Tag Archives: Museum

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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Ongoing Restoration Projects – It Never Ends!

Painter Dave creates a wood grain design on the primed outer front doors. The magical mixture he uses for this is made from stale beer and Karo Syrup. The sugar content of both ingredients means the design is easy to manipulate and takes a long time to dry.

Painter Dave creates a wood grain design on the primed outer front doors. The magical mixture he uses for this is made from stale beer and Karo Syrup. The sugar content of both ingredients means the design is easy to manipulate and takes a long time to dry.

If you’ve been to the Campbell House more than once, you know that something is different on every visit. Some new bit of history has been discovered or a new artifact is on display or maybe new window dressings have been put up. Last week, painters completed the finishing touches on two very special projects here at the Museum, both involving doors. Giant. Doors. The first project was our outer front doors. The substantial, 9 foot outer front doors provided the Campbells and their ornate smaller inner front doors a barrier between the house and the city street. They’ve been hanging on their hinges for 164 years and counting and have experienced a wide array of temperatures, precipitation, soot, smog and pretty much anything else you can imagine in their lifetimes. Ten years ago, as the Museum’s restoration came to a close, these doors were restored with a faux-grained wood finish. A decade later, they were beginning to show their age and the time had come to restore the restoration (anyone who has lived in an old house for any length of time will understand this).

Carefully... carefully... those doors were heavy.

Carefully… carefully… those doors were heavy.

The other project was even more exciting. A generous grant allowed us to tackle a restoration project that’s been on the back burner for years, decades really. The Campbells’ elegant double parlor has a set of pocket doors leading into it, designed to smoothly slide open and closed for a “grand reveal” of the gilded room and its contents. The thing is, they haven’t opened and closed very smoothly for about 70 years. In fact, they were jammed solidly open. The grant allowed us to hire some woodworking professionals to come in, remove a portion of the door frame and pull the doors off of their tracks. What they found was unexpected, but not surprising. The wheel mechanism in the bottom of the door still worked perfectly – the problem was that a century and half of dust and coal soot had built up inside the wall and piled at the bottom of the door’s enclosure, creating a solid heap which the door was riding up and jamming itself on. After removing the clog, oiling up the mechanics and replacing the doors on their tracks, they’re back to working as well as they did when Robert and Virginia bought the house back in 1854. The painters that worked on restoring our outer front doors then restored the pocket doors’ faux wood grain finish – and they look GREAT! Click below to see the “GRAND REVEAL” through the Parlor pocket doors and click through the gallery below to see the two projects happen from start to finish.

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The View from Hazlett’s Room

The balcony as it appears today, sans enclosure.

Master bedroom balcony at the Campbell House Museum

April showers bring May flowers and May flowers bring a beautiful garden along with… a lot of gunk on our roof and in our gutters. Once or twice a year we get up on top of the roofs of the Campbell House’s various built-out bays to clear out debris and do some spring cleaning. This was much easier when the Campbells were living here because their servants could have opened the windows and climbed right out onto the roof. However, as part of the Museum’s restoration in the early 2000s, all of the windows in the house were sealed tightly shut – making a relatively straightforward job a little more interesting (think really tall ladders, lots of climbing and steep roof slopes).

HAZLET~1

Hazlett Kyle Campbell lived in his family’s downtown St. Louis home for his entire life, from 1858 to 1938.

Today we climbed up to the balcony off of the master bedroom used by Robert and Virginia Campbell and, later, their son Hazlett. During Robert and Virginia’s lifetimes, full length windows opened directly onto the copper surface of the open air balcony, which was surrounded by a detailed wrought iron railing. Some time after the deaths of Robert and Virginia, their sons  enclosed the balcony with an elaborate copper roof and trellised wooden walls. While we can’t be entirely sure of why or even when (our guess is circa 1910) this was put onto the house, our best guess was that it was to provide some privacy to Hazlett Campbell, who became increasingly reclusive and mentally unstable as he grew older. Accounts from servants working at the house recall that Hazlett spent much of his time in the master bedroom, rarely venturing outdoors. By enclosing the balcony, Hazlett would have been afforded some privacy in an era when the houses of the neighborhood were being torn down and replaced by large hotels and commercial buildings. As part of Campbell House Museum’s extensive restoration in the early 2000s, this enclosure was removed to return the east side of the house to its 1880s appearance. Check out the gallery below to see how the use of the balcony has evolved over the past 160+ years.

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