"Ugh! That's dead!" I shrieked when we came upon a sleeping foxhound. The dog was curled up near a radiator. It looked so peaceful, so alive, that I petted it to be sure. It was as hard as fiberglass."
I don't know about you, but for me any mention of taxidermy conjured up mental images of scary-looking critters, large and small, hanging on a wood-paneled wall or mounted on a board. In Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, author Melissa Milgrom proved to me that there's oh-so-much more to it than that.
Milgrom, a writer who has contributed to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications, became interested in taxidermy in the mid-1990s after participating in an African safari. The book took six years to research, and the result is a very enlightening and entertaining look at taxidermy, past and present.
Milgrom's journey starts in New Jersey, her home state, at the studio of the Schwendemans. David (the father) and now Bruce (the son) are master taxidermists (or "taxidermologist", as Bruce describes himself). They are members of a very elite group of museum masters, and have created--or rather, preserved--the animals in many of the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Their "studio" is a workshop on their family property that has been used for taxidermy for generations. Bruce's grandmother, in fact, was an expert skinner, and the family's taxidermy history is fascinating.
After the Schwendemans, Milgrom moves on to the World Taxidermy Championships in Springfield, Illinois, where everyone from amateurs to world-class taxidermists from major museums of the U.S. and Europe compete for a variety of titles. When Milgrom got in line to register she felt "like a vagrant species blown in by an errant trade wind", much the way I would feel if I was in her shoes! Milgrom describes the lobby of the Crown Plaza as "a veritable Noah's ark on luggage carts." Where else but a taxidermy competition could you find a man blow-drying a snow leopard, and maids who had to be warned about the big anaconda from Peru in room 615?
In the next few chapters, Milgrom visits taxidermists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. At the Smithsonian Institute she talks with the men responsible for the exhibits at the Smithsonian's then-newly-renovated Museum of Natural History. In Britain she attends competitions and learns how the Victorian roots of taxidermy influenced the European taxidermists. She also spends time with the blunt, tough, and talented Emily Mayer, who creates unbelievably realistic pieces for artist Damien Hirst and other clients (including the foxhound mentioned at the beginning of this review). And a chapter on the kitsch-y Victorian-era exhibits in Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities exposes the sideshow aspect of taxidermy.
In the final chapters Milgrom comes to the realization that to fully understand taxidermy she has to try it for herself. She decides to stuff a squirrel. After all the years of research, and all the exposure to the details, she still isn't quite prepared for what's in store. She turns to the Schwendemans for guidance, and, after several months of work and worry, "Gray Squirrel, Yellow Dawn" is entered into the Novice category at the World Taxidermy Championships. You'll have to checkout the book to find out how it fared....
After reading this book I realize that a gifted taxidermist needs to be a biologist, naturalist, chemist, historian, researcher, artist, tailor, beautician, archivist, and have a strong stomach. It also helps to be quirky and passionate. Milgrom's writing style takes up all the loosely-connected parts of taxidermy and creates a tightly-woven tail, um, I mean tale, full of anecdotes and background. Taxidermists are understandably suspicious about the motives of folks asking a lot of questions about their work, but Milgrom was given unprecedented access. She is genuinely interested in learning, and her respect for the practitioners and their work is evident throughout. I must say that I now share that feeling of respect, and will never look at a museum exhibit without thinking of the hard work and artistic talent that went into it.
A word of warning: Typically I like to read during lunch, but I have to say that there were a couple of sections where I could tell that it might be a MUCH better idea to read a magazine while I ate. Milgrom never tries to exploit the subject for effect, but she doesn't hesitate to be descriptive when the situation calls for it.
Recommended by Angela Prandini