Ravishing Beasts

Speaking of the Vancouver Museum, while I was there checking out Ed Pien’s opening (as it were), I stepped into one of the museum’s other exhibits for a few minutes. Ravishing Beasts is an exhibit of creatures that have been preserved, primarily through taxidermy. Most of the collection was apparently acquired from Vancouver residents between 1894 and 1950, and before being moved to the Vancouver Museum was housed on the top floor of what is now the Carnegie Community Centre.

I have mixed feelings about taxidermy, generally. I am capable of admiring a well-preserved specimen of almost anything (except perhaps an over-Botoxed Kerrisdale arts matron). My grandparents had a mounted Great-horned owl in the living room of their farmhouse for many years that I was both fascinated and frightened by as a child. I like to think that the owl died of natural causes, or perhaps flew into the living room window one night and was subsequently stuffed, but the more likely explanation is that someone shot it, whether for stealing chickens or just for the hell of it.

That explanation was forefront in my mind as I toured this exhibit at the museum. I can’t walk through a room full of dead, stuffed and mounted critters and not be appalled at man’s inhumanity to beast, even while I am simultaneously awed by those that are – or rather, were – quite majestic, such as the enormous Canadian moose or the African lion. It’s possible that some of the creatures were killed out of necessity, for food, or in self-defence, but the likelihood is that most of them were killed for what enthusiasts of such killing call sport. The pursuit of a trophy at the expense of a life.

The museum does not, as far as I could discern, explicitly express an opinion about the collection of such trophies. It seems likely, given the accepted standards of the era, that in its earlier days the directors of the museum may have been enthusiastic collectors of such things, but also likely that those now in control of the museum have somewhat more modern attitudes toward trophy hunting. Whether they would turn down the opportunity to have something killed in order to expand the collection is unknown.

However, the museum’s materials do prompt the visitor to question the “legacy, current value, and future relevance” of taxidermy. Additionally, there is one small corner of the room in which an interpretation display asks the visitor a rhetorical question about whether a dead, stuffed animal retains any of its dignity of life. It’s an interesting question, but not, I feel, one that can be answered simply by staring at a preserved corpse. The taxidermist may have preserved many of the physical attributes of the creature that – in its living state – made it impressive, or noble, or dignified to us, in a sort of mental personification, but in order to determine whether the creature maintains any of that dignity, I need to know where it lived, who killed it and why, and how, and when, and with what intention. Dignity in this case is not simply a matter of the taxidermist using the right sized eyes, or setting the best pose, but in determining the whole experience of the animal from death to being propped up in a museum.

I suppose that each person who visits the exhibit will view it through the filter of his or her own world view, though I think that the museum did provide some signals to help those without preconceived opinions to view this sort of taxidermy with a more critical eye. For instance, they included in the exhibit some items that probably would have been left out of another exhibit that focussed more on taxidermy as a fine art than as a cultural and historical curiosity. Among these are a stuffed squirrel wearing ski goggles and propped up in a mountain diorama constructed in a hollowed-out television console, and a description of another diorama display comprised of a dozen stuffed kittens dressed in knickers.

The item I found most appalling was an end table made from the leg of an obviously very large elephant, including the leg hairs and the toenails at the base. This piece is not displayed prominently or particularly highlighted, which I think is to the museum’s credit. Casually mixed in with other, less startling pieces, and looking like a simple pedestal to display a stuffed mynah, one comes to the sudden realisation of what it actually is. I can’t imagine anyone finding it and not being at least a little disturbed. What sort of person would imagine, and commission, such a tasteless thing? If the law allowed for someone to be charged with committing an indignity on a non-human body, that surely would have qualified.

The most obvious evidence that someone at the museum holds an unfavourable opinion toward taxidermy, or at least toward bad taxidermy, is a stuffed fox. The poor thing has been manipulated into an absurd position, with an even more absurd countenance, presumably by a taxidermist that was either untrained or working under the influence of mescaline. The museum apparently bought the fox on eBay (for which they were the sole bidder) for all of $15.

Naturally, when I got home I took a glance through the taxidermy listings on eBay myself, not a category that I’d ever felt compelled to browse previously. I was curious: if you can get a fox for $15, what else can you get?

There are a few actual, mounted beasts of the kind that you might see in a rural tavern or over the fireplace of an America businessman, like a bear, or an elk, or some such, but they are few and far between, really. Mostly there are a lot of other things that at best reveal poor taste and at worst reinforce this idea that committing an indignity on a non-human body should be added to the criminal code.

For instance, there are quite a few stuffed frogs available from someone in Wisconsin who has a lot of time and little aesthetic pretension. For the same price that the museum paid for the fox you can get a frog riding a wooden motorcycle, playing a wooden harp, or drinking from a wooden bottle. There are stuffed bats ($25), lamps made from blowfish ($18), and several “jackalopes” (rabbits to which small antlers have been attached) for just $9.99.

If those are insufficient to define “a beast deprived of its dignity”, how about a kangaroo scrotum coin bag ($17.95) or a bottle opener made from a kangaroo’s claw ($6.77)? One entrepreneur in Wyoming is selling packages of five raccoon tails for just $9.99. The notes say “may have picked up a slight purple tint during the tanning process“. First lesson of pelt preservation: no Kool-Aid in the tanning booth.

If you’re fond of deer and don’t have a sister who is also your mother, you probably won’t feel compelled to order the “deer foot thermometer” ($4.99), the “deer hoof salad servers” ($29), or the “deer antler toilet paper holder” ($19.99). Nor will you likely have a burning desire to own the wall hanging made from the ass end of a doe, the anatomical features of which have been enhanced with accessories to make the face of a dog with a goatee (“Would make a great conversation piece”). Only $11.50! Oh hell, see for yourself. But if you decide to buy it, please un-friend me on Facebook.

Ravishing Beasts is on display at the Vancouver Museum until February 28, 2010.

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