced to the River Otter in April 2019 to expand the gene pool of the population. Sadly she was found dead – it is possible she drowned in salt water as there were no visible injuries from conflict or a road traffic accident. Devon Wildlife Trust decided she did not need a post mortem and very kindly handed her over to Holly at the museum. Holly jumped at the opportunity and expertly packed her into a large plastic tub and placed her in the museum’s chest freezer and got to work obtaining funding to have her processed into taxidermy and a full skeleton.
This blog post tells the story of a new and very important acquisition for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter. I grew up in a small Devon village called Otterton and spent many happy hours wandering the banks of the River Otter observing the rich wildlife it had to offer. So when in 2013 news broke that a family of beavers (a species extinct in the wild in Britain for over 400 years) had made the river their home I watched with great interest.
Their arrival divided opinions. The Government planned to remove them from the river. But the beavers captured the hearts of the public and Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) saw a unique opportunity for research. The beavers became part of a five year scientific trial run by DWT to assess their impact on local geography, ecology and people. The results of the trial were overwhelmingly positive.
Written by Becky Desjardins (Senior Museum Preparator & Conservator), Georgia Kay & Kim König (MSc students Museums & Collections – Leiden University; Naturalis Interns), Naturalis Biodiversity Center.
Back in 2013, Naturalis conducted a research project about arsenic in the museums’ specimens. The goal was to determine if arsenic was spreading from the collection areas into staff and or public areas of the museum. We tested many specimens with an XRF but also tested the elevators, door handles, floors, shelves, keyboards, etc. From this testing we developed protocols about handling specimens and how we use the spaces in the collection. You can read all about that project over here.
What didn’t get tested were the large mounted vertebrates. Back in 2013 the Naturalis collections were spread over a number of warehouses around Leiden. Because these external buildings were considered depots only (meaning no offices/canteens in these spaces) there was less concern about arsenic contamination in non-collection areas. The large vertebrates were considered to be high risk specimens (so very toxic), and were handled as such, they never had their moment with the XRF.
Abel Chapman’s time in southern Africa was only the first of many visits to the continent. His next trip, in 1904, was to a very different place – British East Africa. This was a colonial protectorate roughly equivalent to today’s Republic of Kenya. It had grown out of land leased by the British East Africa Company but was now firmly under British imperial control.
The Uganda railway, a huge feat of engineering, had been completed just three years before Chapman’s visit. This now allowed trains to travel the 800km (500 miles) between Mombasa on the east coast and the African Great Lakes. The British now had the means to extend their influence right across East Africa, disrupting the slave routes and simultaneously opening up the land to the missionaries, settlers, tourists and game hunters that were now pouring in. It was in this rapidly changing environment that Chapman strove to find the longed for wilderness that had eluded him in Transvaal, and test his skills as a sportsman, before that land too vanished under the settler’s plough.