Elee Kirk

Children, Nature, Museums

taxidermy Archive



February 2013



The Armchair Museum Visitor

Written by , Posted in Natural history, Social media, Taxidermy

No, I haven’t been visiting museums of armchairs. In fact, for the past couple of months, for unavoidable health reasons, I haven’t visited any museums at all, which is sad. But today, thanks to my Tumblr-mad little sister, I have totally immersed myself in a rather wonderful museum, which I plan to keep visiting at regular intervals over the next few museum-restricted months. The museum isn’t even local. It’s the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at the University of Montana, USA.

The reason that I, and thousands of other people around the world, have been able to visit this museum, is thanks to the tireless enthusiasm and astonishing hard work of it’s full-time volunteer curatorial assistant, Emily Graslie, and her rather wonderful Youtube channel The Brain Scoop, complete with accompanying Tumblr blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed (in case you’re wondering, a brain scoop is a sort of little spoon, used in taxidermy for… um… scooping brains). Honestly, I have been able to spend as much time exploring this museum and finding out about its collections, taxidermy preparation, and random natural history facts as I would if I visited the physical museum. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have loved to visit the museum itself, (or in fact any museum) but just to say that there’s a huge amount of material in there, and that it’s totally enthralling. I’ve seen inside their cold room of pelts, admired their tank of dermestid beetles, looked in countless drawers of skulls and skeletons, and been with them in their truck to collect a frozen wolf carcass.

What Emily and her fellow volunteers have manage to do is a near-perfect job of engagement through social media. As far as I can tell, they’ve managed this because they both take the job very seriously, whilst having a massive amount of fun doing it, and also by, really, REALLY caring about the museum, it’s collections, research, and natural history in general. As is demonstrated by their thousands of loyal followers, their enthusiasm is totally infectious. This is not least because they diligently respond to huge numbers of questions, comments, and photos, drawing more and more people into the conversation.

What makes this even more amazing is that the Philip L. Wright Museum is actually just a few storage rooms, hidden away on the second floor of the University of Montana. It’s so desperately short of money that the spirit collection (i.e. the jars of pickled animals) has lived for seven years in cardboard boxes on the floor of a dusty room across the campus. The museum has 1.5 members of staff, and only the part-time curator is paid. But volunteer Emily is so passionate about the museum that huge numbers of online followers now send messages asking what they can do to help the place raise money, and sending design ideas for merchandise. She also does a fantastic job of drumming up enthusiasm for natural history museums more generally, featuring her own and other people’s photos of them on the Tumblr blog.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment in museums about social media and online participation (see, for example, the work of Nina Simon). But plenty of museums, whilst trying to show willing, really do quite a half-arsed job. I suspect the Philip L. Wright Museum has struck gold with Brain Scoop for a few reasons. First, because it’s fronted by an intelligent, enthusiastic and attractive young presenter. Second, because it plugs into the current trend for geek culture, where learning about weird subjects like taxidermy is considered cool (which, as we all know, it is). Thirdly, because they really get the language of the internet (memes, gifs, lols and suchlike). Fourthly, because everything is well designed and produced, and looks great. And fifthly, because they never stop responding to their followers.

So Emily’s Youtube videos and blog appeal not only to converted museum geeks like me, but to all sorts of people who have stumbled across, loved, and shared them throughout the world of social media. Now normally it’s me who hauls my family members to museums. But this time, because of the social media phenomenon that is The Brain Scoop, my little sister was able to repay me the favour. And I’m delighted that she did.



October 2012



Seeing Voices in the Museum

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Taxidermy, Text panels

Human beings are incredibly social animals. This manifests itself in a whole host of ways—from our desire to share ideas and conversation, to our tendency to see agency and intention in inanimate objects (‘my computer hates me’), to our ability to form relationships with everything from people, to cats, to cars. If museums are clever, they can make use of this inherent sociability to create some really compelling exhibitions.

This was revealed to me particularly on a recent visit to Manchester Museum, where I was delighted to have a good chunk of time in which to explore the new Living Worlds gallery, which reopened last year. I had been wanting to go ever since seeing the old gallery in 2010 and hearing that the redesign was going to be carried out in association with a fashion design company (catwalk show producers Villa Eugenie). I’d heard good things about the new gallery since it opened, and had been looking for an excuse to travel up to Manchester and see it for myself. (more…)



August 2012



Shelves of Zebras

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Taxidermy

This lovely display of zebras can be found at the Natural History Museum’s outpost at Tring. It’s a delightful museum, built around the collections of Walter Rothschild, a classic British eccentric aristocrat. There are pictures of Rothschild riding around on giant tortoises, with a lettuce leaf held out on a stick to encourage them to walk, and another of him in a carriage pulled by zebras (I don’t know if any of the ones in the picture pulled his carriage…).

Rothschild decided aged seven that he would run a zoological museum. This makes me feel a certain affinity towards him, as I too had childhood yearnings towards museums, as proven by a school exercise book from around 1989, in which I declared that by the year 2000 I would be working in a museum (I was out by 1 year — it was 2001 when I got my first museum job).

But back to the zebras… What I love about this display is the way that it strikes a balance between ordinariness and weirdness. In almost any natural history museum that you care to visit, you will find specimens displayed like this, on glass shelves at various heights in a class cabinet. But what is odd about this one is a) the animals are all quite large, and b) they are all the same type of animal. Plus, the taxidermy is so beautifully done that they have a certain nonchalant quality, as if they just happen to be hanging around in a museum display case.

I noticed during my research in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History that young children often notice or imagine relationships between taxidermied animals. Displays like the one above are great for this — you don’t need anything as obvious as a diorama to imagine something going on between the animals. Even a technique as simple as facing some animals towards each other and some away creates a strangely compelling social scene.

But what’s also lovely about this display is that it somehow has the feel of a work of art, but without the affectation of art. It is essentially a comparative study of zebra species, and yet within this display we also have aesthetic appeal, surprise, narrative and wit. Or am I just getting overexcited by some shelves of zebras?

(This post builds on a post that originally appeared on my now-defunct Tumblr blog Stuffed Stuff)



July 2012



Welcome to the gallery of the real

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Taxidermy, Visitors

Some time last year I was in a natural history gallery with a Natural History Museum educator from the USA. I asked her, “What question do children most commonly ask in your museum?”, already anticipating that the answer would be, “Is it real?”. I was right, of course, with children’s favoured question number two, on both sides of the pond, being, “Did you kill it?”.

The world over, young children seem to be totally baffled by taxidermy. A couple of months ago I visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with my two nephews, aged seven and four. They spent most of the visit trying to get their heads around the relationship between ‘real’, ‘alive’ and ‘dead’. “But when are we going to see the real ones?”, they kept asking. And they weren’t convinced by my patient, rational response that these were real, they were just the skins of dead animals that someone had stuffed to make them look alive. To the boys, ‘real’ meant ‘alive’ (more…)