Tag Archives: interns are awesome

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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MEET THE INTERNS>>ALEX

Click on Alex's picture to learn more about becoming the next Campbell House intern!

Click on Alex’s picture to learn more about becoming the next Campbell House intern!

Not all the work to be done by our volunteers and interns happens here at the Campbell House. Our next intern introduction, Alex, is hard at work parsing through archives as part of our ongoing search for Campbell-related legal documents. Here is Alex…

What are you studying and where? A BA in History at UMSL.

Why Campbell House? Because it is where I was assigned [Ed. note: Well, yes, we do like to keep on UMSL’s radar, so they’ll direct interns in our direction who have never heard or thought about us before. You don’t have to know anything about Campbell House to do valuable work here!].

What are you working on at CHM? I am working on the Campbell Family Legal Legacy Project [Ed. note: We’ve noted before this involves trips to the St. Louis Circuit Court and Missouri State Archives office to dig up old files].

When you aren’t having a blast at Campbell House, what are you doing? Hanging out with friends and family. I enjoy movies, traveling, theater, and hiking!

What is your favorite thing about CHM so far? I have loved looking through all the old documents at the Missouri State archives.

iPhone or Android? Actually, I have a Windows phone [Take that, Apple and Google!].

Favorite color? Blue&Green

Favorite band/singer? Frank Turner

Andy Warhol said that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. What happened in your 15 minutes? I was in the newspaper as a child visiting the Magic House.

If you could be teleported anywhere in the world right now, where would you go? I would love to see Machu Pichu in Peru.

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MEET THE INTERNS>>JAMES

Click James' picture to learn more about becoming a Campbell House intern, and exploring St. Louis history!

Click James’ picture to learn more about becoming a Campbell House intern, and exploring St. Louis history!

Last time you met Caitie; now its time to meet James! James is diving deep into the history of the house, and also prepping to carry on our application for National Historic Landmark status. We’ll let James take it from here…

What are you studying and where? I am studying History and French at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Why Campbell House? I definitely wanted to do a history internship before graduating in December 2016, and the History Department placed me at this great museum and historical residence. I was unfamiliar with the Campbell House before my internship but I am eager to delve into its past.

What are you working on at CHM? Currently, I am studying the history of the house and the Campbells in order to give tours, while my internship project will be researching and amending documents toward the Campbell House Museum’s application to become a National Historic Landmark (carrying on an internship project that will continue for several more years).

When you aren’t having a blast at Campbell House, what are you doing? Usually, I am too busy with homework to do much else! However, in my free time I enjoy biking around our great city, vegetable gardening, singing karaoke, cooking, and partaking in the great microbrewery culture of St. Louis.

What is your favorite thing about CHM so far? So far, my favorite part about the Campbell House Museum is the decor. One of my favorite periods in history is the Victorian Era and to be immersed in a room like the Campbell’s parlor transports me back to that time.

iPhone or Android? Haha, currently neither. I have an old cell phone and have yet to upgrade to a smart phone. I will soon though, probably [One of our staff members recently “bit the bullet”, so to say, and made that transition recently too. The ranks of the “dumb phones” dwindle…].

Favorite color? My favorite color is green because it is the color of plants.

Favorite band/singer? David Bowie was and is my favorite musician. I was shocked like everyone else when he recently passed away, though the public outpouring of sympathy and respect for him and his music was impressive and comforting [The Groniger Museum in the Netherlands is representing museums well by extending hours to an exhibit they have about Bowie].

Andy Warhol said that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. What happened in your 15 minutes? I would hope it involves a sci-fi book that I am writing, and hopefully I’d be famous for how good it is rather than its wonderful abilities as a paperweight.

If you could live in a book, which one and why? I would live in a world of The Phantom Tollbooth. I first read it in grade school over 20 years ago, and still I wish I could eat words, mine for numbers, keep sounds in boxes, and listen to a symphony play music that paints the skies.

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