Sublime Spectacle at AMNH

August 18, 2011 by morgan

Christopher and I recentley went to New York City to document and explore the use of taxidermy in contemporary culture. Over the next months, I will be posting about the  the differing ways in which taxidermy is displayed out of the homes of noblemen and backwoods camps and into the everyday.

Our vist to The American Museum Of Natural History was long overdue, after much academic investigation and writing about the collection practices of Carl Ackley, the museum taxidermist who changed the face of natural history museums around the world. Natural history museums developed in the Nineteenth Century as storehouses of collections of products of nature. Museums organized and catalogued nature into taxonomies. However this changed with the collection and presentation practices of Carl Akeley, the forefather of museum taxidermy, and a pupil at Wards Natural Science Establishment. Akeley was the first exhibition designer and taxidermist to show detailed animal groupings in elaborately staged and painted natural habitats (Milgrom, 2010; Wonders, 1993; Haraway, 1984). Akeley employed melodramatic modes of exhibition that he described as “a peep-hole into the jungle” (Haraway, 1984; p. 29). At the American Museum of Natural History, preserved animals are exhibited in the context of moralistic displays. The stage is set with animals arranged as nuclear families, with mounts playing the roles of the brave, protective patriarch, the nurturing mother or the adoring child. (Wonders, 1993; Haraway, 1984). These painstaking constructions were not reflective actual knowledge of nature, but of a society that is instilling nature with it’s own mores and values.

Photos by Christopher Bennell

While walking the hallowed halls of this storehouse and protector of natural history I became uneasy with the collection practices of another era on display and the sublime scale of animal bodies (not to mention the human bodies) and the questionable ethics in obtaining them. The signage glorified the act of collecting – a euphemism for killing – of the animals. In contrast to the Field Museum in Chicago, AMNH did not acknowledge the diorama artists, taxidermists and conservationists that a museum needs to maintain a collection of this scale. It was the sublime scale all these once-living creatures placed behind glass – for the first time in my life I was made squeamish by death on display in a museum.

David R. Harper

February 12, 2011 by morgan

From the first time I saw his work in 2008, I was captivated by the art of David R. Harper, a Canadian artist whose stunning reinterpretation of taxidermy as portraiture heightens the evocative nature of this powerful subject. Harper’s work explores the interplay of traditional and historically gendered crafts: taxidermy, embroidery and portraiture.  In 2008 I visited the Art Galley of Mississauga to see the work of Julie Moon. When I arrived at the gallery I was awestruck with Harper’s The Look and Feel of a Real Wood Stove. The piece stands over six feet high and features a mounted black bear standing on a working electric fireplace.

On the back of the bear the fur is shaved down and there is a large, finely embroidered portrait of a woman with roses in her hair. Harper’s combination of animal as décor and decorated animal is an amusing twist on trophy display. The act of shaving down and marring the surface of the skin can be seen as the aggressive act of branding. But Harper’s stunning embroidery is a new exploration of tattooing, delicate and ornamental branding rather than the searing of livestock. Harper’s work is playful and thoughtful; he seamlessly stitches together haunting taxidermy and beautiful embroidery. The interplay of the textures of the fur and floss give his piece a visceral, tangible quality, making the tactile nature of the work almost palpable.

I can remember my first meeting with the Harper and only in my wildest dreams would I have imagined the CZC would be exhibiting his work. Harper has bestowed the CZC with the long-term loan of this breathtaking work. The Contemporary Zoological Conservatory has joined the ranks of the National Gallery of Canada, who recently purchased his work Last to Win for their permanent collection. The Look and Feel of a Real Wood Stove is currently on display in the CZC. David R. Harper has made my dream of exhibiting his work come true, and now our cinnamon bear is no longer lonely.

About A Bear

January 16, 2011 by morgan

Lech and Sons Furrier 1974. courtesy of Karl Lech

In 1860 Wm. Lech and Sons Furriers Ltd. opened its doors in Peterborough Ontario. The local Furrier was known for its large brown bear that stood guard on the sidewalk of George Street in front of Lech & Sons. Gary and Karl Lech, the last operators of the shop affectionately named the bear Smokey. When Gary Lech took over the family business in 1955, the brown bear was still standing on his hind legs arms outstretched frozen in eternal roar. Karl Lech managed the store  that sadly closed in 2007 and is still the longest owned family business in Canada. The CZC’s bear stood guard rain or shine every day in front of the furrier from 1970 to 1989 when he was retired due to weather and vandalism related ageing. The bear was mounted by Mike Reader, a well known taxidermist in Peterborough. The bear was sold to antique dealer Neil Roger who lives in Oshawa then in 2008 the bear changed hands again and was sold to Clay Benson of Smiths Creek Antiques who kindly donated him to the CZC. Since then the bear has been featured in the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, Magenta International Art Journal, As well as appearing with Yann MArtel on CBC National News and in album art for the band Thunderheist. What adventures will the bear and CZC be part of next?

Lech and Sons Furrier

Provenance Research Call For Assistance

January 11, 2011 by morgan


The CZC is looking into the history of our favorite  brown bear. The bear was the well known mascot of Peterborough fur store Lech & Sons Furrier. If anyone has any images or stories about the bear, please contact me

To read about the history of the fur store and their well known  bear ambassador, take a gander at an article from the Peterborough Examiner: Bear with us; Wm. Lech and Sons Furriers is closing after 147 years in business, and its famous mascot bruin has left the building. We know where it is.

Field to Feast

December 20, 2010 by morgan

An exploration of hunting, butchery, taxidermy and the celebration of the feast

Morgan Mavis and Patti Robinson

Morgan Mavis and Patti Robinson set out to find a rabbit from a local farm in Havelock Ontario, skin the animal, create a taxidermy mount and butcher the meat for a five-course feast held in the Conservatory. Our intent is to utilize every part of the animal from skin to bones. Field to feast explores the traditional roles and rituals of men: a hunter, a butcher, a taxidermist and a chef. This installation will recontextualize the histories of these gendered practices. It also draws attention to the importance of local agriculture, sustainability and traditional skills. We are looking at where our food comes from and how many North Americans have a detachment from their food. The entire process will be photographically documented.

Field Research: Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

November 6, 2010 by morgan

The CZC is lucky to have Theresa Heese as a field agent who scouted the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien for possible internship locales. With the world as your oyster, where to choose? The Vienna collection is spectacular and captures the feel of Deyrolle on a grandiose scale. The cases are out of dreams.

Talking Shop with Vice President of NTA

November 5, 2010 by morgan

I am currently writing to museums and world class taxidermists to inquire if anyone knows of a taxidermist presently working in a museum on restoration or new mounts. The National Taxidermist Association put me in touch with their Vice President and taxidermy historian John Janelli. Mr. Janelli sent me a wonderful letter about taxidermy and its beginnings in North America: The great showman Charles Wilson Peale, the first curator of an American natural history museum. Mr. Janelli believes taxidermy is more popular commercially than it has ever been in history and due to hunting laws and collecting regulations the taxidermy and natural history hoards are more controlled then in Victorian times, but just as popular if not more so. He has offered to send me a reading list. “If there’s any thing as satisfying as collecting taxidermy, it’s collecting books on the beloved subject!”

Taxidermy Under Wraps At The R.O.M.

October 26, 2010 by morgan

Today I was fortunate enough to have a private tour of The Royal Ontario Museum’s Mammalogy Department. Susan Woodward Assistant Curator of Mammalogy Showed me behind the seances from freezers to the bug room. We talked Integrated Pest Management Systems and about our love of nature even as children. What a fantastic way to spend the afternoon.

See more photos after the break

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The Smithsonian’s Last Taxidermist

October 14, 2010 by morgan

Paul Rhymer and team working Smithsonian Mammals

I recently had the pleasure to be called up on the phone by Paul Rhymer, the last full time taxidermist the Smithsonian ever had. Rhymer and I talked about the future of taxidermy and his major concerns for museum taxidermy. Rhymer feels that taxidermy is at it’s pinnacle, with so many advancements. The finest specimens are being created with new technologies. I wanted to know what I should be focusing my concerns on when researching my Masters. Rhymer warns of the concerning trend for exhibition designers to take taxidermy out of cases and cabinets, against the advice of taxidermists and collections managers. Exhibition day arrives and the work will photograph well, but in 5 years light, pests and the public will take its toll on the uncovered mount. The phone call was exciting and made me think about taxidermy, hunting and the new technological advancements in artistic preservation. What a lovely call on thanksgiving.

An Occupation Worthy of a Nobleman

September 21, 2010 by morgan

Ferrante Imperato's Cabinet of Curiosities

“…sought to dignify his thirty years of diligent collecting. Bearing in mind that the most important European princes had devoted themselves to creating museums, it seems evident that his real aim was to ennoble his own activity. Not only did the creation and enrichment of a museum constitute an occupation worthy of a nobleman; they were also a means of acquiring renown and prestige and of turning the owner’s home into an almost obligatory sight for everyone… The popularity of the cabinet of curiosities had for a time the effect of overturning rigid social hierarchies, giving the collector the unique opportunity of attracting important personages of royal blood to his own home and of guiding them through his museum.” Giuseppe Olmi, “Science – Honour – Metaphor: Italian Cabinets of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in Impey and MacGregor, eds., The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth- Century Europe (1985)

Olaus Worm's Museum