An animated initiation to the realm of taxidermy—its cultural significance, its hybrid status between art, craft and science, and the obsessive, idiosyncratic personalities who practice it.
In her debut, journalist Milgrom energetically dives into the hows and whos, teasing out the whys with subtlety. She shadows a family of taxidermists, whose patriarch was the last chief taxidermist employed by New York’s American Museum of Natural History; narrates the paradoxical mania of America’s early taxidermist/conservationists; observes the auctioning of one of the final collections of Victorian-era anthropomorphized stuffed animals; reveals the nerdily theatrical milieu of competitive taxidermy; and takes a scalpel to her own dead squirrel. These episodes—in addition to the meaty descriptions of larger-than-life personalities like Emily Mayer, who preserves animals for wealthy British artist Damien Hirst, or Smithsonian Institute taxidermist and three-time World Taxidermy Champion Ken Walker—make the book a visceral pleasure. Milgrom is a tactile writer, more portraitist than theorist; her book is no On Photography for taxidermy. Though her explorations venture broadly but not always deeply, durable themes unfold—chiefly, that interstitiality seems intrinsic to modern taxidermy. Artists won’t claim taxidermists as their own, despite the undeniable technical and artistic skill involved, and many naturalists are ill at ease with a profession that juxtaposes the killing, dismembering and reassembling of individual animals with genuine reverence for those individual animals’ species. What will linger with astute readers won’t be the malodorous macerating bison skull or Milgrom’s fear of slicing open her grey squirrel’s eyeball as she prepares it, but rather the vexation many taxidermists feel at their outsider status or Milgrom’s observation that taxidermy may again attain mainstream respect as a method of comprehending the present mass extinction, the worst in human history. This latter realization alone is enough to enliven the narrative with the vibrancy to elevate what outsiders perceive as a strange pursuit into a sublime one.
Brimming with respect and immersive vitality.