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

2 responses to “Artful Bodies: “The Michelangelo of Taxidermy”

  1. If there was a stronger key to click than “Like,” I would be pressing it now. Because I can’t help thinking–with a certain horrified fascination–that this can be applied not only to human-(other)animal relations (we like to forget that we are also animals) but also to human-human relations, that is to racial/gender relations. It makes me wonder, if you looked at each racial group, whether they too would have other racial/gender combinations that are too close to mingle with, too exotic to mingle with, and those that would fall in the “sweet spot,” as you put it. I’m thinking of the white American males who send away for mail-order Asian women and mail-order Russian/Eastern European women. Would they try for a mail-order French or English woman (too close)? Or for a mail-order African woman (too exotic)? Because, of course, racial categories were set up as another kind of taxonomy–and hierarchy–with races and nationalities ties to habitat, climate, weather, geography. If I recall correctly, it was from this kind of cultural geography that anthropology was born. Your post may have made my mind a bit intellectually overheated, but I don’t think what you’ve written applies only to non-humans.


  2. Good point. I do think that lens of distance-closeness can definitely apply to within-species relationships. Because race is a social construct, constantly re-imagined and made salient in practice, each cultural moment manifests certain sanctioned/not-sanctioned combinations of “difference.”

    With the mail-order bride phenomenon, there seems to be an element of exoticism going on there, a reaching for the “Other” and bringing that “Other” into one’s personal orbit. It doesn’t quite map, because I also think it’s a subculture that goes against the dominant culture’s norms of what is “acceptable.” All sorts of things tangled up in there, like possession and masculinity…too much to go into in this comment. But yeah, there has to be an element of “not-me” to those pairings, and not just of a racial or cultural nature, but of a class one as well. All speaking to your point about hierarchical taxonomies, which intersect in different ways depending upon who has the power to create them.


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