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The Art of Victorian Taxidermy

Posted on 07/30/2020 at 03:00 PM by Brooke Rogers

The Farm House Museum is home to many unique and curious objects from the Victorian Era, but one of my absolute favorite items in the collection are two wooden display cabinets of taxidermy animals. I grew up exploring natural history museums at a young age and eventually became a taxidermist during my college years (of the avian study skin variety). I am drawn to these display cases for their delicate execution and how well they have been preserved, considering that they are well over 150 years old. But why does the Farm House Museum have these displays? As with most objects in our collection, there’s a story about how it got here and  I am excited to share with you the story behind our display cases and the origins of Victorian taxidermy.

Taxidermy is the art of preserving an animal’s body via mounting (over an armature) or stuffing, for the purpose of display or study. Animals are often, but not always, portrayed in a lifelike state.

The exact origins of when taxidermy took off is not known, but historians have traced the beginning of the art form to an 1851 exhibition in London. English ornithologist and avid bird collector, John Hancock, submitted Struggle with the Quarry, which depicted a falcon attacking a heron which held an eel. The life-like nature and poses of the specimen drew intense interest from exhibition spectators, scientists and even the royal family (with Queen Victoria eventually coming to own an imposing taxidermy bird collection for herself). Since access to highly portable and quick shooting photo cameras was limited, scenes like Struggle with the Quarry showed Victorians scenes of nature in a new way. After the exhibition, Victorians began to use mounted animals as a popular interior design item, as it brought nature into their home and was a way to showcase their wealth, especially in middle-class homes.

In the Farm House Museum, there are two taxidermy displays preserved in glass boxes that are dated c. 1870 to 1880 and created by Lucy Parker Filed Kimball. One is located in the first floor library and the other is located in the north bedroom on the second floor. Parker Field Kimball created the works of art in order to earn some money for a silver tea set. I imagine the planning and organizing process for putting these together was fairly intense as she would go on to prepare over 30 animals for the display.

Once the animals were sourced for the display, Parker Field Kimball would gently remove the entrails and skin, as holes or tears to the delicate skins would cause problems during the mounting phase. Now separated from the animal, the skin would be covered in a preserving agent like arsenic and then be mounted using wire and wool to recreate the animals shape. Details such as glass eyes or items in the mouth would be added before the form was sewn shut, while facial expressions or movement of feathers would be manipulated into position with tweezers and pins until the mount fully dried into place. Finally, the specimens were wired into place within the display case.

Parker Field Kimball had to repeat this process for each of the animals, which include: a flying squirrel, an evening grosbeak, a blue jay, two Baltimore orioles, a night hawk, a white-winged cross bill, a screech owl, a rock dove, a mourning dove, a bobwhite quail, a cedar waxwing, a gray squirrel, a scarlet tanager, a yellowthroat, an indigo bunting, a male and female redstart, an American woodcock, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a chipmunk, a male and female ruby-throated hummingbird, a Cape May warbler, an American bittern, a duckling, a black duck, a green heron, a wood duck, a mud turtle, a solidary sandpiper, a juvenile rabbit, a tree toad and a striped gopher.

Although our taxidermy displays are more subtle than Struggle with the Quarry or the stereotypical prowling mammal that many of us picture when we think of taxidermy, there is a certain drama to how the Iowa fauna interact inside the wooden and glass cases.

Whenever I stop by the Farm House Museum I have to visit the display cases and admire the work done by Lucy Parker Field Kimball. It often makes me wish I had the chance to pick her brain about how she was introduced to taxidermy and how she felt about her handiwork. And did she ever imagine they would still be on display 150 years later?

Next time you’re near the Farm House Museum stop in and examine these spectacular displays!

IMAGE ABOVE LEFT: Struggle with the Quarry, 1851 by John Hancock. Special thanks to Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Great North Museum: Hancock (United Kingdom). Image used with permission.

IMAGE ABOVE RIGHT: Taxidermy case with birds and small animals c. 1870-1880 by Lucy Park Field Kimball. Located in the Farm House Museums. Gift of Lucy and Richard Graeme. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 77.50.1

IMAGES BELOW: Full and detail image of Taxidermy case with specimens c. 1870-1880 by Lucy Park Field Kimball. Located in the Farm House Museums. Gift of Lucy and Richard Graeme. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 77.50.2


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