The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing (Animalibus)
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From sixteenth-century cabinets of wonders to contemporary animal art, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing examines the cultural and poetic history of preserving animals in lively postures. But why would anyone want to preserve an animal, and what is this animal-thing now? Rachel Poliquin suggests that taxidermy is entwined with the enduring human longing to find meaning with and within the natural world. Her study draws out the longings at the heart of taxidermy—the longing for wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory, and remembrance. In so doing, The Breathless Zoo explores the animal spectacles desired by particular communities, human assumptions of superiority, the yearnings for hidden truths within animal form, and the loneliness and longing that haunt our strange human existence, being both within and apart from nature.
general aspect, is disposed to place it among mice, fortified by the general name given by the French to the whole tribe of chauve souris. A third, chiefly influenced by the peculiarity of its teeth, arranges it in the same group as monkeys, and each, acting on his respective inferences, fashions his system accordingly. Now, as to the facts connected with the individual structure … of the bat, all these naturalists would agree; because such facts can be verified by their personal observation. …
classification, or the habits or habitats of certain animals. Perhaps the display will encourage visitors to learn more about a particular creature, but further learning usually proceeds elsewhere—there is rarely room in museums for extended zoological discussion. In the overt sameness of such pedagogical display tactics, what stops visitors in front of any particular creature is an intense animal attraction. What stopped me were the Tring zebras. With the exception of their being seated, the
souvenir, a hunting trophy exhibits the importance of a particular event within an individual’s life experience, which is to say, the hunted animal must be highly valued by the hunter or the narrative of its death would hardly need such potent commemoration. Taxidermy is not a quick, easy, or cheap process. Perhaps the animal was the first of its species killed by the hunter. Perhaps it was the most dangerous, the wiliest, or the one that almost got away. Perhaps it was astonishingly large. Or
the summerhouse of the White Lion’s garden. The taxidermic tableau included ninety-eight British bird specimens and a miniature bull constructed from fur stretched over a wood form. True to the poem, a rook with a white collar and a prayer book acts as the parson, a dove is the chief mourner, and the bull tolls the bell of the Bramber church, painted in the background, making the churchyard the same as that in which Potter himself was buried. The trees overhead are filled with sorrowful birds,
and affixing tiny earrings and cravats. All taxidermy is unsettling, but anthropomorphic taxidermy achieves a higher degree of eeriness because its subjects are so domesticated and demure. Potter’s scenes would not be quite so unsettling if he had chosen subjects other than kittens and rabbits and composed them in scenarios other than nursery rhymes, domesticated spaces, and spaces of leisure. But he chose to craft visions of “Babes in the Wood,” “The House That Jack Built,” and homely scenes of