REVIEW

Modern Taxidermy

Taxidermy is a skill and art form that many think is plenty weird all on its own, even though it was practiced by luminaries like Charles Darwin and Theodore Roosevelt. It stretches from the lows of PT Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid to the highs of the myriad museums of natural history to the macabre artistry of rogue taxidermists who transform animal furs with gems and mechanical parts and phenomenal works of chemistry.

Modern taxidermy is serious business, with careful attention paid to making the dead animal look much like it did in life. Especially skilled taxidermists will examining living animals in the field, studying the craning of a neck, the extension of a wing, the movement of muscles between fur and skin. But in the 18th century, a taxidermist might be confronted with the challenge of mounting the pelt of an animal he had never seen before.

Not all taxidermy has been performed on non - human animals; every now and then a human body would join in on the post - mortem fun. Long before the plastinated anatomical wonders of Body World and its many imitators, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham sought to see his own body preserved beyond his demise. Bentham’s head was mummified, which is probably why it qualifies to be taxidermy since the rest of the body is just hay covered in clothes.

In the early 20th century, natural history museums frequently sent naturalists and taxidermists to far - flung corners of the world to “collect” specimens—which was a polite way to say killing them. As some of these naturalists learned, however, sometimes you’re the collector and sometimes you’re the specimen. Carl von Hagen was one such naturalist; he went to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies and vanished while on the hunt. According to history, von Hagen was captured and eaten by cannibals.

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