Craft Culture: The Surprisingly Uplifting World of Taxidermy

Jennifer Menken at the Bell Museum // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

Speaking solely from personal experience, my basic notions of taxidermy have historically gone arm-in-arm with sport hunting, starting at the army of deer mounts lining the walls of the northern Wisconsin bar I recently found myself in (28 heads!) and ending with the tragic tale of Cecil the lion. 

But the practice stretches far beyond the purpose of displaying a hunter’s spoils—for many people orbiting the niche world of taxidermy, it can serve as a means of complex storytelling, education, conservation, and artistic medium. Two women who orbit the tight-knit community  gave me a fascinating look into their work.

Photo by Madalyn Rowell

Step Back in Time

My deep dive into this surprisingly uplifting world began at the University of Minnesota’s new-and-improved Bell Museum, which possesses thousands of natural specimens used for both educational and research purposes. Originally established in 1872 on the school’s East Bank campus, the Bell Museum moved into its modern St. Paul home just last year.

While I’m struggling to come to grips with the endless drawers of dead birds and mammals in front of me, it’s all just second nature for Jennifer Menken. As the education collections manager and coordinator of the Touch and See Lab, Menken is the museum’s gatekeeper for all of its displayed specimens. Having worked in one way or another for the museum for the past 30 years, she’s been around more than enough taxidermy to know what is and isn’t legit.

The Bell Museum’s array of taxidermy // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

“There is a big difference in different types of taxidermy and who’s good at them,” she says, “so there are a lot of people that can do a fairly decent deer head, but finding somebody who’s going to be able to do a really small songbird is really hard.”

As the keeper of the museum’s animals, Menken led the considerable effort to organize, document, and prepare the thousands of specimens on display and in storage for the move to the new facility, which gave her the chance to tighten up the collection here and there. Sadly, this meant that much of the more nightmarish items got the ax.

“When we moved, I got rid of most of my really horrendous stuff,” Menken says. “I used to have a pretty spectacular collection of squirrels. Squirrels are one of the first things that any taxidermist does or any kid tries to do, and they are often just egregiously wrong.”

Menken first got her foot in the door as a student tour guide when she was studying Fisheries and Wildlife at the University. Everything she knows today about taxidermy and preservation was picked up over the years from the experts she’s worked with on various projects—but her love for natural science stretches back to her own upbringing.

“It was always more fascinating for me,” she says. “My family has been collectors our whole life, so we’ve always had weird things. When I first started as a tour guide, there were just abandoned things in the basement of the museum, and it eventually became ‘Jennifer, why don’t you take care of this?’”

Some of the specimens in the museum’s collection date back to the 1870s, when the practice was a bit more basic than it is nowadays. Rather than tan the hides and use advanced chemicals and custom forms like they do today, taxidermists of the 19th century would often use a pickling process on the skin, stuffing it with materials like wood wool until the form looked passable. “A lot of early taxidermy was quite literally stuffing,” Menken says. “So they’d take the skin and they would shove a bunch of stuff in it and try to fill it out. It was never quite right—it looked… stuffed. It quickly became obvious that there had to be another step.”

Nowadays, there are many more steps that go into preparing an animal—and they can be completely different from one species to the next. The time a project takes can span from days to weeks to months, with the smaller, more fragile animals like hummingbirds often taking the most time and effort.

Photo by Madalyn Rowell

Though some of the museum’s older specimens were hunted for the purpose of display or scientific study, Menken says they now focus on collecting animals that were already deceased as to minimize their own impact on the natural worlds they aim to preserve. “We try really hard not to have anything collected specifically for these purposes,” she says. “There are plenty of opportunities out there to get things that have passed away of natural causes.”

The museum’s iconic dioramas, all completed between 1911 and 1955, also made the move into the new building. Unlike other natural history museums, which paint more generalized pictures with their dioramas (think: an elephant somewhere in Africa), the Bell Museum strived to depict specific, realistic scenes of Minnesota’s wildlife—swans gathered in the Mississippi mudflats below what is now the airport; beavers at Lake Itasca; a pack of gray wolves hunting along the North Shore.

“The dioramas that we have here all are actual places at a particular time,” Menken says. “They’re like a snapshot, or a window into these time periods.”

The choice to reanimate them this way was an intentional one—back when the wolf diorama was created in the late 1930s, the species had been nearly hunted to extinction. In an effort to alter the harmful dialogue that surrounded them, the museum decided to depict them naturally, rather than as aggressive or vicious. “It was very daring [then] to take a conservationist stance to a predator that most people viewed as vermin,” she says. “So the wolves in that diorama are depicted as hunting, and interacting with one another in a more positive, natural way.”

Being fully immersed in the world of taxidermy for the past 20 years, Menken says she’s had the unique perspective of seeing methods, materials, and styles change over the years. Like other niche trades, taxidermy isn’t typically something that people go to school for. “A lot of it is sort of picked up,” she says. “There is some schooling that you can get, but it’s pretty rare now. People who are really interested usually either are self-taught or find someone to mentor them.”

While the majority of trained taxidermists leans a little older, Menken says there has been a spike in younger people getting into the practice—albeit, in styles a little off-center from the traditional approach. While Menken’s line of work aims to tell specific, natural stories, there are some people working in more abstract forms who are taking conventional taxidermy and turning it on its head—or heads, if you will.

A Rogue Taxidermist

Sarina Brewer // Photo via Sarina Brewer

Where some see dead animals as grotesque, artist Sarina Brewer sees incredible beauty. She’s spent her life in reverence of animals in every form and now incorporates them into her fine art as an homage.

“I’m a sculptor; but instead of marble, glass, or bronze, my medium is animal materials,” she says. Brewer is a founding member of the “rogue taxidermy” movement, which encompasses any piece of sculpture that borrows materials or methods from conventional taxidermy. Much of Brewer’s work is in chimeric hybrids—winged monkeys, multi-headed squirrels, a baby goat with a golden mermaid’s tail—commonly adorned in gold leaf.

Brewer’s passion for animals runs in her blood—her great-great-uncle worked on several of the Bell Museum’s dioramas, and she was raised by artist parents with a menagerie of family pets. Brewer is a self-taught taxidermist, a practice she gradually picked up starting in childhood as a means to venerate her beloved pets after they passed.

Noircissist by Sarin Brewer

Noircissist by Sarina Brewer

“As a child, I would sometimes secretly dig up the bones of my pets years after their burials and put their bones in a bejeweled container on a shelf in my bedroom where I hid my most treasured objects,” she says. “To me, that act was merely a continuation of their initial funerary rites. Having a tangible piece of them after death made me feel like they were still with me.”

Like Menken, Brewer is conservation-minded, practicing a strict no-kill philosophy with her work. Stemming from her early childhood, when her mother taught her the concept of reincarnation, her perspective of death is intimately tied to that of life—there is no separation of one from the other. “I would take comfort in the notion that the animals weren’t entirely gone when they died because they would live again in another form,” she explains. “The mixed variety of animals that I sew together to create a single creature represents the uncertainty of what species a wandering animal spirit will ultimately choose for its new body.

“Creating art is my way to honor animals and commemorate the intimate relationship I have with them,” she continues. “I don’t view a dead animal as disgusting or offensive. An animal doesn’t stop being beautiful just because it’s dead. All creatures retain an intrinsic beauty in death.” 

Poseidons by Sarina Brewer

Poseidons by Sarina Brewer