The Human Experience of Taxidermy
Between fall 2013 and spring 2014 I spent four months researching the evolution of taxidermy displays beginning with the Cabinets of Curiosity through contemporary displays of these stuffed animals. I presented my findings, Taxidermy as Museum Object: Designing Exhibitions for Audience Engagement, at the Twenty-Third Annual Voorsanger Symposium: The Publics of Art and Design at the New School.
Here is my biggest finding:
During the Renaissance, taxidermy found in Cabinets of Curiosity (wunderkammern) is displayed between objects such as musical instruments and tribal paintings, providing a decontextualized setting from the animal's natural habitat. Very often, collectors let their guests physically touch their displayed taxidermy, something unheard of today, although not unusual during this time period.
The 18th Century
Taxidermy becomes a means of recreating nature indoors, hence a landscape painting loosely replicating the taxidermied animal's natural habitat is placed behind the object. Glass is introduced to these displays, restricting audiences from having intimate encounters with taxidermy.
The Late 19th Century: The Rise of the Natural History Museum
This is the beginning of the habitat diorama (displays that include elements such as detailed painted landscape backgrounds, ambient lighting and props such as rocks, ground soil and plants in the foreground). Glass continues to be used to separate taxidermy display from visitor.
The 20th Century
Dioramas such as those found at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City see endless crowds up until the television is introduced into the home, shifting entertainment away from outings to the museum in favor of watching T.V. in the comfort of one's home. The adoption of laws restricting hunting of endangered animals begins to limit the bounty of taxidermy donations to the museum.
The Late 20th Century through Today
The growth of immersive environments for entertainment purposes in amusement parks such as Disneyland becomes adopted by the museum world, leading to taxidermy displays visitors can physically walk through. Research on education is conducted regarding multi-sensory learning experiences, leading to museums' incorporation of touch, smell, and sound components to taxidermy displays.