The word taxidermy is derived from the ancient Greek roots táksis (arrangement) and derma (skin), and loosely translates to “arrangement of skin”. It refers to the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of dead animals for exhibition in a lifelike state. Taxidermy takes on a number of forms and purposes, including hunting trophies and natural history museum displays, and sometimes to memorialise loved pets. It is used as a method of preserving specimens for research and recording, and for display, including those that are extinct and threatened, in the form of study skins and life-size mounts. It is practiced primarily on vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish and reptiles) but can also be applied to larger insects and arachnids (spiders).
The earliest known taxidermists were the ancient Egyptians who developed a form of animal preservation through the use of injections, spices, oils, and other embalming tools and methods. The modern form of taxidermy greatly differs from the taxidermy of antiquity, as taxidermists now produce lifelike mounts by accurately modelling the anatomy of animal specimens as they might appear in their natural habitat.
In the Victorian era, taxidermy became very popular and fashionable, with many seeking curiosities for their cabinets in an exciting age of discovery. With the surge of international exploration, there was a growing community of natural history observers, or naturalists, who became intent on discovering fascinating new species abroad.
When new species of mammals, fowl and fish were still being discovered, naturalists looked for ways of preserving them for classification. Famed British explorer Captain James Cook was one of the early supporters of taxidermy for his newly discovered species. Charles Darwin was another early practitioner of taxidermy. He had some specimens from the Galapagos Islands taxidermied in situ; they later helped support his scientific theory of evolution.
In the early 20th century taxidermy came into its own and became a respected art form. Wealthy aristocrats would fill their homes with mounted animals from all over the world. As big game hunting became more popular, so did the practice of displaying wild animals. Early taxidermy mounts were stuffed with sawdust and rags without regard for actual anatomy, so the models were often disfigured. In fact, some mounts from those days skewed how people imagined such creatures for years. The long-extinct dodo is a prime example of creative taxidermy misleading actuality. Over time, taxidermists developed techniques to more accurately represent anatomy.
The Whanganui Regional Museum collection houses many taxidermied specimens, including rare and now extinct species such as huia, koreke (New Zealand quail) and whēkau (laughing owl). There are many trophy heads and even an extinct Tasmanian tiger.
The taxidermy collection started with an avid local naturalist and collector, Samuel Drew. He collected and classified many natural history specimens, certainly enough to establish a small museum at his home in 1880. He was a significant collector of molluscs, birds, and beetles, and maintained contacts with world-renowned naturalists. He exchanged specimens with Julius von Haast, a German geologist, later director of the Canterbury Museum. He met with and corresponded with taxidermist Andreas Reischek, who helped him classify some of his specimens. Reischek also trained Drew’s son, Henry, in taxidermy. Drew’s private collection eventually became too large for his family home and became the foundation of the Whanganui Regional Museum collection that we all enjoy today.
Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.