Liv Emma Thorsen: Animal Biographies. On the Unnatural History of Animals
The project examines a selection of stuffed animals in Gothenburg Natural HIstory Museum and analyzes them as, respectively, natural history illustrations, cultural representations and actors with a biography.
Sjölanders elefant. Copyright: Göteborgs Naturhistoriska Museum
A common feature of the animals in the sample is that they are "objects that speak" because, in the words of science historian Lorraine Daston, they "knit together matter and meaning". She adds that the speech of objects is deduced from the particular characteristics they have, properties that are suitable for the cultural purposes they are part of. As physical natural history objects, they can be touched, moved, modified and viewed, depending on their purpose. As natural history representations they mobilise ideas and emotions. The stuffed animals resist any standard classification according to their position as natural objects and cultural artefacts. They raise the question of what kind of object they are, whether they are cultural artefacts, natural objects or rather hybrids that mediate between nature and non-nature, where non-nature points in the direction of natural science, as well as to art and ideas of the relation between man and animals.
To address this complex question we first need knowledge about the specific stuffed animal as an artefact and the outcome of a craft process. Taxidermy was developed into a refined craft during the 19th century. Knowledge about preparation and conservation of fur and feather has played an important role in the successful mediation of natural history knowledge, and taxidermy was a vital supporting discipline in building the zoological collections in the many natural history museums that were established in the Western world at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century. The dermoplastic method was developed by Carl Akeley around 1900 and opened for manipulation of feather and fur that creates a convincing illusion of life and nature that is rarely seen in older specimens. The more lifelike a stuffed animal appears, the more fantastic it is. Thus stuffed animals belong among chimeral objects that erase the line between life and death, between science and art, between what is genuine and what is artificial.
By transforming dead animals into specimens, taxidermy has been a craft that has standardized natural history illustration and created genres dictating how wild animals should be presented visually. There has also been a close connection between representations of animals in art and in natural science. Stuffed animals bring together art and nature, and the project will, secondly, examine how the animals move between art and science by examining some concrete examples. In this connection it will be necessary to analyze specific examples of natural history illustrations, not limiting this to stuffed animals but also including illustrations in zoological manuals.
A third question that examines the relation between transformation, aesthetics and conflict is related to the story of the animal’s wandering history and the connection between the once living animal and the specimen: When and where did the animal live, and how did it end up in a museum?
A common factor of the selected specimens is that they have a biography that unites the once alive animal with the now stuffed one. These biographies illuminate the large field, on that in Scandinavian culture research has received little attention, which we can call the "unnatural history" of wild animals, in contrast to their "natural history" which deals with the animals as they have been presented in natural history and in the museum of natural history. Wild animals are normally placed in natural history, in narratives about what is outside the human domain. The animals’ narratives of their migration bring cultural history into the museum of natural history and natural history into cultural history.
In extending this, the animals in the display cases become more than natural history illustrations and representations. As sources of the unnatural history of animals they lead us to the collecting practices of natural history museums, to circuses, menageries and zoos. The unnatural history of animals is about the entrance into and performance of exotic and wild animals in social and cultural arenas, and it reveals their earlier narratives that have disappeared in the endeavours by the museums to present natural history as correctly and with as much detail as possible.