Rainy days in dark, musty museums gawking at the species on display loom large in everyone’s childhood. Melissa Milgrom’s book conjures up memories of the mystery and horror we all felt when we stood face to face in those rooms with a stuffed leopard, walrus or ferret. We quivered in marvel, we inhaled odd aromas, we were sublimely grossed outand we happened to learn, for, as Milgrom notes, “From 1890 to 1940, dioramas were the primary way American museums educated the public about the ecological interdependence of species and their habitats.”
Realizing there was more going on with these exhibits than any child could imagine, Milgrom revisits her museum memories, digs into what lay behind the dioramas (not to mention the fox stole with its weird eyes in Granny’s attic) and makes taxidermy (the arrangement of skins on a sculpted form) come alive. She visits, among other places, a New Jersey shop with a macerating bison head for all to smell and a World Taxidermy Championships convention in a Crowne Plaza hotel in Springfield, Ill. In the course of her adventures, she learns who did the work of collecting the species (sometimes the safari equivalent of hired killers), who skinned and tanned the skins (yes, step one is, and has always been, skinning a specimen), and who paid the bills for the great shows. Names are named.
Milgrom meets many, many taxidermists on her travels, and she falls under the spell of their passion, craftsmanship and dark senses of humor. As one would expect from anyone accustomed to arriving at a hotel with a stuffed snow leopard on a luggage cart, taxidermists also turn out to be excellent storytellers. Milgrom was especially enthralled by Ken Walker, who was re-creating the extinct Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus) in his Alberta Beach workshop. His tales are certain to transport enchanted readers to a time 10,000 years ago when the beast’s 12-foot-wide antlers drew a crowd of admiring females.
Walker aims, in his work, to create the illusion of life as it was lived, but Milgrom is equally fascinated by England’s feisty Emily Mayer, who comes at her obsession from the opposite end of the spectrum. Mayer says, “Taxidermists are all about the beauty of the animal. But I find beauty in death.” It takes all kinds, even in taxidermy, and Milgrom celebrates a thriving herd of irresistible characters working “to freeze nature in its most glorious moments for a public that yearns for it yet is watching it disappear” in our time.