Taxidermy Birds | Europe ( mid-18th century)

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Wall of Birds from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/curiousexpeditions/3240119574/in/photostream.

By Lasse Bech Knudsen

Introduction

”The winds of the Anthropocene carry ghosts,” Anna Tsing and colleagues remark, pointing to the “vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present”. The Anthropocene is the proposed name for the current geological epoch in which human-induced environmental change drives planetary change and threatens the continuing livability on Earth. However, though the Anthropocene is often discussed on a planetary scale, these destructive processes – or “ghosts,” as Tsing and colleagues call them – are not detached from neither human nor non-human lives but are “traces of more-than-human histories through which ecologies are made and unmade”. Put another way, the relationship between “nature” and “society” has changed in ways concealing, and at times even refusing, the past (in the present). As these Earthbound “ghosts” continue to haunt us, it appears necessary to acknowledge and explore how the Anthropocene cannot be understood as a product of (human) nature alone, but rather as cumulative effects of differentiated “sociogenic” processes, that is, as an effect of how specific people and groups of people live. How, then, can we begin to unpack, (re-)configure, and (re-)discover these “ghosts” working at once to conceal (perceptions of) the world and to haunt us? One approach may be to trace specific, historical processes linked to past and present transformations of anthropogenic landscapes or ecologies.

 

In this essay, I will do so by exploring the evolution of taxidermy birds and how they reflect a broader tendency within Western scientific discourse. I will do so by exploring the historical development of taxidermy birds from the Enlightenment Age before I turn to a more epistemological discussion on how taxidermy birds may be a starting point for tracing specific and conceptual links between “nature” and “society” in the 21st century inspired by a “multi-species” approach.

“Nature” on Display: Re-Tracing Enlightenment Thought through Taxidermy Birds

“Taxidermy,” originally deriving from the Greek words, taxis, meaning order or arrangement, and derma, meaning skin, directly translates as ”arrangement of skin” or “skin art”. The practices of taxidermy can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, whom John W. Moyer calls “the first taxidermists the world has known”. In ancient Egypt, practices of taxidermy were considered a form of art through which animals were preserved via injections, spices, oils, and other embalming tools. However, according to Moyer, it was not until the mid-18th century that so-called “modern” methods of taxidermy developed in Europe. In contrast to earlier forms of taxidermy, modern forms of taxidermy evolved around a wish to produce lifelike mounts of wildlife which accurately modeled the anatomy of animals as they were perceived to appear in their natural habitat. This is, for example, seen in French entomologist R.A.F. de Reaumur’s Treatise from 1749, in which a new, more modern and lifelike system of preservation was developed. During the next decade and a half, this modern approach to taxidermy evolved, mainly in Western Europe, Africa, and America, and was in 1880 introduced as a “modern-day” establishment in natural museum exhibits by the Society of American Taxidermists, led by American zoologist, conservationist, and taxidermist, William T. Hornaday.

Today, taxidermy birds are often perceived as “natural” in museums of natural history, biology classes, and alike. However, the practices of “modern” taxidermy rely on a string of (scientific) discoveries and processes only made possible in the past centuries – mainly during the Enlightenment Age. Discussing a somewhat related (scientific) development, Kavita Philip argues that there are four main stages through which plants have become globally commodified in “modern” history. First, she argues, is the stage of classification, in which plants were named and classified. Second, collection, where different (parts of) plants are searched for, found, and collected in accordance with classification patterns. Third is the process of transplantation, where knowledge about specific plants are transferred across space and (scientific) disciplines. Fourth and last, she argues that some plants become commodified, for example by being turned into medicine that is profitable on the (global) market, and thus become entangled in so-called “botanical networks”.

Though Philip’s work is concerned with the history of plants, it is useful to “think with” in relation to taxidermy birds. Similar to the ways in which “modern” knowledge about plants came into being during the Enlightenment Age, different species of birds were classified during the mid-18th century, for example in Reaumur’s Treatise from 1749. This process of classification did, in turn, spark increasing interest in many scholarly milieus in how to collect birds and portray birds (and other animals) anatomically “lifelike.” This is, for example, illustrated in the ways in which the Society of American Taxidermists, led by William Hornaday, Frederic Webster, and Carl Akeley, to mention a few, produced a series of exhibitions of taxidermy birds from 1881-83 in Rochester, NY, Boston, MA, and New York City from December 1880 to May 1883. Accordingly, the Society published a body of scholarly reports through which they expanded the (scientific) field and shared or transplanted their knowledge about taxidermy birds across especially the United States and Western Europe. Fast-forwarding to a more contemporary context, taxidermy birds appear to have become commodified in the sense that selling, buying, and using taxidermy birds (or “faux taxidermy birds” ) have become “a popular trend in interior design” in recent years. For example, a quick Google search reveals that the three first results on “taxidermy birds” are all from online sellers such as Etsy and eBay. (This example is not meant to serve as evidence, but rather as an indicator of a broader, more general trend that taxidermy birds have become, to some extent, commodified in contemporary society.) Overall, by looking at the development of taxidermy birds since the Enlightenment Age through the framework Philip provides, the specific processes that has gone into “making” and reifying taxidermy birds as a “natural” part of the “natural” world become more visible and open to (re-)interpretation in new contexts – both scientifically, politically, and in every-day life.

Re-tracing Pasts, Imagining Futures: Taxidermy Birds, Ghosts, and the Anthropocene

One such “context” is the Anthropocene. Though (social and natural) scientists understand the Anthropocene in vastly different ways, one thing appears to be a focal point for most scientists: the notion that the “social” world and the “natural” world are not – and have perhaps never been – as separated and enclosed as previously thought. In fact, in the Anthropocene, it is often argued that the expansion of capitalist systems or capitalist ecologies has planted seeds of human destruction in search of immediate promises of power and profits. To explore such processes – and the role(s) of science within them and in relation to them – Anna Tsing’s notion of “multispecies” ethnography or ethics may be useful. Broadly speaking, Tsing writes that “human nature is an interspecies relationship”. In this way, she argues that the idea of human exceptionalism blinds us to the interspecies or multispecies connections that constantly make and unmake our own lives within our bodies and in our surroundings. Put another way, Anthropocene ecobiopolitical and socioecological configurations manage both humans and biological processes in landscapes produced and reproduced at multiple (spatial and temporal) scales – rather than humans overtly and controllably “making” the world. This resonates significantly with Amelia Moore’s notion of “earthly relations” which, in addition to Tsing’s notion of multispecies ethnography, also accounts for more geologic aspects (e.g. how rocks/stones resonate). By thinking in terms of “earthly relations,” Moore argues that scientists are forced to focus on how “objects of knowledge, governance, and forms of reason adapted to the Anthropocene idea” and must acknowledge embodied relations that produce and transform anthropogenic landscapes and ecologies.

What, then, is the role of taxidermy birds in this debate? As shown above, thinking about taxidermy birds and the development hereof since the Enlightenment Age may be a way to (re-)explore and (re-)configure the ways we think about not only the ontological realities and perceptions distinguishing the “natural” and “social” worlds, but also the epistemological and methodological categorizations, classifications, and commodifications of the “natural” world within Western, scientific thought (conceptually tracing back to René Descartes’ divide between “Man” and “Nature”). By pinning down some of the “ghosts” we have made throughout the development of Western, scientific thought and giving them specific, concrete figures – in this case taxidermy birds – we may, in other words, further explore and imagine a world that is neither just “social” nor just “natural,” but rather constantly made and unmade through interactions between different species, humans and nonhumans, and of geological processes. We may be able to imagine (scientifically grounded and contextualized) a world that is more Earthbound rather than bound to perceptions of humans (or Man, as Descartes argued). Accordingly, this may make and be made up of scientific approaches that do not only account for the “natural” world, the “social” world, or the “social” world in the “natural” world, but by scientific approaches that understand and explore the world as entangled and co-created by multiple actors and actants. In this sense, studying taxidermy birds may be a starting point for producing – within both the natural and social sciences – long-needed cultural critique within and beyond the Anthropocene.

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