Artful Bodies: “The Michelangelo of Taxidermy”

NPR’s All Things Considered aired a story earlier today about four centenarian hyenas who reside in the Chicago Field Museum. The hyenas were revealed to be the work of the notorious Carl Akley, described by Field Museum exhibit developer Sarah Crawford as “pretty much the Michelangelo of taxidermy.”

This phrase filled me with a particular type of glee, the same glee I often felt while researching my theses on human-animal relationships (first in North Dakota, then at Lincoln Park’s Farm-in-the-Zoo). In addition to awkward interviews and tentative field-work, I read some epiphanic books and articles about zoos, language, museums, abattoirs, systems of classification, Theodore Roosevelt, and taxidermy. All of these things are related.

The compulsion to unpack (or un-stuff, if you will) NPR’s 1 minute 50 second story about the Filed Museum’s quest to build a designated hyena diorama is too strong to resist. Dinner can wait. There’s so much going on here, and I’m not even going to cover it all.

Briefly: In the United States’ dominant culture, non-human animals are classified based on a system of closeness. This organizing principle predicts the types of relationships humans have with various categories of animals. Animals need to be in the sweet spot to be edible, for instance. You don’t typically eat a dog because it’s too close of a relationship, and you don’t typically eat an emu because it’s too “exotic.” Cows, on the other hand, are perfectly acceptable to consume in U.S. culture. 

Hyenas belong to the “wild” category in U.S. culture–they are very far from humans. Most wild animals become exoticized for their perceived rarity or out-of-place-ness. The relationship humans in the U.S. have with exoticized is characterized by viewing: exotic things are fit for display. Display and viewing is accomplished through such mediums as nature shows, zoos, and natural history museums. Museums are a particular form of exhibition, disciplining both human and animal bodies to communicate the desired message, demanding that visitors experience the animals on display in proscribed ways. One tactic that helps visitors zero in on the intended message is to display animals in discrete groupings. In the case of the Field Museum, animals are apparently grouped by taxonomy and geography.

It seems that the four hyenas in question have been taking up unwanted space in the reptile area–a veritable crime against the taxidermic arts! It’s also a slight against the taxonomic and geographic organizing principles that dominate such displays.* The museum’s ultimate goal is to mount these stuffed carcasses with their geographic brethren in the Hall of Asian Mammals, a monument to big game hunting and the Akeley origins of American natural history museums. To be placed in this hallowed hall is to have Made It for any diasporic mammal worth its stuff…ing.

Field Museum curators see this move as benefiting the (human) public good. “Most people aren’t going to get the chance to see these animals in real life,” says Emily Graslie, Chief Curiosity Correspondent at the Field Museum.  “Seeing them in a museum is the next best thing.” This argument is built upon the assumption that humans have a right to experience a relationship with these animals that is in some way authentic. Viewing them in real life is the paramount example of this relationship, while seeing them dead (which incidentally also occurs in real life, at least for the human) is positioned as once-removed from the ideal form of viewing. (Either Graslie implicitly categorizes zoos as a type of museum, or she forgot they exist in the heat of the interview moment.)

Graslie’s statement seems to be grounded in the virtue of human education, but it is non-consenting animal bodies that are the conduit for this education. Exoticized animals are there for human viewing, and this viewing is best when it leads to learning. That is also one of the current rationales for zoos–these are places within which to educate the public about wild animals, conservation, etc. But both museums and zoos extract the subjects of their exhibits from their natural habitats and place them in highly controlled environments optimized for display, all benefiting humans.

For the museum employees, the atrocity here is amplified by the fact that shunting mammals into the reptile section is not paying taxidermist Carl Akeley proper homage. Leaving the hyenas with the reptiles is “the equivalent of having some unframed work of da Vinci just kinda sitting in a corner for nobody to see,” they insist. Well, when you invoke the metonym of the Mona Lisa, that is a shame.

In this metaphorical calculus, the manipulated bodies of dead animals are held up as artistic creations, historic in their ability to breathe new life into the accomplishments of a man who made a career out of hunting, stuffing, and displaying wild animals. For the betterment of the (human) species, you understand. Nobility, thy name is OLD HYENA CARCASS.

As Donna Haraway writes in Teddy Bear Patriarchy, American natural history museums were founded by men who thought that going on safari, both at home and abroad, was a legitimate way to preserve the feminized natural world and bring it to the masses. “In the upside down world of Teddy Bear Patriarchy, it is in the craft of killing that life is constructed” (The Haraway Reader, 154).

There you have it. Taxidermy as art. Carl Akeley, Renaissance man reincarnate. For the love of life itself, give this man’s hyenas a diorama!

*Americans really like their categories. This is why structuralism works so well in cultural analysis of U.S. animal-human relationships.


Filed under Animals, Contemporary, Historical

A Quick Note of Gratitude

I’ve been overwhelmed by the response my previous post has received and am humbled that it resonated with people from so many different backgrounds. It’s somehow comforting to know that so many of us share an uneasy relationship with our heritage, whatever that heritage might be.

I wrote that personal essay because I had to; it was time to express what had gone unexplored for so long. I did not really expect anyone besides of my family and friends (and perhaps a handful of followers) to read it. The kind editors of Freshly Pressed had other ideas.

Gaining a larger readership was not the plan–besides, I prefer to think of us as a [buzz word alert!] community. Much less stressful that way. As a contributor to our little segment of the blogosphere, I feel I should be upfront about what to expect from “Contemporary Contempt,” especially for those of you who haven’t had time to poke around.

This blog is a collection of thoughts on disparate issues and cultural artifacts. Updates are irregular, as are the topics. Whim-sical, if you will. For those of you who stick around, I look forward to our conversations as we move forward.

Here’s to thinking and being!

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1915: Thoughts on Armenian Identity from a 4th-Generation Outsider

The following post is about ambivalence and remembrance. It is comprised of unstructured vignettes, loosely tied with my thoughts on identity, family, and cultural legacy. These thoughts were inspired by the fact that today is April 24, and we are 100 years removed from the beginnings of the Armenian Genocide.

I am not an authority on the Armenian Genocide. I can only speak from my perspective as a fourth-generation descendant of someone who lived through it. There are numerous scholarly, pop, and fiction texts on the subject, as well as recent media coverage of the history and current issues surrounding remembrance. I encourage you to read widely. 

Here we are.

A century removed from the dawn of a genocide that massacred individuals, stolen family legacies, and endangered an entire culture.

Here we are. Here. Now.

We are.

We are, still.

The nation-state of Turkey does not publicly refer to the atrocities the Ottoman Empire committed against its Armenian citizens as genocide. It is public knowledge that this is a HUGE bone of contention for many Armenians & Armenian-Americans, and a sticking point in geopolitics. You may have read about it or heard about it in recent days on the news. I am glad this is getting media attention.

But I have come to realize that I don’t need a government to legitimize my great-grandmother’s lived experience and its continued effects on our family. That being said, I respect that many do need this, and I understand why they do. Recognition, admission of ancestral wrongdoing, is critical to healing. It gives a lot of power over the truth to governments, but that is the world we live in.

The Bastard of Istanbul in Armenian

I read this in English, obviously.

The thing that struck me about The Bastard of Istanbul (a novel whose disturbing reveal you can, to your mounting horror, see coming a mile of alternating-perspective chapters away) is that some modern-day citizens of Turkey might not know about this part of Ottoman-Armenian history, and thus have no simmering feelings or opinions about it. In this particular novel, when Turkish characters hear the story of an Armenian character’s ancestors, they are horrified and sympathetic. But this is the first they are hearing about what was a systematic eradication of an ethnic/cultural group.

Their ignorance shrouds truth. Their ignorance leaves no place for Turkish denial, for Armenian insistence, for indigence or entrenchment on either side. This ignorance is the fault of the state, not the individual. So it is the nation-state, not its people, that become the important players in the geopolitical and ethnic and cultural narrative. This politico-narrative reality is why so many Armenian-Americans are disappointed–if not angry–with President Obama, and thrilled with Pope Francis.

The Brand Library in Glendale has been hosting events, exhibitions, conversations, film screenings, for months now to mark the 100th year of survival. Several times I have been compelled enough, felt enough of a sense of duty, to put these in my calendar. Each time I did not go.

What is it that keeps me from participating? Keeps me from showing up?
Part of it is my dwindling ties to my Armenian heritage, and by extension any entree into the Armenian community. I feel embarrassed at the prospect of going up to someone who seems to embody and/or perform the authenticity I lack and claiming ancestry. They would know I was a phony. And yet, what is authenticity? Am I not authentically, ethnically part Armenian, Americanized to a fault and distanced from “old country” culture by 4 generations and current Armenian-American culture by virtue of not participating in it? That is my authentic embodiment of Armenian identity…or lack thereof. Having confidence in that particular identity around those who, in my mind, are more authentic and worthy of Armenian identity, is the sticking point.
Mother and daughter

My grandmother, Sona, with Vartouhi (Nana)

My grandmother is gone, her mother is gone–no one is left to show me the way.
I thought attending these comfortably anonymous events would be a different way in–an acknowledgment to myself that I could at the very least learn more. Hear what those who are involved in the diaspora community, who are immersed in Armenian-American culture, think and feel. But I did not go. A ceremony was held for the new memorial in Pasadena, and I was not there. There will be a parade today that I do not attend. I am afraid to impose, afraid to feel like an impostor. I have no right to participate. I have little knowledge and have paid no dues–I am not tapped in to the community.

My great grandmother’s name is Vartouhi.  Her story is not unique. I will probably get some details wrong, even in this brief sketch. She fled from Turkey to America by way of marrying an Assyrian whose family was harboring her. She had managed to smuggle Uncle Arto (dressed as a girl), and Auntie Bergie, who she pretended was her daughter. Their parents had been killed as they watched. Too many children could say this by 1920. Too many children can say this now. Once in Washington Heights, an older brother and extended family awaited them and they made a new life. My great-grandmother had two children, worked, divorced, sent her son to war and her daughter to work and got her son back and eventually they all moved to the San Gabriel Valley to start yet another life. Lives. Our family branched and grew. Vartouhi had escaped genocide and created a legacy.

Two Armenian women in the 1980s

Auntie Bergie (L) with Nana (R)

In the early 1990’s, she sat in one of her favorite chairs in her sunny Pasadena living room and her son video taped her story. I have seen it just once, a few years back. It was strange and wonderful, to see her as I remember her at eight. To hear her voice. She and her story and its transmission and retelling and reinterpretation by my grandmother & mother are the reasons I became politicized around my Armenian identity when I was younger. That she and my grandmother are gone have lessened the immediacy of our family’s past, and have made it easier for me to become alienated from this identity over the years.

Armenian mother with son at BBQ

Uncle Al with Nana, engaged in a family activity.

My grandmother helped me share our family heritage in 5th grade–it must have been some sort of Grandparents Day or Immigration Celebration or something similarly and singularly Elementary School. We held up a scroll of the Armenian alphabet, unwrapped my grandfather’s Christening gown, and we must have talked about things, as well. Maybe this was the beginning of my blossoming pride. In my early teens, I claimed Armenian identity in earnest. It made me special. If I had lived in Glendale or near Washington Blvd in Pasadena, it would have been less special, but maybe I would have participated in the diaspora community and be able to feel legitimate about claims to an Armenian identity today.

The Road from Home by David Kherdian

One of my touchstone texts as a teenager struggling to claim Armenian identity.

At 13, I had grand aspirations of learn in to speak the language. I could have–my grandmother was still alive, as was her brother. I read The Road from Home by David Kherdian over and over, book-reported it in English class, told anyone who would listen that I was half Armenian. Looking back, I label myself “obsessed.” In 9th grade, I wrote an abbreviated history, complete with choice gory details, for an extracurricular publication. It drew heavily on a hardback book with a blue cover called The Armenians (I think)–a sweeping history that chronicled the horrors of the genocide. My goal was to shock readers and inspire guilt. It was amateur stuff, fueled by the fire of teenage understanding and the desire to be recognized as something deserving of recognition. My identity was the peg. I’m still glad I wrote about it. I would write it differently today, of course. I’m older. My relationship with my Armenian identity has changed from one marked by pride to one marked by unease.

If you do the math, I am fractionally Armenian–there’s also some Assyrian in there. Every time I try to come up with the actual fraction, I get a headache. “Half” is the default, but it’s probably closer to 3/8. Ethnically, I can claim this Armenian identity. Culturally, this claim rings blatantly false. The last thing my family has are memories and a few recipes we trot out during holidays. Our food is freaking delicious, by the way. We consider Armenian restaurants inferior. They don’t work from Nana’s (Vartouhi’s) recipes, which were kept in her head until the 80’s when a cousin and my mother tried to transcribe what, exactly, “this much” measured in the pinch of her fingers meant.

Armenian woman making kufta

Nana preparing for a Kufta party in the 1950’s

So we don’t use recipes, really. We use what’s in our heads. Each grandchild took responsibility for one dish. One year someone joked that we should consider sharing what has become compartmentalized knowledge & expertise among ourselves. We should probably take this seriously. An Easter without Choereg is no Easter at all, and I don’t even like Choereg. As my generation scatters, the branches of our family unite less frequently. As we Americanize, we share a love for the family food and identify as eaters, but that seems to be the extent of our heritage. Who are we? There are few left who truly remember.

Some of my relatives are still angry. It’s personal. An affront to our family. I used to have this anger, but it has waned. It’s become less personal for me–I didn’t have as much time with the people the genocide affected directly. As the years pass and my experiences with my relatives slip farther from the present, it’s easier for me to think about larger contexts. I’m not sure how I feel about my ability to detach. Certainly I lament my removal from those I love, from the immediacy of experience and into the fading haze of memory.

It’s not my place to forgive.


Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Power

Holding Our Brains in Our Hands

As you’re probably well aware, the robots have arrived, and they’re being marketed at our collective penchant for laziness, gussied up as “convenience.”

Cortana smartphone

The commercial was full of friendly voices, one belonging to a straight male human, the other to a feminized robot living in the human male’s smarphone. They have a conversation, or rather, the male voice asks the female voice to remember things for the slowly atrophying male voice’s brain.

“Cortana, next time my wife calls, remind me to tell her, Happy Anniversary.”

How is this easier? Does female robot secretary really make this process of remembering/doing more seamless? Employing Cortana to assist you with these tasks involves several steps:

Pushing buttons; talking into the phone; confirming that the phone heard you and interpreted your meaning correctly; saving this reminder appropriately; not accidentally activating an irrelevant app; and coming up with the idea one wants to remember in the first place.

The commercial wants us to think that Cortana is erasing the potential for human error, but technology itself is not infallible. What if the battery dies? What if your wife is waiting for you to call? What if relying on Cortana is ruining your marriage?

We’re uploading our memories; outsourcing key cerebral functions. Set a reminder for Cortana to sound the alarm! We’re the agents of our own destruction, depleting our capacity to remember how to be human.


Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Technology

Introducing “Books not People”

I’ve been tinkering away at a side-project designed to encourage my reading habit. This new project joins a legion of other book review blogs that have bravely blazed the trail toward literary enlightenment.

My new venture is called “Books not People,” and I invite you to take a look.


A preview of good things to come…

More posts to follow here, there, and via tinyletter.

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April 5, 2015 · 6:06 PM