Megatherium and me

8. Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy – Melissa Milgrom

This book is glorious. I learned so much from it and took away so much more appreciation for sculpture and silicone and Damien Hirst than I would have expected.

Taxidermy and I have a complicated relationship. I’ve been going to the Museum of Natural History at the University of Iowa since I was a small child.  Mammal Hall, and Bird Hall, and Rusty the giant sloth, have tortured/inspired me. The wombat in Mammal Hall may have been a part of jump-starting my love of small, guinea pig shaped mammals (there is no guinea pig in Mammal Hall, there are a lot of terrifying mice though) and since I have yet to see a wombat in person, I’m happy I got the opportunity to see that one. My other favorite piece in there is the skunk that’s posed to spray with its back feet up in the air – nice one to whoever decided on that pose. Mammal Hall also includes a giant room full of skeletons, including an Atlantic right whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling, that I have always loved. Bones are my favorite thing to draw, and they’re just so damn important to understanding why vertebrates look the way they do and how they fit together. The main level of the museum also includes the terrors of my childhood – Rusty the giant sloth and that Devonian Coral Reef beast creature springing out of the wall. I thought Rusty was real for a very, very long time. I also thought that bones were inside the stuffed animals, even though there’s a very clear display on the ground floor of the museum that should have clued me in about that but it didn’t sink in until I read this book.

Rusty is a recreation of a Giant Ground Sloth. A terrifying, costumed for holidays, recreation that many people enjoy. He’s a pretty awesome achievement. In Still Life, I learned that taxidermists and naturalists recreate animals from other kinds of animals in competition and I did wonder what was used to make Rusty happen (and the Gigantopithecus in the basement). The competition discussed in the book takes place at a hotel that I drive by on my way to and from Mississippi, so that struck a chord too. Now I just need to visit the Dead Zoo (not mentioned, but it’s not like I can just go hang out with Damien Hirst’s official taxidermist in her clearly awesome set up) and the Museum of Natural History in New York to finish my appreciation tour. And I’d like to see one of Walter Potter’s works in person. Preferably one with guinea pigs, it’s unfortunate that the collection couldn’t stay together, almost as unfortunate as guinea pig taxidermy usually looks.

I still feel sorry for the Victorian-diorama stuffed guinea pig at After Life.

It is next to impossible to produce an effective guinea pig via taxidermy. That nose is not meant to be preserved, apparently, and it is one of their cutest features – just look at Peregrine’s beauteous nose for proof.


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