|Courtesy of Wagner Free Institute of Science
Think twice next time you see your uncle's gross deer heads on the wall there's actually a long history of taxidermy that predates the hunting lodge. Dr. Pat Morris
is a retired University of London professor and leading authority on the practice. He and his wife have traveled the world in search of remarkable and unique animals, and current hold the largest collection of historical taxidermy in Britain.
Tonight, you can catch Dr. Morris speaking at The Wagner Free Institute of Science
, and take a deeper look at the history of taxidermy from its scientific uses to the purely comic approach. We sat down to pick his brain about just what makes this peculiar subject sound intriguing.
Can you give me a little preview of your lecture this Wednesday at the Wagner?
The actual lecture is entitled "A History of Taxidermy: Art, Science and Bad Taste
." It's rather similar to asking someone to give a history of art. You know if someone would do that, they'd give you a history of the artists, paintings, different styles, cultures and all the varying techniques. What I want to do is give a background to the history of taxidermy
and how important it truly is as a practice. It's meant to be about what's interesting in it, not about how to do taxidermy.
I can see that being a problem.
It's a mixed bag as it were, but there's no blood and gore
What started this fascination?
As a child I lived in east London where there wasn't a lot of wildlife. So the idea to see animals up close and touch them
, that was a revelation. There just wasn't a lot of opportunity to do that otherwise.
How big is your personal collection?
If you're going to ask me how many stuffed birds I have, I don't know. Numbers is not what it's about
. It's about collecting and showcasing particular subjects and representations of different animals.
Why do you continue to seek out new specimens?
This has been my hobby since I was a kid. It's been a good excuse to focus while we travel; instead of just driving around to look at churches or something, we look at taxidermy
. My wife [Mary] and I have been all around the world searching for the oldest specimens we can find, especially birds.
What is the oldest bird you've found?
The oldest known bird is actually in Westminster Abbey, not a museum. It belonged to one of the mistresses of King Charles II and died in 1702. I like to think that this bird actually spoke to King Charles and he spoke to it
. In going around looking at other things, we've also found a whole lot of old horses
in Denmark and Germany. The oldest one is from 1620, residing in Brussels.
So you've done quite a bit of travel in your search.
We told our Italian friend and he said "There's an old crocodile in Italy," so we went there to see it. It's a tiny village not far from the Alps, a crocodile hanging in the roof of the church
. We just go all over.
We also look at the whole genre where animals have been set up as humans
in unnatural positions. Things like the kitten wedding
, that's a famous one, and the rabbit school
. There's a museum in Switzerland with a whole bunch of frogs
in different scenes.
What are the frogs doing?
I can't tell you everything, that would spoil the whole lecture. But there are frogs at schools, a frog militia, frogs eating spaghetti
, labeled "Italian Frogs."
Well, what's the most interesting piece of taxidermy you've ever come across?
That's difficult because these things are interesting for many different reasons. I think some are the most interesting pieces are in the personal collection I keep with my wife, which gives us pleasure
every day. We have one case in our guest bedroom that is about seven feet long
, depicting the "Death of Cock Robin
." It's probably the most famous single piece of Victorian taxidermy.
The death of what?
It's a traditional English poem that all the children used to learn when they were about seven or eight. There's a long series of verses...
"Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin."
The collection was part of a museum devoted to taxidermy and now is dispersed. It drew many collectors, tourists, so everybody knew about it at least everybody in England. That particular case was the centerpiece of the museum.
Why is it so important that we document this? It's not something that normally draws a wide interest.
What many people don't realize is that taxidermy is an important part of social history as well as natural history. Later on in life, it became steadily more important to me because this has been out of fashion for quite a while now. With all of these specimens out there, things get lost, thrown away, ruined. We're in danger of losing the whole thing
. My hobby interest is in trying to document the whole history of it, so we don't lose it all. Other people go to cricket matches or baseball matches or visit museums, why can't I do taxidermy?
Wed., April 7, 5:30-7 p.m., $5-$8 suggested donation, Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 W. Montgomery Ave., 215-763-6529.