Conservation Switzerland

How to save a suicidal squirrel

Artists are increasingly using dead animals as material—and collectors need to know how to look after their specimens

The growing trend for taxidermy in contemporary art can be traced back to works such as Maurizio Cattelan’s Bidibidobidiboo, 1996

Depictions of animals in art are nothing new; one need only think of George Stubbs’s horses or Henri Rousseau’s tigers with eyes burning bright. However, the trend for animals in art—the practice of incorporating taxidermy in works—has been enthusiastically embraced by an increasing number of contemporary artists. Maurizio Cattelan, Damien Hirst, Mark Dion and the longtime collaborators Tim Noble and Sue Webster have included taxidermy in their practice since the 1990s, and a new generation of artists, including Angela Singer and Polly Morgan, is following their lead. Here in Basel, examples include Petah Coyne’s ornate chandelier with ducks and quails, Untitled # 1175, 2003-08, on offer at Galerie Lelong (2.0/E12) for $200,000, and Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz’s The Potlatch, 1988, at LA Louver (2.0/D12) for $1.2m.

Collectors are taking note: whether it be Cattelan’s 1996 piece Bidibidobidiboo or one of the Frankenstein-like pieces from Thomas Grünfeld’s “Misfits” series, as the demand and prices for these works increase, so does the need for information on the best way to care for them.

From real to surreal

It wasn’t until the 19th century that taxidermy—the art of preparing and mounting the skins of animals to lifelike effect—came into its own. No fashionable home was complete without an exotic animal decorating its interior. So great was the demand that as many as 350 taxidermists set up shop in London during the height of the craze. While many preferred their mounted specimens to be as lifelike as possible, others took delight in the anthropomorphic examples of taxidermists such as Walter Potter, who gained fame with his whimsical depictions of squirrels boxing and kittens taking tea.

Many artists using taxidermy today strive to highlight the artifice of the practice. Dion, for example, included a toy polar bear in his 1991 piece Polar Bear and Toucans (From Amazonas to Svalbard). Bergit Arends, the curator of contemporary art at the Natural History Museum in London, says: “It’s amusing that people might not notice the difference between real and fake animals, and artists play with that.” Other artists, such as Scott Bibus, are practising “rogue taxidermy” (the creation of animals that do not exist in the real world), which has been described as “more closely related to surrealism than to mainstream taxidermy”.

Over-exposure to light and fluctuations in temperature and humidity can damage many types of works, including paintings, furniture, watercolours and photographs. Surprisingly, taxidermy is also vulnerable to many of these environmental factors. “When it comes to light exposure, you need to treat [specimens with] fur and feathers like you would a watercolour,” says Phil Howard, a taxidermist at National Museums Scotland. Mike Gadd, a UK taxidermist and the author of Beginner Taxidermy: Small Mammal, agrees: “It’s a natural product and, like all natural products, will fade in time if left in direct sunlight.”

With temperature and relative humidity, stability is the key. “Humidity is one of the biggest threats to organic materials, especially when it comes to skin,” says Hein Van Grouw, a curator in the Natural History Museum’s zoology department. “Anything above 70% humidity for an extended period of time can lead to bacteria and mould growth.” Howard says that fluctuations pose the biggest threat and that there is no “absolute best” figure with regards to temperature and humidity. “The damage occurs when specimens are in an environment in which they take on moisture and then dry out,” he says, explaining that this eventually leads to cracks in the animal’s skin. “Treat them as you would a piece of fine furniture,” he advises. A glass case will act like a buffer, prolonging the life of the specimen.

Mothballs at the ready

Infestation is one of the most significant threats to taxidermy, and one that many collectors may not be prepared for. “Like a woolly jumper kept in a wardrobe, specimens can become subject to moth infestation,” Gadd says, adding that many of the non-toxic products available on the market to prevent moths from eating clothing can also be used to protect taxidermied animals. According to Van Grouw, the words “museum beetle”—a term covering a list of species of beetle—strike fear into the hearts of those in the museum world who are entrusted with the care and preservation of specimens. “Museums are like a McDonald’s drive-in for them,” he says. “It’s important to monitor specimens for infestation regularly because the damage caused by insects can be quick and disastrous.”

One of the most serious mistakes that can be made during the preparation of an animal is failing to clean the skin properly. It is essential to remove the fat from the skin because, unlike flesh, the oils in fat never dry out. “If it’s not removed,” Van Grouw says, “it will lead to what we call fat burn”—a chemical process in which the fat leaches or burns through the skin. “It will eventually degrade the skin, turning it into what looks like lattice,” Howard says.

“I have seen beautiful animals and thought they were done by an expert only to open them up and find that the fat hadn’t been removed, so the piece will only last a couple of years,” Van Grouw says. “Until the fat starts leaking, it is really difficult to tell that a piece has been made poorly.”

Although it does not affect the animal’s preservation, anatomical accuracy is another bone of contention among taxidermists who aim to create a specimen that is as lifelike as possible. “I’ve seen pieces and thought ‘wow, that’s horrible’. The ribcage and shoulders were nowhere near where they were supposed to be,” Gadd says. “If you came home and your husband had one eye that was 20mm higher than the other or his ears were further apart than they were in the morning, you’d take him to hospital.”

The lifespan of a piece of taxidermy is largely determined by the quality of its construction and the conditions in which it is kept. “They’re quite robust. If they’re properly prepared and kept in ideal conditions, they should last for centuries,” Howard says. Van Grouw agrees: “We have pieces in the Natural History Museum that date from the late 1700s and they are fine.”

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