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Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy Hardcover – March 8, 2010
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2010: For many, taxidermy summons images of wildlife frozen in menacing poses, teeth bared in an eternal rictus; or maybe it's the lamented family cat, forever curled in purr-less slumber. With Still Life, Melissa Milgrom peels the skin back on Norman Bates's favorite pastime, dutifully tracking taxidermy from its 19th-century heyday (the beneficiary of a natural history boom), to its nadir as a reviled predilection in the age of PETA and conservation. It will tell most readers as much as they need to know about erosion-molded rats and replacement lips, ears, and eyelids, but it's the culture of iron-stomached men (and occasionally, women) that practice the art of skinned carcasses and stretched hides--those who wield "the calipers and the brain spoons"--that Milgrom's after. Beginning as a wide-eyed visitor to a third-generation stuff shop, she moves through an underworld of auctions, artisans, scientists, and the ultra competitive (albeit insular) World Taxidermy Championships, ultimately trying a queasy hand at squirrel-stuffing herself. Still Life an entertaining and illuminating adventure. --Jon Foro
Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Melissa Milgrom, Author of Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy
Dear Amazon Reader,
People--even my own parents!--ask what sparked my interest in taxidermy. I tell them that in 1994 I went on a safari gone awry, which led me to the family workshop of the last chief taxidermist of the American Museum of Natural History. I was expecting him to be creepy like Norman Bates in Psycho, but he was a gentle naturalist, and his studio with its skeletons and birds, the beauty and the strange tools, evoked Darwin's study. The contradiction pulled me in, and still does.
Still Life took more than six years to write and that's because I had to shift my perception from one of skepticism to one of empathy and respect. I just saw Fantastic Mr. Fox and thought if Wes Anderson had been alive in the 1850s he'd have been a Victorian taxidermist, making little scenes of kittens dressed as brides. It's ironic--Victorians needed taxidermy to see exotic species from other continents, and we need taxidermists for the same reason--we long for animals as they disappear. Taxidermy evokes grandeur, which may help us comprehend the present mass extinction.
Another reason I find taxidermy engrossing is because it combines art, science, and hunting. In Still Life I shadowed the most gifted taxidermist I could find in each area: an artist, a field naturalist, and a hunter, each of whom is on a quest to understand nature on its own terms. English sculptor Emily Mayer preserves animals for Damien Hirst's most provocative artworks; her dogs are so boggling you have to poke them to see if they will move. Ken Walker, the hunter from Alberta who recreates extinct species, is self-taught. He won the World Taxidermy Championships three times and was a Roy Orbison impersonator, which actually makes perfect sense. Taxidermy is like karaoke. The person who loves the singer the most gets the voice right.
I hope you will enjoy the people you meet in Still Life whose obsessions and uncannily lifelike replicas create an art form that once was sublime and may be again.Melissa Milgrom
(Photo © Ulalume Zavala)
A Look Inside the World Taxidermy Championships with Author Melissa Milgrom
(Click to Enlarge)
|Ken Walker's Panda "Thing Thing"--recreated from bear skins-- Best of Show Recreations 2003|
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this absorbing blend of bright-eyed reportage and hands-on participation, journalist Milgrom demystifies the creepy art of bringing dead creatures back to life and dispels the myth that taxidermists merely stuff animals. The author's quest to understand the compulsion of obsessed hobbyists and exacting scientists alike to duplicate what nature has created starts in a New Jersey family workshop, where three generations—including the last chief taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History—have mounted everything from three-toed sloths to fireflies. She visits the English sculptor who preserves dead animals for British artist Damien Hirst's displays; explores the arcane subculture of American taxidermy conventions where hundreds vie for best in show awards; and wanders the halls of the bankrupt Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities as collectors bid for auction lots of Victorian-era displays of squirrels drinking port and bespectacled gentlemen lobsters. Though her own squeamish attempts to preserve a squirrel are less than stellar, Milgrom's initial uneasy curiosity blossoms into genuine appreciation for a true art form, an enthusiasm the author imparts with style in this substantial study. (Mar.)
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Top customer reviews
My knowledge in this area was nonexistent. The author opened up an extremely interesting world. Ms. Milgrom's investigation covers such areas as a third-generation taxidermy shop in New Jersey; a taxidermist competition/trade show; an interesting history of the movers-and-shakers in the field; the American Museum of Natural History; the comparison between American and European attitudes about it; an eccentric English taxidermist named Emily Mayer; the auction of the odd Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities; and finally the author gets her own hands dirty by recreating a grey squirrel which she submits into a national competition. The book is peppered with oodles of interesting trivia.
Ms. Milgrom does a fine job describing taxidermy and taxidermists in their various manifestations. Their mindsets and work ethics are very different than I had envisioned. Her wonderful writing is highly informative, introspective as well as sprinkled with occasional humor. If you even have a modicum of interest in taxidermy, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Ms. Milgrom's work.
Perhaps, few other sectors of natural history can , as does taxidermy, display both the professional and the personal profile of the persons involved. Melissa Milgrom takes the reader by the hand and leads him along a path touching the phases of exploration, collecting and preparation, embedded in an aesthetic dimension which gives taxidermists an unique position in the variegate world of naturalists.
The personalities of the outstanding American taxidermists depicted in the book are all characterized by a strong tension toward disclosing the aesthetics of natural objects and their environment, a motivation often subliminally present in many persons that left a mark in the history of Natural History.
A book, this of Melissa Milgrom, that deserve the attention and the gratitude of all those aware of the necessity of opposing the increasing fading of naturalistic culture.
Gian Carlo Carrada
Full Professor of Ecology
University of Naples Federico II, Naples, Italy
As a young boy my parents brought me to the Chicago Field Museum and I was mesmerized by the dioramas. Each one was an adventure that fueled my imagination. It is still one of my most vivid childhood memories. Some of my friends collected baseball cards....I collected skins and skulls. I think Melissa Milgrom touched upon this experience and followed it through with some world class artisans that keep the memories alive....I only wish there were photos of the mounts including her squirrel. Well worth the read....heads off to Melissa. Joe Grote
I found the descriptions to be so clear that I was afraid to eat and read at the same time. A worthwhile read about something of which I knew very little.