The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing (Animalibus)
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From sixteenth-century cabinets of wonders to contemporary animal art, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing examines the cultural and poetic history of preserving animals in lively postures. But why would anyone want to preserve an animal, and what is this animal-thing now? Rachel Poliquin suggests that taxidermy is entwined with the enduring human longing to find meaning with and within the natural world. Her study draws out the longings at the heart of taxidermy—the longing for wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory, and remembrance. In so doing, The Breathless Zoo explores the animal spectacles desired by particular communities, human assumptions of superiority, the yearnings for hidden truths within animal form, and the loneliness and longing that haunt our strange human existence, being both within and apart from nature.
raw power of the human imagination. The trajectory of intellectual thought is rarely linear, and poetic explanations of phenomena were not necessarily incompatible with empirical investigation. Take Giovanni Battista Ferrari’s 1646 treatise on citrus fruits, Hesperides, sive, de malorum aureorum cultura et usu (Hesperides, or Concerning the cultivation and uses of the golden apple). No more exhaustive work on a single family of plants had yet appeared. In fact, Ferrari’s work stands as one of the
As such, the bears are documents of a British cultural imaginary which has slipped—thankfully or not—forever into history. More pressingly, from a contemporary perspective, the bears can also be read as an anxious narrative of global warming. Here are so many bears from territories under threat. But if the bears are troubling environmental documents, they also stand as quiet educators. They offer visitors an opportunity to experience the majestic size of polar bears and to appreciate personally,
sluicing out the imperial heritage of the Saffron Walden Museum, Britain’s second-oldest purposely built natural history museum. But if these objects were eradicated because of their ancestry, why not remove other Victorian items from display as well? What makes taxidermy particularly deserving of elimination? Spencer’s purge can be read either as a pragmatic spring cleaning or as a cautionary tale of loss. For the pragmatists, museum taxidermy is an educational tool. Like all such tools, it is
hunting to be considered a sporting activity and not mere slaughter.12 Hunting must be a personal challenge and a test of skill. For the hunter, the trophy stands as a symbol of his or her vigor, hardiness, sportsmanship, and backwoods know-how. An easy or unfair kill would hardly require memorialization. These are the basic codes of the sportsman. Machine gunning herds of deer might qualify as hunting, but no self-respecting sportsman would condone the behavior. Hunting is also defined by the
imagination. The brothers had studied taxidermy by mail order, and Douglas set to work to create his legend: a cross between a pronghorn antelope and a jackrabbit. Frontier stories of the jackalope’s particularities abound, and they are always frontier stories. The jackalope has an uncanny knack for mimicking the human voice and in the old days was known to join in singing sad cowboy songs around the campfire. It is highly aggressive but can always be mollified with whiskey. You can also