I recently visited a major natural history museum in a U.S. city and again wondered at the tradition of displaying dead animals as so-called “live mounts.” I say “so-called” because the animals do not look alive. They just look dead, and are often displayed in unnatural poses or scenes. I will not judge the wisdom of taxidermy mounts in the past, but I sure question their use now or in the future. Much has changed since they became a major part of any natural history exhibit. I think there are many good reasons to phase them out everywhere, but here are six to think about.
Many older live mounts were preserved with arsenic to discourage insect damage. Placing these specimens where the public can touch them to feel the fur is a bad idea. It transfers the arsenic to anyone who touches it and hastens the loss of fur on the specimen.
Taxidermy mounts often show only a single example of a species and sometimes that example is the largest, the most unusual, or some other hyperbolic example instead of the average. The diversity of colors and shapes among that species may be bypassed. The man-eating lions of Tsavo National Park in Kenya were anomalies in lion behavior but display of them at a Chicago museum keeps this unique and frightening story alive instead of celebrating the important role that lions play in African savannahs, usually with very little danger to humans if we behave appropriately.
My views on this grew from observing people viewing taxidermy mounts at a state park visitor center in Illinois in 1972. I watched and listened as children approached them and asked questions of us. A few weeks into that job, I pulled all of them off display and moved toward photography and works of art to show examples of animals. I enjoyed not explaining how we came to be displaying dead animals at a place where we were charged with protecting living animals. I had inherited the exhibit from a previous manager, but could not ethically keep it in front of the public.
The media we choose to interpret natural history also tells people quite a lot about our ethics. Isn’t it time to take dead animals off display and share the amazing experiences of seeing them in nature?
– Tim Merriman