Virginia's Reviews > Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom
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's review
May 22, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2012books, nonfiction, faves
Read from May 22 to June 02, 2012 — I own a copy

I bought this book in a gift shop at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, which I did not think was that far a stretch at the time, but looking back, this was an interesting decision on the part of the Smithsonian. Chapter 4 of this book covers in detail the ways in which the Smithsonian, in revamping their displays in the early 2000’s, systematically and needlessly destroyed irreplaceable artifacts of great historical, artistic, and biological value in the name of “cost efficiency,” even though there were other options available. For instance: one of three blue whale mounts in the world – hacked apart and stuffed into a dumpster to save money. Now there are only two - in New York and Tokyo. Dioramas that painstakingly recreated environmental biomes which are now no longer found in the wild were dismantled, hacked apart, and burned. Offers from other museums that would preserve and maintain historical displays were rejected. Ugh. This chapter made me almost literally sick, and simultaneously furious. And I can’t believe the Smithsonian decided to sell this book. In hindsight, this may have been a small act of rebellion on the part of some individuals, and the big bosses in charge of buying stuff to sell in gift shops obviously have never read it.

I am now very curious to go back to the museum and look at some of the displays described in this book in detail. So there’s that.

It helped to have previously read Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews & the Central Asiatic Expeditions by Charles Gallenkamp, about Roy Chapman Andrews (Yvette Borup Andrews, his first wife, was amazing), and to be passingly familiar with Carl Akeley. This book mainly concentrated on museum taxidermists, artists, etc instead of the people who mount hunting trophies, commercial taxidermists.

Emily Mayer sounds AWESOME. I love her art, and her attitude, and her personality. If the goal of taxidermy is to cross the uncanny valley and create animals that are as close to life as possible, she is the person included in this book who I feel is closest to that goal. I mean, I have had rodents as pets for years and years and years, and I am very familiar with what they look like - and even after looking at this mouse for a long time, knowing it is a mount, I cannot really pinpoint whether it is alive or not. And this dog? I wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell with a deer or a lion or a bird, but to succeed in the challenge of taking on an animal like a mouse or a dog, where people live with them and are intimately familiar with every detail of how they look - that’s amazing.

I think one of my favorite things about this book is the way the author immerses herself in the subject matter - she doesn’t just interview these guys by phone, she went and stayed in their houses (Ken Walker, Emily Mayer) and really got an in depth picture of who these people are personally, and the reality of the taxidermy field today. Her personal journey as detached sort of scientific observer to someone who then stuffs her own squirrel was almost as interesting as the people she interviews.

I really feel, as someone who knew practically nothing about taxidermy prior to reading this, that the author captured the spirit and essence of the field, the history and artistry of taxidermy as well as the occasional kitschyness of it all. There is a section towards the end of the book where she is describing the critique she is receiving from Jack Fishwick at the World Taxidermy Championship for her squirrel (Gray Squirrel, Yellow Dawn): “ I think it’s very good for a first attempt...but you have been hanging around taxidermists for the past two years - perhaps the best taxidermists in the world. You have an advantage! You are not starting at rock bottom. You have tons and tons of info you could have studied.” Personally I feel that his critique was a little off the mark - the author did succeed - what she was preserving was not a squirrel, but the field of taxidermy, through this book.
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