[Read Reading] Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy Author Melissa Milgrom – Andy-palmer.co.uk

Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy While this book definitely has its moments, it sabout telling tales from the world of taxidermy and the author s time spent in it than providing a broader view of the subject The writing style frequently got in the way of the content thanks to jumpy chapters, sentences that were sometimes unclear, and awkward transitions between the author s experiences and her research.My biggest issue with the book was that the author didn t seem to care much about her subject She brushed right past a While this book definitely has its moments, it sabout telling tales from the world of taxidermy and the author s time spent in it than providing a broader view of the subject The writing style frequently got in the way of the content thanks to jumpy chapters, sentences that were sometimes unclear, and awkward transitions between the author s experiences and her research.My biggest issue with the book was that the author didn t seem to care much about her subject She brushed right past a lot of really cool facts and history, but would then do something like devote an entire page to a spoilery plot description of Daphne du Maurier s Jamaica Inn when introducing an auction at the place that inspired the novel She seemedengaged during her brief encounter with artist Damien Hirst, and while discussing his work, than she did during any of her time with actual taxidermists, leaving me with the impression that she chose her subjectfor quirk factor than actual interest.I think I uncovered the reason for my issues with the focus of the book during the scene where Milgrom attends a conference of Britian s Guild of Taxidermists She repeatedly bemoans the fact that the participants seeminterested in drinking and chatting than in teaching her about taxidermy That s when it hit me I wasn t connecting with Milgrom s style of nonfiction writing because she s the kind of writer who thinks that spending a few days getting sloshed with UK taxidermists is frivolous, while I m the kind of reader who thinks that sounds like a really awesome weekend.It was unbelievable to me that this book had no pictures I kept putting it down to run to the computer to look up the things she described, so here are links to sites with photos of a few of the works mentioned Walter Potter s Museum of CuriositiesKen Walker s Irish ElkNot even her own attempt at taxidermy seemed to bridge the distance between the author and her work After her entry was critiqued at the World Championships, Milgrom says, my squirrel missed the mark because I didn t love it enough It s kind of why I felt her book missed the mark, too I wanted to like this book a lotthan I did While there is some interesting information in this book, the writing style often made it jumbled Instead of being one tale covering the history of taxidermy and renowned taxidermist past and present, Still Life was readas a collection of essays that repeated the same story, taxidermists love nature and animals and hope to recreate life in their mounts I didn t get the sense that Milgrom really had any interest in taxidermy or natural his I wanted to like this book a lotthan I did While there is some interesting information in this book, the writing style often made it jumbled Instead of being one tale covering the history of taxidermy and renowned taxidermist past and present, Still Life was readas a collection of essays that repeated the same story, taxidermists love nature and animals and hope to recreate life in their mounts I didn t get the sense that Milgrom really had any interest in taxidermy or natural history and this book desperately needed some passion This book could also have been improved with a few pictures to show the different styles, techniques, and pieces she was describing in each chapter In the end I found this bookanecdotal then informative which was a disappointment to me I hesitated to begin this book because I bought it quite a while ago before I reached the point where I simply cannot read anything involving the deaths of animals Thankfully, aside from the author s frequent laments about over hunting and the rapid rates of extinction, there are no graphic depictions of animal cruelty.I was disappointed with the author s choppy writing style and felt that the book was moderately disorganized However, I was fascinated by the chapter 6 about the Potter Museu I hesitated to begin this book because I bought it quite a while ago before I reached the point where I simply cannot read anything involving the deaths of animals Thankfully, aside from the author s frequent laments about over hunting and the rapid rates of extinction, there are no graphic depictions of animal cruelty.I was disappointed with the author s choppy writing style and felt that the book was moderately disorganized However, I was fascinated by the chapter 6 about the Potter Museum of Curiosities For the first time I also learned about the controversy Darwin ignited when his theory of evolution introduced the idea of extinction and many people refused to believe him Overall, the author successfully presented taxidermy as a valid art form and presented its history in an accessible way I still prefer my animals alive, though, and don t need to readabout taxidermy 4.5 5Extraordinarily well researched, wonderfully paced and tenderly written, this almost novelistic journey into the world, history, art, and science of taxidermy is an excellent deep dive into this strange and arcane trade Covering all corners of the modern practices and competitive spirit among present day taxidermists, as well as the techniques and personalities of taxidermy s early years and heydays, anyone with an interest in natural history, museums, contemporary art, and scientific expl 4.5 5Extraordinarily well researched, wonderfully paced and tenderly written, this almost novelistic journey into the world, history, art, and science of taxidermy is an excellent deep dive into this strange and arcane trade Covering all corners of the modern practices and competitive spirit among present day taxidermists, as well as the techniques and personalities of taxidermy s early years and heydays, anyone with an interest in natural history, museums, contemporary art, and scientific exploration will find something to hang or mount their hat on I bought this book in a gift shop at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, which I did not think was that far a stretch at the time, but looking back, this was an interesting decision on the part of the Smithsonian Chapter 4 of this book covers in detail the ways in which the Smithsonian, in revamping their displays in the early 2000 s, systematically and needlessly destroyed irreplaceable artifacts of great historical, artistic, and biological value in the name of co I bought this book in a gift shop at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, which I did not think was that far a stretch at the time, but looking back, this was an interesting decision on the part of the Smithsonian Chapter 4 of this book covers in detail the ways in which the Smithsonian, in revamping their displays in the early 2000 s, systematically and needlessly destroyed irreplaceable artifacts of great historical, artistic, and biological value in the name of cost efficiency, even though there were other options available For instance one of three blue whale mounts in the world hacked apart and stuffed into a dumpster to save money Now there are only two in New York and Tokyo Dioramas that painstakingly recreated environmental biomes which are now no longer found in the wild were dismantled, hacked apart, and burned Offers from other museums that would preserve and maintain historical displays were rejected Ugh This chapter made me almost literally sick, and simultaneously furious And I can t believe the Smithsonian decided to sell this book In hindsight, this may have been a small act of rebellion on the part of some individuals, and the big bosses in charge of buying stuff to sell in gift shops obviously have never read it I am now very curious to go back to the museum and look at some of the displays described in this book in detail So there s that.It helped to have previously read Dragon Hunter Roy Chapman Andrews the Central Asiatic Expeditions by Charles Gallenkamp, about Roy Chapman Andrews Yvette Borup Andrews, his first wife, was amazing , and to be passingly familiar with Carl Akeley This book mainly concentrated on museum taxidermists, artists, etc instead of the people who mount hunting trophies, commercial taxidermists Emily Mayer sounds AWESOME I love her art, and her attitude, and her personality If the goal of taxidermy is to cross the uncanny valley and create animals that are as close to life as possible, she is the person included in this book who I feel is closest to that goal I mean, I have had rodents as pets for years and years and years, and I am very familiar with what they look like and even after looking at this mouse for a long time, knowing it is a mount, I cannot really pinpoint whether it is alive or not And this dog I wouldn t necessarily be able to tell with a deer or a lion or a bird, but to succeed in the challenge of taking on an animal like a mouse or a dog, where people live with them and are intimately familiar with every detail of how they look that s amazing I think one of my favorite things about this book is the way the author immerses herself in the subject matter she doesn t just interview these guys by phone, she went and stayed in their houses Ken Walker, Emily Mayer and really got an in depth picture of who these people are personally, and the reality of the taxidermy field today Her personal journey as detached sort of scientific observer to someone who then stuffs her own squirrel was almost as interesting as the people she interviews I really feel, as someone who knew practically nothing about taxidermy prior to reading this, that the author captured the spirit and essence of the field, the history and artistry of taxidermy as well as the occasional kitschyness of it all There is a section towards the end of the book where she is describing the critique she is receiving from Jack Fishwick at the World Taxidermy Championship for her squirrel Gray Squirrel, Yellow Dawn I think it s very good for a first attemptbut you have been hanging around taxidermists for the past two years perhaps the best taxidermists in the world You have an advantage You are not starting at rock bottom You have tons and tons of info you could have studied Personally I feel that his critique was a little off the mark the author did succeed what she was preserving was not a squirrel, but the field of taxidermy, through this book Imitation of lifeA tour of the hidden subculture of taxidermy with recipesBy Ethan Gilsdorf Boston Globe, March 14, 2010When the Parisian taxidermy shop Deyrolle went up in flames two years ago 90 percent of the inventory was lost to the fire and smoke thousands of specimens, from fossils to beetles, rabbits to polar bears, some reaching back to the store s 1831 origins.The loss touched not only natural history buffs, but casual window shoppers like myself When I lived in Paris, I d bring Imitation of lifeA tour of the hidden subculture of taxidermy with recipesBy Ethan Gilsdorf Boston Globe, March 14, 2010When the Parisian taxidermy shop Deyrolle went up in flames two years ago 90 percent of the inventory was lost to the fire and smoke thousands of specimens, from fossils to beetles, rabbits to polar bears, some reaching back to the store s 1831 origins.The loss touched not only natural history buffs, but casual window shoppers like myself When I lived in Paris, I d bring visitors to see Deyrolle s majestic zebras captured midprance and the fierce tigers with jaws agape, winding up for a serious snarl But I also found my curiosity colored by horror, pity, and disgust As an animal lover, taxidermy unsettled me I wanted to look away Yet, I could not, and eventually, staring into the glassy black eyes of a lion, I was able to see beauty in death.That s one of the paradoxes explored by Melissa Milgrom in her debut book, Still Life Adventures in Taxidermy Milgrom, who has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, takes us on an absorbing tour through this incomparable tool for displaying the wonder and beauty of animals Part craft and art, both hobby and business, and mixed with science and theater, taxidermy begins with a corpse, then tears it apart to infuse the body again with the illusion of spirit One competition judge describes it as an attempt to duplicate what God made Like many forays into little known subcultures, Milgrom s survey is chock full of colorful characters But these are no kooky amateur trophy mounters they re top practitioners true taxidermy geeks We begin with a prolonged visit to a third generation New Jersey taxidermy shop called Schwendeman s, run by a father and son We meet competitors at the annual World Taxidermy Championships wheeling mounted leopards through hotel lobbies and preening their entries fur like nervous competitors at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.Our skilled reporter later attends the auction of a collection of Victorian anthropomorphic curiosities ridiculous yet painstakingly crafted dioramas of 20 kittens in wedding dresses, or 98 birds reenacting the nursery rhyme The Death and Burial of Cock Robin She lurks to capture conversations often off color and scatters in snippets of taxidermy history While we probably spend too long, almost three chapters, with British anti taxidermist Emily Mayer, who fabricates cow heads and sharks for artist Damien Hirst s installations, the book s heart lies with Ken Walker, a two time WTC champion The swaggering but affable Walker excels in the Re Creations category He crafts a giant panda from dyed bear skins his huge prehistoric deer is cobbled together from elk hides In a funny life imitates art twist, he s also a skilled karaoke singer, with a dead on Roy Orbison impersonation.While Milgrom takes a back seat to the taxidermists, she does pop up from time to time to offer commentary For example, at the auction she remarks how depressed she feels, realizing a beloved British collection would be broken up After backstage tours of Smithsonian attics and trade show floors, she remarks, How tired my eyes were from all that I had seen So, too, are the reader s after her exhaustive litanies of muskrats, coyotes, mallards, and perch Too much detail can be a liability.Because the author insists on inserting her I into this sort of investigation, we naturally expect to learnabout her own interest in taxidermy what she has at stake The book need not be a quest for personal meaning, but Milgrom s own investment needsbackbone than the first chapter s meager admission that, on a safari to Tanzania, upon seeing a hunting party s booty of carcasses, she wanted to know what compels people to want to transform animals into mantelpiece trophies Otherwise, sans soul searching, perhaps it s better the author keep her distance.Another misstep The somewhat perplexing first chapter muddles topics her admiring visit to Schwendeman s with her African trip and what feelslike concluding not introductory remarks Section breaks and some reorganization early on might have provided a firmer foundation for the book A further quibble Photos would have helped to illustrate the mounts she discusses.But false moves aside, Milgrom artfully uncovers a hidden world We learn recipes for pickling skins, how to mold fake tongues and lips, and smell the stench of rotting flesh We grasp how the 19th century s insatiable lust for specimens led to the slaughter of thousands of beasts And we understand taxidermy s new ironic role in preserving species that man keeps driving to extinction.Like other misunderstood subcultures, taxidermy deserves our respect Still Life elevates it from kitsch and merely weird and morbid The book ends, fittingly, with the author stuffing her own squirrel She wins no prizes, but comes to understand first hand the art s absurd devotion, as well as the hard truth that no matter how hard a taxidermist tries, he or she can never bring the animal back to life Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, can be reached at ethan ethangilsdorf.com Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company In Still Life Adventures in Taxidermy, Melissa Milgrom takes us on a journey that s equal parts fascinating and disturbing There s a journalistic feel to the writing it s not a manual and it s not a history, but it is a little of both Milgrom spent years researching this book it s both informative and interesting a behind the scenes glimpse into a world you re typically not allowed to peek at, or perhaps, would even want to.I am a huge museum geek I love visiting museums I blame my t In Still Life Adventures in Taxidermy, Melissa Milgrom takes us on a journey that s equal parts fascinating and disturbing There s a journalistic feel to the writing it s not a manual and it s not a history, but it is a little of both Milgrom spent years researching this book it s both informative and interesting a behind the scenes glimpse into a world you re typically not allowed to peek at, or perhaps, would even want to.I am a huge museum geek I love visiting museums I blame my type A personality for my museum love my tendency toward organizing, labeling, categorizing, and archiving things My personal favorites at the museum include the giant dioramas those stop action sequences of animals and places and times I may never get to see or experience otherwise I m mesmerized by them and I see the artistry involved, but I d never really thought about the work behind those animals, until I read this book I love what those dioramas have taught me and my children and countless other museum goers, but there are times when I feel a little creeped out by the animals in those dome shaped rooms behind the glass, so still you could SWEAR you just saw one breathe Equally chilling are the means by which many museums got their specimens in the beginning Most museums got their specimen collections via hunting parties that went on multiple safaris to seek out and kill the creatures that would go on display These men went out and shot and killed animals so that they could recreate life without the living part in their respective museums It s madness Milgrom points out in chapter 3 that some museums were started just by acquiring specimens from one or two people s personal collections The British Museum was started in 1753 when England bought a collection from a Dr Sloane His collection contained a mere 19,290 animal specimens and fossils.One chapter had a bit of an expose feel to it as it discussed the removal of HUNDREDS of specimens from AMNH that were just DESTROYED another death for the already dead animals A travesty in the taxidermy world There were other chapters on Damien Hirst and Emily Mayer that were a little difficult to read probably because they are into the blood and guts, the rotting of it all Hirst is the artist who displays whole sections of animals in large glass panels Mayer is the taxidermist who makes his art possible It was interesting and uncomfortable, which is, I suppose, exactly Hirst s aim.The book has longish chaptes on individual taxidermists, their specialities, and lots of historical and some scientific information There are bits of museum history as well Sound interesting I wouldn t pick it up unless you re sure you could stomach some in depth writing on the procedures and tools used for creating taxidermy replicas of everything from rodents to elephants Procedures that include but by no means are limited to scraping deer skull plates clean, macerating bison skulls to remove the meat , disarticulating hind legs by cutting the ball joint out of the hip socket p.241 , etc Tools that sound like they areat home in a medieval chemist s shop toe probes, lip tuckers, tail splitters, skinning hooks, etc.Most surprising to me were the naturalists who were so taken by their obsession to recreate these natural scenes, did so under the pretense of preserving the animals forever, in case they ever went extinct, when it was these same men who drove the animals to extinction or near extinction hunting for that perfect specimen.Overall I can t get over how in love with nature and animals these taxidermists are, yet, it seems completely at odds with what they do.Well, maybe I understand a little bit I am a vegetarian and I love looking at dead animals in a museum It S Easy To Dismiss Taxidermy As A Kitschy Or Morbid Sideline, The Realm Of Trophy Fish And Jackalopes Or An Anachronistic Throwback To The Dusty Diorama Yet Theirs Is A World Of Intrepid Hunter Explorers, Eccentric Naturalists, And Gifted Museum Artisans, All Devoted To The Paradoxical Pursuit Of Creating The Illusion Of LifeInto This Subculture Of Insanely Passionate Animal Lovers Ventures Journalist Melissa Milgrom, Whose Journey Stretches From The Anachronistic Family Workshop Of The Last Chief Taxidermist For The American Museum Of Natural History To The Studio Where An English Sculptor, Granddaughter Of A Surrealist Artist, Preserves The Animals For Damien Hirst S Most Disturbing Artworks She Wanders Through Mr Potter S Museum Of Curiosities In The Final Days Of Its Existence To Watch Dealers Vie For Preserved Victorian Oddities, And Visits The Smithsonian S Offsite Lab, Where Taxidermists Transform Zoo Skins Into Vivacious Beasts She Tags Along With A Canadian Bear Trapper And Former Roy Orbison Impersonator The Three Time World Taxidermy Champion As He Resurrects An Extinct Irish Elk Using DNA Studies And Paleolithic Cave Art For Reference She Even Ultimately Picks Up A Scalpel And Stuffs Her Own Squirrel Transformed From A Curious Onlooker To An Empathetic Participant, Milgrom Takes Us Deep Into The World Of Taxidermy And Reveals Its Uncanny Appeal It s not a great sign when you read a book to learnabout a subject and find yourself correcting the author I got the impression that she wasn t REALLY interested in taxidermy, that she was actually interesting in writing a book with a little shock value Because taxidermy is WEIRD, right SO WEIRD.It seemed dated despite not being old Too bad I wanted to like it. For a peek into the world of taxidermy and the history of natural history museum exhibits, this isn t a bad place to start However, I m losing patience with books where the writer is so busy inserting herself into the story that she becomes the focus instead of her subject Milgrom s constantly creeped out reaction was distracting to say the least It s as if she wasn t quite comfortable with the fact that she was publishing a book on taxidermy and wants to make sure the readers know that she i For a peek into the world of taxidermy and the history of natural history museum exhibits, this isn t a bad place to start However, I m losing patience with books where the writer is so busy inserting herself into the story that she becomes the focus instead of her subject Milgrom s constantly creeped out reaction was distracting to say the least It s as if she wasn t quite comfortable with the fact that she was publishing a book on taxidermy and wants to make sure the readers know that she isn t really so weird as to think it s totally cool Her entire account of the British taxidermy show consisted mainly of her frustration over it not being what she expected, rather than a true account of what it was I am especially disgusted with her dedicating the entire last 2 chapters to her personal attempt at mounting a squirrel with all the freaked out sqeamishness she can muster and entering it in competition I also found myself questioning her reliability as a narrator with a number of jarring animal descriptions such as noting the golden fur of a snow leopard, or relating that someone went around with pockets full of muskrats I d like to see you stuff a single muskrat into a single pocket In spite of all this, there is some good history mixed in and this serves as a decent jumping off point for learning about some of the great hunter naturalists of the 19th and early 20th century It provides a very cool window into how natural history museums and the public perception thereof have changed drastically over time I found myself Googling many of the pieces Milgrom mentions


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