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.

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Extinct – A New Exhibition At The Manx Museum

Written by Laura McCoy, Curator of Natural History for Manx National Heritage.

Wednesday the 8th September saw the opening of the new temporary exhibition ‘Extinct’ at the Manx Museum on the Isle of Man, in partnership with Manx Wildlife Trust, which also coincided with the launch of the Red Data bird list published by Manx BirdLife. There are many species that have become locally extinct on the Isle of Man, particularly birds and plants, and this trend is not slowing down, with the Yellowhammer, once one of our most ubiquitous farmland birds, disappearing from our Island only in 2019. Some may ask how these absences impact our day-to-day lives, why this matters, but as we are becoming increasingly aware, the complexity and variety of our environment is what sustains us; if you knock out enough of the bricks the wall will come tumbling down. These disappearances are symptomatic of a grave state of affairs and islands are particularly sensitive to changes in management and climate. The more protected and supported our environment is, the better it is able to withstand and buffer us from the global shifts that are to come.

When Manx Wildlife Trust came to Manx National Heritage with the idea of this exhibition we were fully on board; learning about these stories of the Isle of Man’s countryside has been a journey, sometimes an upsetting one, but it has also been a call to arms. I had no idea that currently 29% of our current resident bird species, never mind the ones that are already gone, are red listed, and 41% are amber. An estimated forty five species of plant are extinct, seventy seven are red listed. We are still trying to compile what invertebrates and fungi we have, never mind assess what has been lost. 

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Recreating the Past: In LEGO®

By Christine Taylor, Keeper of Natural Sciences, Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service (HCCAMS)

An Ice Age animal, a sabre-toothed cat, made from LEGO bricks. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

An Ice Age animal, a sabre-toothed cat, made from LEGO bricks. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Reaching new audiences for natural science collections is always a challenge, especially if the museum concerned is a network of recreated Victorian and 1930s streets.

However, the opportunity of working with artists from British company ‘Bright Bricks’ has enabled the creation of extinct animals made from LEGO, based on the Natural Science collections of the Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service (HCCAMS).

Leg bones, gizzard stones and a replica egg of a giant moa. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Leg bones, gizzard stones and a replica egg of a giant moa. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

The Natural Science collections provided the inspiration for many of the specially commissioned builds for ‘Lost World Zoo’, a menagerie of animals built using LEGO bricks from different periods in time. Original specimens from the collections have been displayed alongside these model animals. The Victorian street settings at Milestones Museum, Basingstoke, enabled a ‘back story’ of a Victorian explorer discovering an uncharted island where the animals still lived.

The railway station at Milestones has been transformed into an aquarium filled with aquatic animals, which provided the opportunity to display Cretaceous marine fossils in bubbles (perspex domes) in the ‘ticket office’. Lamp posts decorated with Meganeura, the giant dragonflies of the Carboniferous and large butterflies and other insects provide an introduction to the origins of insects and an opportunity to display some of the large foreign insect material from the collections.

Bones and teeth of Ice Age animals. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Bones and teeth of Ice Age animals. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Dodo bones, collected by George Clarke in the mid 19th century, inspired a flock of dodos and the advance marketing campaign featured a dodo made from LEGO, visiting various places around Hampshire and beyond. Other visits included a trip to see the Oxford dodo and a hot air balloon factory in Bristol to investigate flying!

Other models included a sabre-toothed cat, a giant moa bird (full height!), a huge turtle called Archelon made from DUPLO®, a neanderthal, a Megalosaurus head and a woolly mammoth built during the exhibition, as well as displays of smaller models and a spotter trail.

Giant moa made from LEGO. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Each of the models have habitat, locality, size and extinction details on banners, with many of the banners displaying a QR code to video podcasts about the Natural Science collections. Throughout the exhibition, which runs until 27th April, and then splits to tour some of the smaller HCCAMS museums, sessions based on fossils, mammoths, giant dragonflies and neanderthals provide visitors with the opportunities to handle collections and to discover more about the collections.

The exhibition has provided a wonderful opportunity for the Keeper of Natural Sciences to exhibit areas of the collections which have rarely been seen on display, to devote time to researching the specimens, enable conservation work to take place and the great excitement of un-wrapping the models made from LEGO!!