Q&A: Rachel Poliquin, curator of Ravishing Beasts

Ravishing Beasts, MOV’s latest exhibit, explores all-matters taxidermy—from its colonial past to its once-prominent role in museums to its present-day revival in design. In conversation with MOV, curator Rachel Poliquin (pictured left) discusses how the show came to be, what museums should do with their taxidermy collections now, and the rather sad stuffed fox she calls her own.

How did you first become interested in taxidermy?
It was at the Natural History Museum in London. I noticed some small brown signs throughout the public galleries that said: “These animals are from our historical collections and many are from the nineteenth century. As a result, many are old and shabby and may not offer as realistic a presentation of the animals as contemporary taxidermy could offer, but we feel it is more responsible to rely on these collections than to collect new animals.” It was the first time that I’d ever thought about taxidermy. The signs made me wonder what sort of things these animals were, lingering from another era. They once had been valued, and now they were being dismissed as something less, something lacking, something dingy—both physically and ethically. In other words, my interest in taxidermy started from a point of nostalgia and not from an interest in hunting culture, which is what most people think about when they think about taxidermy.

How did the exhibit Ravishing Beasts come to be?
When I realized that MOV had a collection of taxidermy that had been in storage for half a century, it seemed the perfect opportunity to explore some of my thoughts about taxidermy, about its historical value, its current relevance, and its strange emotional immediacy. I proposed the exhibition to MOV about two and half years ago, although the actual design and building of Ravishing Beasts has been about a year in the works.

Is all taxidermy created equal or do some pieces have more ‘value’ than others?
Because all taxidermy was once a living, breathing animal, I think that all pieces of taxidermy have value and should be treated appropriately. But of course, extinct species have an additional and very heavy moral weight to them. They are incredibly tragic and incredibly powerful cautionary tales.

Where did Lucky the dog come from? How important was it to have a preserved pet genre represented—and who knew some people have their pets stuffed?
Lucky came from an older gentleman in Quebec. He had Lucky stuffed about twelve years ago, but recently he went into a care home. The home didn`t want Lucky and his children didn’t want the dog either. Apparently, they read about my search for a stuffed pet for the exhibition on my website. The only stipulation is that they didn’t want the dog back.

Do you have any taxidermy in your home?
I have Rupert, a horribly stuffed fox in a stump. He was a gift. My guess is that he was run over by a truck and someone without any taxidermy experience decided to stuff him.  His middle section must have been beyond help, hence the stump girdle.

You’ve suggested that taxidermy is more honest to animals than fashion or art. How so?
I am really not fond of taxidermy that manipulates the animal form—such as replacing their heads with light bulbs or sewing different parts of different animals together. There is something disrespectful or shock-mongering about this rupture and reconfiguration of the animal’s body. But having said that, leather shoes, belt, and chairs offer even less of the animal. Nothing, no semblance of the animal remains. I admit that I wear leather shoes, so I have really had to ask myself why these pieces cause me problems. I think it is precisely because they do offer some part of the animal, some sort of broken encounter, which makes death and desire incredibly present and potent.

What do you think of the work of, let’s call them whole-animal artists, like Julia Lohman and Damien Hirst?
Some of the contemporary art that is being done with taxidermied animals is amazing. Some is really terrible and seems to be just using animals because they are edgy and shocking. When done well, the creatures have such a presence, and often a highly troubling presence, which adds something so ambiguously powerful to the works.    George Vergette’s Waning Light from the exhibition is a beautiful work that captures this troubling ambiguity while still respecting the animal. When done well, animal art can make us question the validity of the line between humans and other animals. It can make us think about ecology and conservation. It can make us question the contradictions in our relationships with non-human animals. When done badly, it just seems gratuitous.

As you mention, most of MOV’s naturally-history collection, of which these taxidermied animals are a part, has been in storage for years; some of it has never been on public display. What do you think should be done with it going forward?
I think there is great value in looking at animals, whether living, on television, or even in a taxidermied form.  The more we learn and understand about the other inhabitants of this world, the more we can appreciate and respect the diversity of creaturely life. I have never advocated the making of new taxidermy, but I do advocate the respect of old collections. These animals are already dead. They can offer a visceral and emotional immediacy. They can tell stories about our past and future encounters with the natural world. And there is value in those stories. I would love to see them go on display in some more permanent way at MOV.

And what’s next for you?
I have several projects in mind that all have to do with the ways we encounter and think about the natural world. But I’ll keep them under my hat for the moment—in part because they might sound as kooky as if I said I wanted to curate an exhibition about taxidermy.

Ravishing Beasts is on view until February 28, 2010. For details, click here.

Image credit: Rebecca Blissett

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