Strict Fidelity to Nature: Scientific Taxidermy, U.S. Natural History Museums, and Craft Consensus, 1880s to 1930s

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Virginia Tech

As taxidermy increased in prominence in American natural history museums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the idea of trying to replicate nature through mounts and displays became increasingly central. Crude practices of overstuffing skins gave way to a focus on the artistic modelling of animal skins over a sculpted plaster and papier-mâché form to create scientifically accurate and aesthetically pleasing mounts, a technique largely developed at Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York. Many of Ward's taxidermists utilized their authority in taxidermy practices as they formally organized into the short-lived Society of American Taxidermists (1880-1883) before moving into positions in natural history museums across the United States.

Through examinations of published and archival museum materials, as well as historic mounts, I argue that taxidermists at these museums reached an unspoken consensus concerning how their mounts would balance pleasing aesthetics with scientific accuracy, while adjusting their practices as they considered the priorities of numerous stakeholders. Taxidermists negotiated through administrative priorities, legacies of prominent craftsmen, and a battery of instructive materials, all claiming some authority as to what proper taxidermy could—and should—be. The shifts in taxidermy authority revealed truths about what taxidermy could mean, questions of how taxidermists identified themselves within the profession and to outsiders, practices for presenting taxidermy to museum visitors, and techniques for representing nature.

This project traces the paths of consensus for developing techniques to construct museum taxidermy from the 1883 end of the S.A.T until the founding of the Technical Section of the American Association of Museums (AAM) in 1929. Two critics who book-end this project—Robert Wilson Shufeldt, an army doctor, naturalist, and museum critic, and Lawrence Vail Coleman, director of preparation and exhibition, American Museum of Natural History, and director of the American Association of Museums—identified similar characteristics that suggest a like-minded approach as to what constituted proper museum taxidermy among museum taxidermists. Museum taxidermy carried with it a set of characteristics: accuracy and a pleasing aesthetic for Shufeldt; feeling, unity, action, balance, reality, and size for Coleman. These two sets of criteria complemented each other as they reified consensus. What complicated this finding was that taxidermists themselves did not acknowledge them specifically, only relating to them in passing, if at all. Regardless, taxidermic practice seemed to be consistent across these decades.

This study complicates the nature of scientific representation, in that it focuses a great deal on its artistry. Museum taxidermy is supposed to be an instructional tool, guiding museum visitors in the way they approach nature, and especially how they see animals, and focusing on teaching the science of animal behavior, biodiversity, and habitat, to name a few. It is a scientific object, representing the most up-to-date research in the field, but consensus surrounding it is not scientifically measurable. Instead, taxidermy consensus happened in hallways and back rooms (both literal and metaphorical), with little written down, and the mounts as the most substantial evidence that is had been achieved. Nevertheless, taxidermists negotiated the array of stakeholders present—museum administrators, naturalists, collectors, and the public—as they fashioned mounts that were both accurate and aesthetically pleasing representations of animal lives.

taxidermy, natural history, museum, scientific representation, visual culture