It’s critical in taxidermy that every detail be exactly right. It takes years of study and a huge commitment to craft to be a great taxidermist. The slightest off-note will send people running from — worst of all, laughing at – your work. Unless, of course, if you’re into the whimsy of what Robert Marbury calls rogue taxidermy: “pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed-media sculptures containing traditional taxidermy materials used in an unconventional manner.”
The animal and bird mounts in the Pember Natural History Museum in Granville, NY are realistic and ‘old school’, done in the early years of taxidermy when forms for exotic animals had to be shaped by hand. Now, you can order all the appurtenances you might need to make Rover lifelike from taxidermy catalogues. CAD and 3D printing have reduced the artistry so the amateur taxidermist doesn’t even have to sculpt the nostrils and eye ridges anymore.
Human beings are equipped to notice even the slightest variations, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in patterns. It’s how we stayed alive as hunter/gatherers, by noticing our prey so we wouldn’t starve to death and predators before they could finish us off. Details matter and humans notice patterns without even trying.
But a taxidermist has to go many steps further. The good taxidermist spends years learning the details and maintaining critical precision in the work. If you don’t believe me, check out last minute animal prep in this walkthrough of the Taxidermy World Show. While up-to-date information on the 2022 show is still to come, the brochure for the 2019 World Taxidermy and Fish Carving Championships in Springfield, Montana will give you a taste for the challenges in the field.
Melissa Milgrom quotes one of taxidermy’s early pioneers and authorities, William Hornady, on the thrill and importance the taxidermist feels when a job is well done: The sight of a particularly fine animal, either alive or dead, excites within me feelings of admiration that often amount to genuine affection; and the study and preservation of such forms has for years been my chief delight.” William Hornady, Smithsonian, Taxidermy and Zoological Collecting, 1891.
The profundity of the taxidermist’s work is what entrances visitors to the Pember Museum every day. Franklin Pember knew the beauty and educational value of a well-mounted specimen. And their preservation has been critical to scientific research. Museum Educator and Curator Bernadette Hoffman helps researchers looking for genetic material from old specimens. Even today, natural history collections such as the one Pember founded are being mined for genetic information about animal diversity in the past.
God is in the details, all right! And diligent scientists are discovering new species in ‘old’ collections all the time!