Taxidermy

In looking at an empty exhibit room, one of the biggest challenges is deciding which story to tell and how to tell it. Most of the Campbell story has been shared countless times since the Campbell House opened as a museum in 1943. Being the brand new graduate assistant at the start of this process, the majority of the Campbell story was new to me. What facet of the Campbell story could I possibly help tell?

Taxidermy.

Now I know what you’re thinking-taxidermy is creepy. I would be lying if I said I never made that comment before. However, after spending months doing researching for Curated Curiosities: Taxidermy and Other Objects Under Glass, I gained a new appreciation for the craft.

The Campbell’s bird “Beauty”, preserved as a taxidermy specimen since 1902.

You might also be asking yourself, “did Robert really hunt?” Did Virginia create objects under glass? The answer is no, not that we know of. Robert might have hunted for food during his fur trading days in the Rockies, but never mounted anything as a trophy. And while we do not have evidence that Virginia herself made some objects under glass, the variety of examples in the house suggest she purchased some to decorate her home. However, the Campbells did stuff their pet bird, Beauty, who can be seen on the mantel of the morning room, alongside other birds that served as parlor decorations. Additionally, they have a variety of exotic birds under glass domes, perhaps purchased as souvenirs from their travels. These specimens give us a glimpse into the Victorian taxidermy fad not often told outside of hunting trophies.

Detail of a flower arrangement made from shells. Courtesy of the St. Louis Science Center.

Originally, taxidermy served as a way to preserve the pets of the aristocracy, but also grew with the interest in the natural world and cabinets of curiosities trend. Many aristocrats during the 17th and 18th centuries collected fossils, gems, bird skulls, feathers, and other items in their cabinet of curiosities. Some of these cabinets were purely for the entertainment and gratification of the owner, having no rhyme or reason for the collection. Others sought to make their collections as scientifically accurate as possible, utilizing scientists, academics, and explorers to collect new and rare specimens from “exotic” lands. A byproduct of this was the formation of museums, which used the collection of these specimens to further study in the field of natural history.

One problem that both collectors, scientists, and museums faced was the preservation of specimens. Often, “stuffed” animals would be destroyed by pests or deteriorate naturally. Artificial eyes and noses were not yet on the market, so many early Victorian taxidermy pieces had preserved bodies with deteriorating “soft” body parts. A variety of preservation methods were introduced, but nothing served as both an insecticide and preservative as well as Bécoeur’s arsenical soap, which served as   go-to preservative for taxidermists from the end of the 18th century until the 1970s.

Becoeur’s recipe for arsenical soap, a revolution in preparing taxidermy.

Taxidermy also served as a learning tool. Today, people might view taxidermy displays or dioramas in natural history museums as “dead zoos,” but before the Central Park Zoo and the Philadelphia Zoo, the first zoos in America, were established in 1850 and 1874, or the St. Louis Zoo which opened its doors in 1910, the average person did not have the opportunity to learn or see many different animals. Perhaps they were just familiar with those on the farm or the birds at the park. Even then, zoological parks did not spring up overnight across the country. Before this, how did one learn about animals? In the early 19th century, books or documents depicting animals included sketches based off of someone’s description of the beast. How does one describe a lion or elephant to someone who has never seen one before? Naturally, these were not accurate sources. Due to a growing fascination and curiosity with the natural world, explorers, collectors, and scientists sought to preserve specimens and display them in a museum, or showcase them at a zoo.

Much like people today, Victorians might have taken an interest in nature due to environmental issues. The Victorian Era in America saw an exponential growth of cities and the birth of the Industrial Revolution, both of which favored progress over preserving the natural world.This led to the growth of displaying nature in the home. Not only did this mean small animals under glass domes such as those in the morning room of the Campbell House, but other examples or recreations of nature as well. These included flowers, plants, fruit, or figurines made from materials such as wax, seashells, hair, wool, or glass.  Additionally, these “crafts” showcased the maker’s wealth. Similar to visiting Hobby Lobby to purchase project materials today,  the person making these crafts needed time and money to create these pieces-a luxury not afforded to the lower class.

The Taxidermy exhibit, on display through January 2018.

Once seen as curious, cute, or ferocious, taxidermy is now deemed outdated, creepy, and unsettling by most audiences. While this craft and other nature-inspired objects under glass, such as shell art or hair art, are no longer in fashion, they gives us a glimpse into the material culture of the Victorian Era and perspectives on the natural world.

Taxidermy and other nature-inspired crafts were used as a way to preserve nature for scientific study, to display hunting trophies, to preserve pets, as souvenirs from travels, and as decorations. Through January 2018 , you can see all different examples in our exhibit, Curated Curiosities: Taxidermy and Other Objects Under Glass.

-Jenna, Graduate Assistant

 

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