Saw this piece on the ABC site last week: Poor taxidermy making ‘fattypuses’ and ‘platysausages’ out of Australian animals Essentially the article talks about Jack Ashby’s highlighting of dodgy taxidermy around the world, especially in regards to Australian fauna. Ashby’s book Platypus Matters has been reviewed here on Gumtrees and Galaxies and by May at Brizzy May’s Books and Bruschetta, it is a fascinating look at how we record our natural history and makes for stimulating reading. The one thing that Ashby really highlights is the importance of museums in zoological education. As the world changes, urbanisation expands and we see continuing declines and species extinction, those natural history collections in museums take on even more critical significance. In some cases, the museum may be the first and only place some children may encounter our extraordinary wildlife.

Over the Christmas break, I took the opportunity to drop into the QLD museum at Southbank, libraries and museums are my natural habitat and I have enjoyed happy wandering through both since I was a child and will never get sick of them. I did have a particular reason for visiting. I wanted to check out some beetles in the collection, specifically christmas beetles. Shortly before christmas, stories had appeared in the media about christmas beetles declining and calls for citizen scientists to record sightings of the once ubiquitous summer beetle, another ABC link: Citizen scientists help investigate Christmas beetle numbers. The story drew attention to the fact that this year I saw absolutely none of this once familiar harbinger of summer and the christmas season, a fact I find deeply sad. I am sure there are still christmas beetles around, just not in my backyard in 2022.

The media stories made me nostalgic for the shimmery, clumsy, clownish little beetles – harbingers of summer holidays. I remember a time when they were everywhere at the start of summer. Bouncing off walls, windows and bodies, constantly falling on their backs and requiring rescue, sometimes getting tangled in hair. And their shimmer, that metallic sparkle of their carapace was a source of wonder when I was a kid. As a kid those weeks before Christmas were warm evenings, christmas beetles and sticky watermelon juice on fingers, faces and clothes, school was finishing for the year and Christmas was coming, the beetles marked the change!

As I write this my mind is filled with the sweetness of the first summer watermelon and the distinctive odour of the beetles in the warm evening air. There was a distinctive odour associated with those evenings. I am struggling to find the words to describe it – it was warm and sharply earthy and seemed to be associated with the beetles. The beetles marked a change in season, and there was magic in their arrival, at least there seemed to be when I was a kid. This year nothing – not one christmas beetle, not even a dull brown one let alone a shimmering green and gold one and I miss them and their shimmering magic. My urban environment is not likely to produce christmas beetles in numbers but still, I hope they are around elsewhere. I dropped into the museum to see the beetles in the collection since I was missing them in the environment. Once in the museum, I found myself wondering about the importance of such collections as I navigated crowds of children and their adult escorts.

As an adult there is a kind of sadness to natural history collections, to taxidermy collections, they are collections of the dead after all, but as a kid the museum was captivating, exciting filled with wonder. It was nice to see so many kids excitedly opening draws and peering at the contents. Excitedly stopping before displays and asking an adult for identification of the animal that had captured their attention. As I wandered I was struck by our small, secret animals; the dunnats, the phascogale, the antechinus and the feather glider, all diminutive, secretive and wonderous. I thought about how hard it is to see these marsupials in the wild and how this may be the only place some kids will ever encounter these wonderous animals. Habitat destruction, feral species and climate change are all contributing to ongoing challenges to their existence. I fear the day, they may join the dodo as an emblem of human stupidity and environmental mismanagement. To change that process we have to know about a species before we can begin to care and a museum’s natural history collection is a great place to learn about what should be abundant in our fragile world.

It was Jack Ashby’s Platypus Matters that had also sent me to the museum. Ever since reading it last year, I was curious about the quality of the taxidermy in my local collection. I wanted to see if the echidna’s feet were facing the right way, (they were). According to Ashby, it is not uncommon to find echidna with their hind feet appearing to face forward, check out the oddity shown in the story on the ABC, which is clearly an echidna who continued to suffer indignities postmortem. I did not really expect an institution like the QLD museum to get the display of an abundant local species wrong but still, it was nice to see the animal displayed correctly. What did shock me was hearing a parent tell a child the animal was a “porcupine”? They sounded Australian so being from somewhere else wasn’t an explanation for that misconception. At least that little taxological faux pas illustrates the importance of natural history collections and museums in educating those of us who live urban lives, cut off from the natural world and why it is important that museums do everything they can to get it right and to engage with their important role as educators.

Seeing a stuffed reminder of a living animal is no substitute for the real thing but then the real thing is not always available or is hard to view in the wild.

9 thoughts on “Let’s talk about taxidermy

  1. An excellent post Sharon. You so nailed it with your description of Australian summers. My childhood included Christmas beetles which I loved and watermelon fights with the neighbours in their above ground pool.
    As you say museums have their place, but obviously we have generations losing touch with their natural heritage. We have been fortunate enough to have several echidnas in the area and one even in our rockery digging out ants. One echidna even walked between my husband’s legs! There is no doubt about which way the back leg points. Thanks for sharing. Lynn

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  2. I read the taxidermy article too. You can imagine how difficult it must have been for them in the 19th century, trying to preserve bodies of animals they had never seen. Wonder what they thought when they were given a platypus! I have fond childhood memories too of walking through the animal exhibits in the Adelaide Museum. It always seems a bit sad, remembering that once these exhibits were real live animals, but they do serve an educational purpose I guess. I just can’t tolerate the hunting culture, where heads and skins are preserved purely as trophies. Bec and I are heading to Adelaide soon, and the museum is one of the things on our list. Will have to check out the accuracy of the taxidermy!

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    1. Oh Karen lucky you and Bec I hear Adelaide has an exceptional museum, hope you enjoy and hopefully no dodgy taxidermy.

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  3. Good grief! Even I, on the other side of the world, know those aren’t porcupines! I’m not sure I would have pulled out of my old and foggy brain the word echidna, but I certainly know what they aren’t!!

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  4. A fascinating post. And it reminds me of two things. The Horniman Museum in London is a wonderful natural history and anthropology museum. Its most famous exhibit is its walrus. This was, back in the day, prepared by a taxidermist who didn’t know his stuff, and filled the creature to bursting point – just like your fattypus fellow. This grotesque giant, properly explained to the public is now the museum’s best-loved exhibit: https://www.horniman.ac.uk/story/friends-of-the-walrus/. The other thing? We used to live in France. Nearby was a tiny village, which had just one shop. A taxidermist’s …

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