The (un)Natural History of Taxidermy

If you’ve read my other blog, you know I love a hands-on craft that dovetails with my interest in nature. I love macabre arts, crafts, and science, so it follows that I also love taxidermy. 

Several years ago, I read Wild Ones: A sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. It isn’t a book about nature. It’s about the oddly curated human-animal interactions in our modern lives, and the weird tactics we have instituted to preserve nature as objects, sometimes in exchange for their wildness. In one chapter, we are told a bit of a history about a famous American taxidermist.

But I’d like to start with a story of an unfamous American taxidermist.  

Martha Maxwell of Boulder, Colorado was enthusiastic about recreating the beauty of the natural world through taxidermy. She loved arranging animals in positions that accurately anatomized their natural behaviour to preserve a visual record of Colorado’s wildlife for others to learn from and appreciate. Martha started out in taxidermy accepting carcasses from neighborhood boys, but eventually started hunting her own animals and became an excellent sharpshooter. Doing all the preparation herself became important to her, since this was the stage when she could best study the animal, its movement, and its habitat. Whether she was working with birds or bison, while skinning the caracass she was careful to take exacting measurements of all aspects of the body so that she could create a perfect replica.

Later on, she began hiring a blacksmith to craft a light frame. She would specify the exact dimension for each specimen, and then after the blacksmith made the frame, she covered it with cloth before sewing the animal skins over it. These were innovative and novel methods, and part of what made her works quite popular.

By 1868, Martha had collected over 600 specimens and displayed them at fairs around the country. In 1876, she presented her specimens at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Most attendees had never traveled, so the the landscapes her scenes portrayed were formative experiences, influencing how they concieved of the American mountain west. Audiences were captivated by her and her work, appreciating the animals and the evocative habitat dioramas. People also doubted that a woman could have accomplished what she had. She eventually put a sign in front of her exhibition explaining indeed, this was “women’s work”, to avoid repeating that conversation.  Almost all works outside the home were at that time thought of as male pursuits, but particularly taxidermy as it had associations with dominion over nature, strength, gore, brutality, etc. Very masculine for an aesthetic media.

Devastatingly, even though she was sent to represent Colorado at this expo, and received national recognition and fame for doing so, the Colorado Legislature failed to pay for her return ticket, leaving her stranded on the east coast with her prized creations.  A few years later, in 1881, she died in poverty at the age of 49 of ovarian cancer. Her work was not preserved after her death and disintegrated.

Her contemporary, whether he knew it or not, William Temple Hornaday travelled the globe hunting animals and stuffing them for the Smithsonian Museum. Gregarious and a total Sagittarius, he believed that by stuffing them, he was preserving endangered species for future generations who might otherwise not know they ever existed.

In 1886, when he got an inkling that bison were on their last legs back in his home country, he headed to Montana and shot 25 of them. Despite their importance to the story of the westward spread of white settlers across the continent, there were no bison specimens in museum collections at the time. His hunt is considered the last successful bison hunt in the U.S. He arranged the best-looking specimens in a diorama standing around a drying up water hole, looking solemn.

The Restored Bison display at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains

Two decades after Hornaday’s death in 1937, while workers at the Smithsonian museum were dismantling his bison display they found a note he wrote (a time capsule within a time capsule) pleading to the future caretakers. It read:

To my illustrious successor:

 Dear Sir, Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group. The Old Bull, the young cow, and the yearling Calf you find here were killed by yours truly. When I am dust and ashes, I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction. Of course they are crude productions in comparison with what you may produce, but you must remember at this time (A.D. 1888. March 7.), the American School of Taxidermy has only just been recognized. Therefore give the devil his due and revile not.

Wm. T. Hornaday. Chief Taxidermist, U.S. National Museum

Though they appreciated his note and novel delivery, they did not heed it. They put his bison in the basement and replaced them with freshly skinned bison. Bison that had never been wild. The original mounts were taken out of storage, scattered around the country, and almost lost until Douglas Coffman hunted down the nearly forgotten specimens. He had them restored in the 1980s and 1990s. They are now on display at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton, Montana. Including the original glass eyeballs. A shrine to the invisible fence of history.

William Temple Hornaday and helpers in his workshop at the Smithsonian Institution, 1880

Martha Maxwell is now recognised as the first female taxidermist to prepare her own skins and mounts, AND the first taxidermist to pose animals in a natural position in a realistic natural history display. In her pursuit to understand and document the natural world, she discovered several species not known to live in Colorado, including the black-footed ferret and a subspecies of the Eastern Screech owl. In 1877, in tribute to Martha, that owl was given the scientific name, (now) Magascops asio maxwelliae.

Black-footed Ferret. So cute.

The Hornaday Smithsonian group of bison is one of the most significant collections emblematic of the human wildlife interactions that took place during the gilded age in North America. A three-dimensional reminder of the legendary abundance of the plains and the casualties of manifest destiny. Or, maybe to you they represent the trash heap of American imperialism, the fetishistic colonial gaze, an archetype of the failures and successes of the conservation movement, or something else entirely? You can stand in front of them at a free museum and report back.

About herself, Martha wrote:

 My life is one of physical work, an effort to prove the words spoken by more gifted women…. The world demands proof of womans [sic] capacities, without it words are useless.

Considering that sentiment, it is especially sad that the fruits of her labour were lost to time. But the juxtaposition of these two stories reminds me that the records from the past are biased, limited, and obvs, written by those in power. Objects iteratively create and preserve memories. Annatomized in the smallest way here, the stories we tell about the past and the cultural memory keeping done by museums have a role in structuring our current reality.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Your science in one minute! Can you do it?

By Vina Putra, Wanutcha (Soon) Lorpaiboon and Inna Osmolovsky

On June 24th, our champions had a chance to test their storytelling abilities, by participating in the 1 Minute Thesis Showcase. The challenge is to tell about your research in 1 minute. Vina, Soon and Inna share their experiences from this event.

All the winners of the 1-MT showcase


Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The level of detail given to each of the three parts depends on how much time one has.

The 1 Minute Thesis Showcase (1-MT hereafter) is a stage for postgraduate students to tell the story of their research. In which they engage for four years of their lives. Not only will these stories reach those outside our scientific niche, it is also an opportunity for us to reflect on what the true aim of our research is and what we have achieved in our journey so far.


It takes a skill for a scientist to be able to communicate their research to the public, it takes advanced skills to do that in less than 60 seconds! This is why I appreciated the opportunity to participate in the 1-MT. It challenged my ability to present complex science in a relatable way. Knowing how hard it was to prepare and simplify my research into 1 minute speech, I was amazed by the effort of my PhD fellows, especially our champions! I was also amazed by how much I understood the complex research of other students, ranging from chemistry, marine biology, to psychology.

Here are some points that I learned from the champions’ talks that really adhered in my mind, particularly about using the slides effectively as visual cues:

Highlight the hero of your research:

Caitlin Tedesco, successfully talked about looking at changes in the BRAIN during weight loss surgery and how we may be able to use them in less invasive, alternatives; Divya Shah successfully told us the story about the danger of dinitrophenol despite being popular as a weight loss drug, and how her research is seeking to solve that problem. These champions displayed on their slides simply the heroes – the subject that they are investigating, nothing more.

Caitlin’s slide – how the brain plays a role in gastric bypass surgeries

Unlimited creativity with drawn illustration:

Our champions, Inna Osmolovsky talked precisely about plants ability to move in different directions, with the help of her hand-drawn plants illustration as well as the fun fact that plants do migrate at the rate of 6 km/decade in response to climate change; Daniela Wilner talked about sexual and asexual reproduction in stick insects, and why and how this ability could shape the world, through her simple model organism – the female stick insect.

Inna’s slide – plants are on the move in response to climate change

Create a scene and tell a story:

Sonia Goozee brought us to a battlefield between white fat vs. brown fat. Telling us about their role in obesity. Explaining how the immune cell associated with brown fat cells makes them much better in preventing obesity; Wanutcha (Soon) Lorpaiboon took us on a time travel journey  to the past. She showed how perfluoroalkyl substances have accumulated and are now present everywhere, even our body! Through computational modelling, she attempts to discover better ways to degrade these substances.

Soon’s slide – computer models could help combat the PFA’s from our pizza boxes


The 1-MT was an opportunity to not only tell the story of your research, but to also learn about the research projects of others. Listening to the stories of my fellow scientists inspired me to think about my own research in a new way. I was also fortunate to get a glimpse into how scientists are working tirelessly to improve our lives.

I have learnt from Merryn how breath analysis could help us detect cancerous tumors in our lungs:

Merryn’s slide – breath analysis can captures tumor related molecules, like a net

Karen explained that the success of invasive species lies in their ability to escape natural enemies, which are not present in the new environments:

Karen’s slide – the worst of Australia’s invasive species

Sujlesh told us about the important difference between the mirror opposites of the same molecule. Explaining about the methods she develops to produce only one of them;

Suji’s slide – mirror images sometimes mean vast differences, like the odor molecules of lemons and oranges

And from Sophia’s talk, I discovered how our the prelimbic cortex in our brains helps us learn new movements and transform them into habits:

Sophia’s slide – how the brain helps us learn that this is a push-door

Science is sometimes viewed as grey, emotionless and boring. However, this showcase proved again how creative, diverse and exciting science actually is.


When approaching the 1-MT, it may seem daunting. So many worries will pass through our minds: “I have one chance to deliver the 1-MT this year”; ” Someone will hold a stopwatch to my words”; “There will be hundreds of people in the audience”; “So much to talk about and so little time”; “Will I forget my script?”.

I find comfort knowing that, in any task we do, how we perform in any given instance is not as important as how we will improve for next time.

Congratulations to our champions and all the participants and winners in the 22’ research showcase!

Best overall 1-MT winners. From left to right, Merryn Baker, Katarina Kikas, and Sophia Liang

Come support these three amazing scientists in the 3-minute thesis on August 31st, 2022.