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Ethics, conservation and fluffy toys: The Grant Museum tackles taxidermy

a close up a stuffed spiky porcupine fish

Porcupine fish. Copyright UCL Grant Museum and Kirsten Holst

The Grant Museum replaces its taxidermy collection with fluffy toys and holds live conservation sessions to highlight the importance of the natural world

Contrary to popular belief taxidermy does not involve merely stuffing an animal skin. It is in fact a scientific art, requiring knowledge of anatomy and morphology, craftsmanship and accuracy to arrange, preserve and restore real animal skin over pre-made forms of the animal’s shape.

Little wonder then that some of the Victorian taxidermists, who didn’t have access to David Attenborough and the web to support their efforts, made a few mistakes.

At the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, who this week have embarked on a major conservation project to restore and renew its taxidermy collection, they have got problems with an overstuffed koala, a pufferfish that’s lost its tail and an Australian echidna – a spiny relative of the platypus – that has feet which point in the wrong direction.

a photo of a taxidermied crature with spines on its back and small claw like feet

Australian echidna. Copyright UCL Grant Museum

a photo of a shrew like creature with a long snout

Elephant shrew. Copyright UCL Grant Museum of Zoology and Tony Slade.

“Echidnas were so unfamiliar to people in London that the taxidermist didn’t realise their feet should point backwards,” says the Grant’s Manager, Jack Ashby, who points to Horniman Museum’s overstuffed Walrus as another famous example of inaccurate taxidermy.

“They didn’t know that walruses were wrinkly, so they just kept stuffing until it was tight,” he says. “But even inaccurate taxidermy can tell us what people thought about what these animals once looked like. The taxidermist may have never seen the animals – they may have just got sent a skin and at best a sketch and maybe just a description.”

Where does taxidermy sit with the modern, conservation-minded museum?

The Grant’s current project, which sees a conservationist working live in the museum, will not be correcting all of the mistakes but will rather ensure the historic collection is preserved for the future.

In the meantime many of the museum’s historic specimens will be temporarily replaced with stuffed toy animals “to highlight the important role of taxidermy conservation”, which begs the question, where does taxidermy, which is essentially recreating dead and sometimes rare or extinct animals for the benefit of museum visitors, sit with the modern conservation-minded museum?

a photo of a stuffed platypus with webbed feet

Platypus. Copyright UCL Grant Museum of Zoology.

a photo of a texidermied swift mounted in flight

Copyright UCL Grant Museum of Zoology

“Taxidermy is really interesting because unlike other forms of museum display – like skeletons and things in jars – it is an attempt to convince you the animal is not dead,” says Ashby, “so you get a much more emotive response to it.

“Even today people can come to a museum and consider these animals much more closely and, if they have been done well, look into their eyes. So they still do play a role in making people interested and care about the natural world.”

The Grant collection of specimens ranges in size from a chimpanzee and pink fairy armadillo to platypuses, koalas, turtles and pangolins. Most are over a century old and were originally collected for teaching practice, but, says Ashby, the museum does still acquire and mount taxidermy specimens.

a photo of a stuffed orangutan sitting on shelf next to glass display cases

Orang utan. Copyright UCL Grant Museum of Zoology and Fred Langford Edwards

a photo of a white furred weasel arcing its back on a branch

Weasel. Copyright UCL Grant Museum of Zoology and Fred Langford Edwards

“At the Grant we only acquire things we know we can use and that have a clear, defined use in teaching and public engagement,” he explains. “We’re currently acquiring a chicken that died of natural causes, but new taxidermy tends to come from zoos. They are ethically selected or we demonstrate the provenance isn’t challenging in any way.

“As well as the ethics there is legislation protecting wildlife. We check the entire life history of the animal from when it was actually alive, how many hands it’s passed through, how it came into the country, whether it’s been traded and, depending on the species, whether it contravenes conservation laws.”

A recent acquisition was an owl from a donor which was a 1930s taxidermy mount, but most of the collection at the Grant is of rare species in the wild that are of historic value as examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century taxidermy, and that would be essentially impossible to replace.

“This project will allow us to protect our incredible specimens for the long-term future,” adds Ashby. “We hope that the opportunity for people to see conservation first hand will inspire our visitors.”

a photo of a stuffed owl on a perch

Long eared owl. Copyright UCL Grant Museum of Zoology

a photo of a toy koala bear sitting on a balcony

A koala is among the toy animals temporarily replacing the taxidermy collection at the Grant.

Fluff It Up: Make Taxidermy Great Again continues until September while the toys will replace the taxidermy in the displays. The Grant Museum of Zoology is open from 1–5pm Monday to Saturday. Visitors of the museum can see conservation expert, Lucie Mascord, carrying out treatments on the specimens from the June 12 -15. Admission is free and there is no need to book.

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Grant Museum of Zoology

London, Greater London

Dating back to 1828, the Museum houses a diverse Natural History collection covering the whole of the animal kingdom. Retaining an air of the avid Victorian collector, the Museum contains cases packed full of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in fluid.