Last month the Horniman Museum and Gardens held their Taxidermy Late event. This celebration of the art of breathing life into death, by turns hugely fashionable and devastatingly unpopular historically, captured both the public’s imagination as well as the spirit of the craft.
Featuring tours of the specimens by the Keeper of Natural History, the knowledgable and engaging Jo Hatton; talks about taxidermy’s glorious past, its eventual descent into derided freak show and its recent revival from eminent historians and artists such as Pat Morris, Errol Fuller and Polly Morgan; live demonstrations of taxidermy by one of the poster girls of contemporary taxidermy art, the ethical taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long; shadow puppetry by The Great Puppet Horn; a fun photo set up by Phox offering you the chance to pose with your favourite preserved animal; and an eclectic programme of dynamic and curious short films curated by MASH Cinema (in collaboration with Electric Pedals).
Dan Brown of MASH Cinema tells us about the shorts he selected, how he chose them and why.
Growing up, my only experience with taxidermy was at my local museum in Hereford and the displays of their natural history specimens. I was especially bewildered by the two-headed calf.
I stayed up late one night in my teens to watch a film on Channel 4 by Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer. The story was familiar: a girl called Alice follows a white rabbit into a bizarre fantasy land. But this was different, this was a fairytale for adults; the visuals were macabre, the sounds spine-chilling. It was captivating.
My view of taxidermy has always been influenced by the memory of that film and, even now, wandering around natural history galleries in museums, I enjoy looking at the specimens and the characters created by the taxidermists. I scrutinise the faces of the creatures; usually life-like, sometimes horrific and often hilarious.
I was honoured to be asked to supply a programme of films for the Horniman’s Taxidermy Late. I wanted to include a mixture of genres, allowing me to explore different areas of this fascinating subject, hopefully showing a truer representation of it: one of integrity, artistry and scientific discovery.
The first film I came across was Bertie Film’s ‘The Taxidermist’. Produced by Warp Films, this eccentric short film explores what would happen if pets lived forever, thus leaving a taxidermist without work. I was drawn to film because I’ve always admired Warp Films and the types of films they produce. I got into them via Warp Records whose music I listened to in my teens and twenties, especially Autechre and Red Snapper (I now collaborate with the latter and provide visuals on their tours). The film centres on a pet shop that sells supplements for animals to keep them healthy. This has adverse effects on the taxidermy business next door which needs material to work with. An unexpected love story develops between the girl who works in the pet shop and the taxidermist…
Harking back to Švankmajer’s ‘Alice’, I was pleased to find an animation which had taxidermy as a central theme. This beautifully made French animation deals with the fate of a taxidermy collection after the death of its creator. It tells the story of a woman whose husband has died and the funeral is held in the house, surrounded by taxidermied animals of different shapes and sizes. It’s time to say goodbye to what is left behind.
I wanted something factual in the programme, which explored the artistic side of taxidermy and I was fortunate to be in contact with Nicole Triche, the director of the film ‘Taxidermists‘. Nicole’s documentary follows two taxidermists at the biennial World Taxidermy Competition, providing a glimpse into the often overlooked world of art, science and competition.
Finally, I wanted to include an archive film in the programme: something to stick a flag in history and show how far taxidermy has progressed and changed over the years. I came across a film by Rich Remsberg, which turned out to be an edit of a longer film belonging to the American Museum of Natural History. I am extremely grateful to the AMNH for allowing me to show this piece from their archive. Rich Remsberg’s edit of this archival film (1927) documents Carl Akeley’s taxidermy process from the raw hide (fresh from the Faunthorpe-Vernay collection expedition) to the finished display.
I was excited to collaborate with Electric Pedals for this screening. They use the energy created by people pedalling bicycles to power cinemas (amongst other things). It seemed apt for some our audience to keep the cinema projector alive through their pedalling whilst watching films about taxidermists bringing life back to specimens.
Programming the screenings at Taxidermy Late was eye-opening and I came across many films where the primary subject matter was hunting and killing, with taxidermy being the final step. I felt morally and ethically uneasy about adding these films to the programme. In that sense, it made me think more deeply about some of the issues which were explored on the night such as the ethical aspects of the craft. There’s more to taxidermy than “stuffed animals” or “freakish monsters”: it can be a fascinating artistic endeavour as well as a vital scientific resource.
See more photos of this fantastic evening here.