Issue date: 06 December 2001

Today's museums - like the at-Bristol complex - revolve around interactive, high-tech exhibitions. Michelle Henning, a lecturer in cultural and media studies at the University of the West of England, is finding out what happens to the traditional, painstakingly collected and mounted objects exhibits like this replace - especially the stuffed animals and birds.

In the past, natural history museums were full of glass cases housing birds with brilliant plumage or animals frozen in lifelike poses against handpainted backdrops of scenery. Until the advent of safari holidays, and wildlife films showing animals in their natural habitat, this was the only way for the general public to catch a glimpse of exotic species.

Michelle, who specialises in visual display and spectatorship, says that taxidermy offers a special insight into the divide between academic and popular culture.

"Taxidermy was popularised in the age of exploration, in the sixteenth century, when unknown creatures were brought home to be displayed as curiosities in the cabinets of scholars and princes.

"Taxidermy therefore predates the public museum and modern science, but then it was appropriated for the purposes of scientific realism. In the mid-nineteenth century, museum directors argued that displays should not be seen as mere 'curiosities' - they were specimens, valued for purposes of scientific illustration. Today, museums have turned to film and multimedia displays, but stuffed animals are still exhibited -sometimes as part of painted dioramas. I'm interested in how we look at, and are invited to look at, taxidermy in this changed context. I am also looking at how taxidermy may seem bizarre, curious or morbid to the modern spectator."

Michelle's interest in taxidermy developed from her work as an installation artist in museums and exhibitions.

Very little research has been conducted into displays of taxidermy, and how they are regarded by the museums and the viewing public. Michelle has been awarded a grant of £4000 by the British Academy. This will allow her to compare the archives, collections and display techniques of the Natural History Museum in London, the American Museum of Natural History in New York with the more idiosyncratic displays of nineteenth century taxidermists like Charles Waterton and Walter Potter.


Editor’s notes

Michelle Henning, School of Cultural and Media Studies (Humanities), has been awarded £4k under the British Academy small research grants scheme for a project entitled Museum Taxidermy and the Management of Attention. This is enabling Michelle to undertake archival research and study actual collections to determine how museum visitors were and are expected to respond to taxidermy in different historical circumstances.

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