The Display Case: A Reflection on Taxidermy in Natural History Museums

by Addison Yerks

Pic: (Siberian Tiger Exhibit in the Hall of Biodiversity | AMNH n.d.)

Introduction

Many natural history museums exist in the United States, several of which are home to higher education institutions such as the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History (UMMNH). One of the goals of this museum is to educate the public, welcoming people of all ages. The museum uses taxidermied animals and elaborate displays to inspire curiosity and exploration. While some displays are curated to replicate natural settings, some contain blank, white backgrounds to showcase the organism. Such organisms are, more often than not, taxidermied animals. The direct and clear display of a lifeless animal conveys a sentiment of the capacity to gather different specimens in the name of science, rather than for the purpose of education. And nowhere, at least that is easily accessible, can one find information on where these lifeless animals came from. It begs the question of the ethics behind how animal bodies are used before and after death. It is not uncommon for non-Western cultures to offer animal sacrifices to deities, yet such practices are often considered unethical. However, an argument can be made that the animal bodies used in natural history museums are sacrifices in the name of science. These sacrificial specimens are then showcased to the public for the supposed purpose of education. Yet, it is education in an artificial form. The animals are non-living, reconstructed to mimic life, and the displays are carefully curated by human hands. The presence of the glass barriers of display cases further supplies artificiality by deepening the distinction between the natural world and humans. The glass provides a false sense of connectedness and understanding to the natural world by allowing audiences to view its various reconstructions. However, the glass also serves as a barrier, reinforcing the separation between humans, animals, and the natural world.

Reconstructions of Nature

Within display cases reside reconstructions of nature, including taxidermied animals. In a chapter titled “Governing Nature,” Rutherford offers insights into the use of taxidermy in natural history museums. The chapter offers an allegory through the use of a tiger specimen for display:

But it is also a dead tiger; no breath will illuminate its luxuriant fur, no life can be detected in its static gaze. And so, while it appears that this tiger offers the museum visitor something, it is, in fact, a one-sided story. ‘It has been killed, stuffed, and displayed by museum curators, first to show people nature from a distant land, and now as a cautionary tale of the excesses of modernity.’”

(Rutherford 2011, ix)

The tiger here is a taxidermied specimen showcased in a museum. Each step of its curation has been deliberate, from the position of its stance and the direction of its eyes to the way it was sourced, packaged, and shipped–all for the experience of its human spectators (Pederson 2010). This mimicry of life optimistically serves to educate the viewer on its existence and its being, however, it remains lifeless. It has little to teach other than the destructive influence of humans on the natural world. It cannot roam free, it cannot hunt, it cannot bear offspring. It provides no true sense of its natural place in this world because its presence in the museum only exists due to human curation. No human would be able to examine such a creature so closely in the wild. Therefore, the proposed information it provides its audience has also been dictated by humans. It is the shell of an animal, peered at by a human audience with no way to gaze back.

A similar experience persists in the displays of UMMNH. Lifeless specimens gaze blankly back at their audience, but other additions have also been made. Displays include replicas of ecosystems to provide a context for the showcased specimens. Everything is reconstructed, even the inseparable existence of humans in the natural world through the presence of litter within such displays. The purposeful placement of trash introduces the omnipresent human in nature, as the two are becoming ever more inseparable. While recognizing the human presence in nature is crucial, the displays convey the idea that environmental anthropogenic influence is encompassed by leaving a few pieces of trash behind. This minimizes the gravity of human impact–the whole museum is a collection of materials synthesized through the extraction of resources, the stealing of land from indigenous peoples, and the destruction of habitats to build on such land.

Sacrificial Specimens

Rhetoric is an often ignored, but particularly important component in the discussion of taxidermy use in displays. Returning to the tiger allegory:

In either iteration, it did not choose its fate. Rather, it is a sacrificial specimen, its life having been taken in the pursuit of science; it has died so it can never die.”

(Rutherford 2011, ix)

The term sacrificial is used to attribute the tiger’s death to the conditions of an offering, while the term specimen serves to recognize its use in science. The combination of these two terms recognizes the unspoken presence of sacrifice in science–that the dead animal is an offering to science. Even still, sacrifice is more often associated with non-Western cultural practices. But why should the same act be attributed to different sets of ethics? In the ethnography “The Goat Who Died for Family,” Govindrajan offers visibility into a culture that participates in the sacrifice of goats (2018). The women of the culture raise the goats as if they are their children or more. The women treat the goats with plentiful respect, care, and sensitivity. The sacrificial goats take the place of children, are offered to their deity in order to bring good fortune to the community, and are then eaten to provide the family sustenance. The difference between such a cultural practice and scientific knowledge is that scientific knowledge employs physical evidence in the accumulation of knowledge. However, this difference is arbitrary. This difference dismisses disempowered knowledge or knowledge collected through lived experience, of cultures outside the Western world. Who decides which type of knowledge is
more valuable? The very people who live under the safety net provided by the power hierarchy. It is easy to judge animal sacrifice when it fails to meet the priorities of the power structure, thus making it easy to excuse animal sacrifice in the name of science.

Therefore, the only difference between sacrifice and specimen is the label. And that label affects how those who fall under it are treated. As seen in “The Moral Status of Mice,” Herzog discusses working with mice in a scientific laboratory (2010). Based on personal experience, Herzog witnessed how mice labeled as model organisms, or those used in experiments, were treated in comparison to the ones labeled as pests, or mice who escaped their cages. As soon as a mouse escaped its cage, it was no longer able to be used in experiments; therefore, it met its fateful death. While the model organisms experience the same fate, there are regulations in place that prevent their improper or unethical treatment. However, the pests do not have that same luxury. Herzog offers a contemplating question: “What is the difference between researchers who kill mice because they are trying to discover a new treatment for breast cancer and the legions of good people who smash the spines of mice in their kitchen with snap traps or slowly poison them with d-con?” (2010:207). The categorizations in which we place different animals affect human treatment of them. How would you feel viewing the opossum in the UMMNH’s collection? How about the taxidermied dog?

Implications of Display

Lifeless animals, elaborate displays, and natural-sounding noises create an immersive experience. The allegory of the tiger once again offers an insight into how a commodified version of nature is presented and accepted:

And its presence acts as an allegory in a modern bestiary, a morality tale about the impending death of nature. This ossuary of biotic life instructs the visitor about what will happen if we do not act for nature…”

(Rutherford 2011, ix)

Museum displays are constructed to elicit particular ideals and reflections. Through purposeful design elements, nature is deployed in order to elicit emotional reactions and generate profit (Rutherford 2011). Contextual backgrounds and natural sounds offer false liveliness to the still animals in the foreground; blank, white backgrounds emphasize power dynamics. The animals displayed against plain backdrops at UMMNH are those that are symbols of power, such as the wolf or the wolverine. The display of animals against certain backdrops is an intentional choice. They use animal stereotypes, letting notoriously predatory and aggressive animals stand for themselves. This emphasizes ideals of power, or the need for control over nature and those considered “other.” The specimens are sacrificed to science, stuffed, and put on display; acting as a representation of science, ignoring any and all disempowered knowledge.

Aside from the background, display cases themselves are a symbol of modernity. The displays must be carefully monitored to ensure the air quality is appropriate for the sacrificial specimen. If conditions are even slightly incorrect, the specimen could degrade and deteriorate. While the glass encapsulating the specimen is necessary in order for its preservation, the materials of its construction are a source of pollutants (Chiantore and Poli 2021). Therefore, even the specimens used in museums to depict nature cannot escape the consequences of human development. These displays themselves are a representation of the continuation of excessive anthropogenic activity. Despite the influence of humans on nature, intertwining the two actors, the display glass also acts as a barrier that separates the human from the animal. Even in death, the animal cannot escape human observation and alteration. This places the human in an alternate ontological position than the animal, assuming privilege to justify the appropriation of animal bodies (Pedersen 2010). This favors certain human and nonhuman bodies, influencing thoughts and understandings about the human-animal relationship. Therefore, an artificial form of education may be the future if more time is spent on the material representation of scientific knowledge rather than conserving the wild and the natural; which if not protected, may end up
like Rutherford’s tiger. Therefore, the glass display offers a false sense of stagnancy. The preserved specimens do not change and remain encapsulated for the foreseeable future, but nature is ever-changing. Even if natural history museums create a depiction of nature as still, humans are constantly altering the environment; the degree of which continues to increase. Hence, the commodified version of nature in museums disregards a changing environment and prioritizes artificial life in the name of science.

Conclusion

The supposed creation of natural history museums for public education contains several alternative purposes. Reconstructions of nature offer a false sense of understanding of and connection with nature. Such a mimicry of life misleads the audience into believing that nature can be learned through artificial models, rather than exploration of the natural world. Life is mimicked as a form of learning about a nature that humans are destroying at an alarming rate. Sacrificial specimens compile this belief. The ability to closely examine a creature from the other side of the world disregards the nature order. Viewing a specimen in a museum cannot capture the creature’s natural movement and behaviors as it is only capable of staring blankly back at its spectator. The use of such specimens also serves to instill certain beliefs in museum visitors. Whereas the use of sacrifice in non-Western cultures is considered unethical, the high quantity of lifeless animal displays in natural history museums makes the use of animals common in science, representing the desire for control over them. Therefore, rather than the glass display simply allowing visitors to observe and learn from nature, the glass is a self-induced barrier reinforcing the separation between humans, animals, and nature. The glass should serve as a reflection of human action as the animal displays are a representation of the continued loss of wild animals. Like the ever-changing natural world, humans must also change; or the only way to experience nature will be through human-constructed models of life.