The Museum of Vancouver’s taxidermy collection has been in storage for 50 years. Now a thought-provoking new show brings it into the light
Outside the Museum of Vancouver’s new taxidermy show, it’s a surreal scene. People in white lab coats are ushering two stuffed, off-white Kermode bears into the display hall. The baby and its mother look as if they’ve just been frozen in time on a walk through the woods. If the sensation of seeing them is odd, that’s exactly the kind of feeling Rachel Poliquin is trying to address in her provocative new exhibit, Ravishing Beasts (which opens tonight [October 22] and runs through February 2010).
Ever since Marion Crane found herself admiring the stuffed birds at the Bates Motel, taxidermy has made people uncomfortable. And that unease has led to the stuffed creatures being hidden away. The Museum of Vancouver has stored most of the creatures in this show in its basement for more than half a decade; 90 percent of the animals have not been exhibited before.
Discovering the vast, forgotten collection prompted guest curator Poliquin—a Vancouverite fresh out of a post-doctoral history fellowship at M.I.T. who’s also writing a book called Taxidermy and Longing—to mount a decidedly contemporary show that would raise the kinds of questions she had about the practice. “I grew up in Vancouver and I never knew this taxidermy collection existed. And I think it’s a wonderful allegory for taxidermy itself: it was hidden away not because people hated it so much but because they were not sure about it,” she explains. “Hopefully, this show allows people to think about it. Taxidermy is no longer something just to look at but to think about.”
Exploring the bowels of the institution, where the animals and birds were carefully lined up on shelves, all packaged in blue boxes with clear plastic coverings, Poliquin admits she felt emotional. “There were just rows and rows of these little animals. I think it’s sad to ignore these creatures once you’ve made them your responsibility,” she says. “There’s hardly any information now about them and who they came from and how they got here.”
Poliquin has arranged the exhibit by different kinds of taxidermy—and not one of the creatures is crowded into the “musty, heavy oak cabinets” she says most people associate with natural-history museums. Instead, the display feels more like a series of mini art installations. There’s a 16th-century-style wonder cabinet, spread with such curiosities as an albino crow and a sperm-whale tooth. A Victorian parlour is an ode to the height of taxidermy, with its chaise longue, chandelier, and tiger-skin rug—complete with head. Elsewhere there are stuffed pets, a tiny gopher dressed up in a toque in a diorama, an extinct passenger pigeon, and an area where a giant moose towers over a tiny pygmy owl. Kingsway taxidermy legend Steve Kulash deconstructs his art in another section, with the antlers, glass eyes, and other materials to make a deer’s head all laid out neatly.
The more disturbing side of taxidermy is here, too. About 15 trophy animal heads—a majestic greater kudu, an elk, a tiny dikdik, a roan antelope, a Thomson’s gazelle—stare down from a spotlit wall. It’s a haunting scene, handsome and grotesque.
“Most were donated to the B.C. Wildlife Federation and then to the museum. They have never been seen before. They have been down in the basement,” Poliquin says, surveying the lifelike faces. “A hunting trophy is a souvenir of an animal’s own death. These have been in storage for 50 years—do we incinerate them? Do we at least honour the animal in some way? From my perspective we should do the latter. It’s so easy to see them as a violation by humans of nature. There is some worth in respecting the animal. These scenes become opportunities for moral lessons.”
Poliquin stresses that the history of taxidermy predates the hunting trophy. She first became interested in the subject when she spent time at London’s Natural History Museum in 2006, where many of the stuffed-animal exhibits are two centuries old and deteriorating.
“Its history is not in trophy hunting; it’s in the wonder at the natural world,” she explains. “Darwin shot his Galapagos finches and brought them back. So much of what we know about nature is from the 1800s. To identify it you have to examine it.”
Poliquin, who spent her undergrad years studying fine art at UBC, has also included a small exhibit of contemporary art that incorporates taxidermy. Vancouver artist George Vergette’s The Waning Light juxtaposes neon lettering with a stuffed fox. Other works include those by France’s Pascal Bernier and the Dutch duo Idiots. “They’re using the animals to create troubling situations. Taxidermy is inherently ambiguous about what it means, and that’s what makes it troubling.”
Amid the artworks, the stuffed trumpeter swans, the albino skunks, and the white rhinoceros head, there is also a small specimen that’s special to the curator. A gift from a friend, it’s a red fox she’s named Rupert. He has a misshapen face, and he appears to be standing inside a hollowed-out log—an attempt to hide the fact he was run over, Poliquin guesses.
Poliquin has displayed Rupert beside a beautiful cross fox by local taxidermist Frank Gilbert, to show the differences between “good” and “bad” taxidermy. Rupert is the perfect example of the quandary taxidermy provokes—and the way these museum “objects” have a lifelike emotional pull. “He didn’t choose this, and what am I going to do with him?” Poliquin says with a shrug. “I feel like I’ve got to take care of him.” Even if he isn’t such a ravishing beast.