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The Vacuum Issue 4 spacer Issue 4
Stuff It - At the Ulster Museum
by Hugh Odling-Smee
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The Ulster Museum houses many things; Irish art, the mummy, that moving fish fossil that I got freaked out by and a huge collection of animals that have been given a lease of existence longer than that parceled out for them by nature. Orangutans, polar bears, jaguars, jackdaws and hedgehogs jostle for positioning menagerie built up over one hundred years.
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According to Angela Ross, curator of vertebrates at the museum, the collection's main use is educational. 'Children won't get close to actual living Jaguars hopefully, so this is a way for them to see the size and shape of animals. When they first see them it takes a while to convince them that they are dead, so children like to poke their eyes to make sure.'
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Stuff It - At the Ulster Museum
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Angela took us through a small part of the collection, with various pieces that came to the museum in differing ways. A turtle is beached there, seized by customs and excise on the return of a family from holiday. The specimen is a little under standard however, since the eyes had been replaced by marbles. The collection that the museum holds, lifeless animals staring out at us with glazed eyes, is a fine example of the taxidermist's art, the practice of which raises questions about how we look at nature and the uses that we put it to.
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The process of taxidermy sees the skin of an animal removed, preserved and arranged around a model of the original body. The models are created nowadays using plastics, but in the past wood, clay or wire was used. When the skin is placed over the model, the taxidermist goes to work; an eyelid here, an expression there, creating the required aim of taxidermy; to make dead things look alive.
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In modern taxidermy road kill is the main provider of specimens. According to the British Trust for Ornithology, about two million animals are killed on the UK's roads every week, amounting to 104 million per year. A lot end up being eaten by other animals, some end up on council dumps, but many find their way to the taxidermist's bench. The Guild of Taxidermists is very clear about unlicensed animals being used. Taxidermists see themselves as being part of the struggle to preserve and educate about the natural world, and rather than just turning up at a taxidermist's door with an enormous python that fell of the back of a lorry, the client must prove that their animal died legally and assert their ownership.
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Taxidermy's slightly dodgy reputation comes from the Victorian era when men like Hermann Ploucquet and the legendary Walter Potter took their art to extremes. Animals would be preserved and mounted and then arranged into human situations, like tea parties and cricket matches on the village green, or animals would become players in dramas, for example Ploucquet's huge work of Reynard the Fox featuring staged scenes; 'Reynard attacketh Laprell the Rabbit.'
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Ploucquet was one of a handful of taxidermists who displayed their work at the Great Exhibition of 1851, kicking off the great taxidermy craze of the late nineteenth century. Queen Victoria was so moved by the exhibits that she dedicated a whole page of her diary to the staged weirdness that taxidermy was at the time. Walter Potter was a Sussex naturalist with an interest in preserving animals. Inspired by the work of Ploucquet and others, his taxidermy career began. One of his pieces, 'The Kitten Wedding', is quite the most bizarre sight you may ever see. Nineteen kittens are fully dressed and posed as a wedding party, their eyes giving the impression of a very heavy night on Sussex ale.
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The tableaus make you realise that in the Victorian era, animals are merely playthings of humans. Taxidermists are at pains to point out that they merely preserve to ensure that humans' understanding of nature continues to grow. Their trade is far removed from the macabre pieces of Ploucquet and Potter.
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You can argue however, that 'The Kitten Wedding' was merely an early piece of entertainment using animals, and not so far from the flagship natural history programmes that the BBC lavishes millions of pounds to 'explain' the natural world. Victorian taxidermy was the font of the idea that we can explore, understand and tame the species that we share the world with. To stand in the Ulster Museum and look at the soulless eyes of parakeets and blackbirds brings us no closer to animals. We stare at them, and with manufactured eyes they stare back. The glass on the television and the glass of the collection cabinets, separate us from the realities of the natural world, allowing us to peer safely at nature and making animals actors in our twenty four hour entertainment.
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Stuff It - At the Ulster Museum
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