Journalist shares taxidermy research with Yalies

Though Milgrom is not a taxidermist herself, during the process of writing the book, she stuffed a squirrel to gain hands-on experience in the field.
Though Milgrom is not a taxidermist herself, during the process of writing the book, she stuffed a squirrel to gain hands-on experience in the field. Photo by Mariana Lopez-Rosas.

Artists, not just scientists, stuff animals.

In front of an audience of about 40 students, professors and community members, journalist Melissa Milgrom gave a talk at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History Thursday afternoon on her travels researching taxidermy, which culminated in her first book. Published in 2010, ‘Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy’ explores Milgrom’s experiences as she explored the history and practice of stuffing animals.

Although not a taxidermist herself, Milgrom said she became interested in the topic after entering a local taxidermy shop close to her hometown in Milton, New Jersey, which happened to be owned by David Schwendeman, the last taxidermist to work for the American Museum of Natural Science, before the museum closed the position.

Journalist Melissa Milgrom discussed her experiences researching taxidermy for her book, “Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy,” in front of about 40 Yale students on Thursday.
Journalist Melissa Milgrom discussed her experiences researching taxidermy for her book, “Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy,” in front of about 40 Yale students on Thursday.

“I walked into the shop expecting Norman Bates but it was like falling into Darwin’s story,” Milgrom said.

At first she said she thought taxidermy was illogical, finding no reason behind killing an animal to then replicate it again. As she started to talk to taxidermists, though, she said she realized that the people who practice it love and know more about animals than the average person.

Taxidermy started as a scientific practice that eventually evolved into a type of art that attempts to freeze motion. Initially housed in the private collections of kings and princes, the stuffed animals were careless distortions of the live animal intended solely to surprise and amaze the owner’s guests, she said.

In stuffing the creatures, the taxidermists had to search for a balance of both art and science, not an easy pursuit, Milgrom said.

“You don’t have to know anything about an animal to see that’s not natural, but you have to know everything about an animal to replicate it right,” Milgrom said. “My book is about people who are obsessed with getting it right.”

The process of making a stuffed animal, which Milgrom describes in her book, consists of first filling the dead body arbitrarily with plaster or mache. Then they form a mold of clay, and attach the skin of the animal to the resulting mannequin.

The pinnacle of the art form of taxidermy, Milgrom said, arrived with museums’ introduction of the diorama, which presents a stuffed animal in an artificial replica of its natural habitat.

But times change. Nowadays taxidermy is less common in museums, replaced by more technologically advanced attractions, such as Imax screens and robotic dinosaurs, she said.

During the research process for her book, Milgrom met taxidermy greats like Ken Walker and Emily Mayer who use the process in their artistic work. Milgrom also saw the commercial side of taxidermy, visiting the World’s Taxidermy Championship in Springfield, Illinois, which highlights taxidermist as an art form.

“There I saw how taxidermists combine things in their quest for anatomical perfectionism,” Milgrom said. “I saw how they make jaw sets and jaw juice, which is fake saliva. And some guys brought in a panda whose head was made out of three bears.”

Milgrom has also had her own hands-on experience with the stuffing process, immortalizing a squirrel over a six month period. She submitted the squirrel to a taxidermy competition, and placed it among electric cables and light bulbs, which she said characterizes her natural habitat in Brooklyn, New York.

People in attendance said they enjoyed hearing about Milgrom’s experiences with a specialized topic.

Peabody Museum employee Jenny Briggs and School of Medicine professor Bob Lanzi said the talk raised their interest in Milgrom’s book, especially after seeing the photos of taxidermy she presented during the event.

“It was great. People really enjoyed it,” said Michael Anderson, a Peabody Museum taxidermist who is currently working on an exhibit of parasitic insects. “Personally taxidermy is very interesting. You learn so much about animals.”

Milgrom’s book was selected by Amazon’s Best Book of the Month in March 2010.

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