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AMNH/D. Finnin

11 Historically Important Works of Taxidermy

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AMNH/D. Finnin

In a world in which we are so insulated from death, the basic reality of taxidermy can upset tender sensibilities. We disassociate ourselves from the essential link between a designer handbag and a cow chewing cud in the field. Yet taxidermy did not develop as a cold-blooded means of displaying hunting trophies, but as a significant scientific and educational tool. It enabled man to identify and characterize species long before photography transformed our understanding of the natural world.

Taxidermy has moved in and out of fashion, been adored and reviled, and has symbolized both the best and worst of man’s thirst for knowledge and tendency for ruthless exploitation. It has its place in history, but it has evolved and developed into a modern art form, a means of self-expression, and a respectful tribute to the beauty of the natural world. Here, we highlight 11 significant pieces in the field.

1. A Church's Hanging Crocodile

Suspended from the ceiling of an Italian church is a record-breaking crocodile: At a remarkable four and three-quarter centuries, it's the oldest piece of taxidermy in existence. Documentation relating to its removal from St. Maria Annunziata, at Ponte Nossa in Lombardy, in January 1534, proves that this remarkably life-like creature must be, at the very least, older than that date. This crocodile, later rediscovered squatting in the roof of said church, was put back on display in the eighteenth century. A number of Italian churches feature hanging crocodiles, the durability of the skin probably going some way to explain why these particular specimens survived.

2. The Duchess of Richmond's Bird

Dean & Chapter of Westminster

The oldest existing stuffed bird is believed to be an African Grey parrot which belonged to Frances Stuart, the Duchess of Richmond and mistress to King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland (1649 - 1685). The bird, of which she was inordinately fond, can still be seen in Westminster Abbey Museum in London, perched next to a life size wax effigy of the Duchess herself. She requested that the bird be preserved after its death—she died first, in 1702, and the parrot a short while later.

3. A Swedish King's Steed

Ingolstadt Museum

Crocodiles aside, the fact that so few early specimens have survived is proof that taxidermists had not mastered their art.  There are but a few venerable exceptions from around 1600 onwards—notably, favored horses or dogs. The prize steed of the Swedish King Gustav Adolphus is one such example. Shot from beneath him at Ingolstadt, Bavaria in 1632, during the course of the Thirty Years War, it suffered the indignity of being skinned, mounted and exhibited as a war trophy by the German opposition. It is reputed to neigh whenever war is imminent—last heard in 1939—and can still be seen in the town museum.

4. Waterton's "Nondescript"

Courtesy of Wakefield Council

Charles Waterton, who wrote Waterton’s Wanderings in South America—one of the most successful travel books of the nineteenth century—was a master taxidermist who developed his own method of preserving skins with mercuric chloride. Famously eccentric (he used to bite the legs of dinner guests and pretend to be a dog), he used his taxidermy to tease and provoke. After travels in Guiana (Guyana) in 1824, he claimed to have hunted a new species that resembled a man. Experts now believe that his "Nondescript" was actually moulded out of the hindquarters of a howler monkey. 

5. Ploucquet's Anthropomorphic Taxidermy

Photo by Beth Evans, from The Art of Taxidermy by Jane Eastoe, published by Pavilion.

The Great Exhibition, which took place in Hyde Park, London, in 1851, included a number of taxidermy exhibits. Hermann Ploucquet, a German taxidermist, exhibited anthropomorphic taxidermy: animals engaged in human activity. The Morning Chronicle of August 12, 1851 noted that Ploucquet’s exhibits were “one of the most crowded points of the Exhibition.” The Great Exhibition, which attracted some six million visitors, is generally held to be the turning point for taxidermy; many of the displays were of a high technical standard and utilized great artistry in scenes and tableaux that, compared to the simply posed species on display in museums, provoked great excitement. Queen Victoria recorded in her diary that his work was “marvelous."

6. Hornaday's Buffalo

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Roger4436

Zoologist and conservationist William Temple Hornaday (1854 - 1937) was another mover and shaker in the world of taxidermy. He worked for Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, which supplied taxidermy specimens to museums. One specimen hunting trip resulted in a display of two orangutans, named The Fight in the Tree-Tops, after which he was appointed chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. He heard that the American bison were being decimated and, though troubled by the morality of the exercise, went to Montana to hunt for several specimens. Hornaday was so appalled by the skeletal remains of so many slaughtered bison that he highlighted their plight, and his work resulted in the creation of federally protected bison ranges in the American north-west. His famous bison display can today be seen at The Museum of The Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton, Montana.

7. Carl Akeley's dioramas

AMNH/D. Finnin

Early museums displayed taxidermy in serried ranks for the purposes of comparative morphology, but as the nineteenth century moved towards its close, taxidermists were increasingly interested in recreating precise habitats. This trend gradually altered the thinking in museums, and resulted in the introduction of fabulous dioramas depicting everything from birds on their nests to sweeping vistas of the African plains dotted with elephant and giraffe. Carl Akeley, one of America’s most famous taxidermists, sought to educate with ground-breaking life-like representations, displayed in panoramic dioramas that replicated the natural environment. His work—including the gorillas above and the watering hole at the top of this post—can still be seen in The American Museum of Natural History.

8. The Earl of Derby's Budgerigar Chick

The 13th Earl of Derby, Edward Smith Stanley (1775 -1851), was one of the earliest gentleman collectors. Fascinated by natural history, he began to buy taxidermy specimens, then later commissioned collectors to travel the world despatching specimens to him. By his death in 1851, his collection encompassed every major group of animals and birds, and he bequeathed some 20,000 birds and mammals to the people of Liverpool, for a "nominal" £20,000, a sum considerably lower than the value of the collection. The Derby Museum opened in Liverpool in 1853, showing a mere fraction of Lord Derby’s bequest, and even so managed to attract 157,861 visitors in just 7 months—the building was too small to accommodate the crowds. A number of his specimens are now extinct, including the Long-tailed Hopping Mouse, the Swamp Hen, the Paradise Parrot, and the Himalayan Mountain Quail. He hatched the first budgerigar chick in Britain in 1848—and when it died, sadly at just three weeks of age, he had it stuffed. It can still be seen in the Museum of Liverpool.

9. Emily Mayer's Erosion Casting

Erosion casting is a groundbreaking new technique in taxidermy that produces startlingly life-like results. The process involves placing a mould on the corpse of an animal and then leaving the body to decompose. When the process is complete a resin cast is taken which produces a precise impression of the skin with every wrinkle and hair preserved. Sculptor and taxidermist Emily Mayer is one of the leading proponents of the art and has utilized it in her own work and for heartbreakingly vulnerable exhibits for the National Museum of Scotland. “The problem with erosion casting is that you invest so much in the process," she says, "but if any little thing goes wrong with it the specimen is ruined.”

10. Cattelan's The Ballad of Trotsky

Getty Images

An increasing number of contemporary artists utilise taxidermy in their work to produce what lawyer and academic Anthony Julius calls “taboo-breaking art.” The Italian Maurizio Cattelan is famous for sculptures such as The Ballad of Trotsky, a horse (originally a racehorse named Tiramisu which died of natural causes) suspended from the ceiling which sold for £1.15 million, or Bidibidobidiboo, which shows a squirrel committing suicide in a kitchen. Both were exhibited in a Cattelan retrospective in the Guggenheim in 2011.

11. Polly Morgan's Green Taxidermy

Photo courtesy of Polly Morgan

Art that utilizes taxidermy has become achingly fashionable. Its list of influential A-List punters appears to have kick-started a resurgence of aesthetic interest in both antique and contemporary taxidermy. The stigma that was attached to owning taxidermy has gone—along with a new understanding that contemporary taxidermy is distinctly green; much of this is down to the work of artist and taxidermist Polly Morgan who first captured the zeitgeist. “It’s a form of recycling as far as I can see,” she says. “When people criticize me I always say that the worst thing I am doing is depriving a crow of its meal. I don’t buy into the argument that it is disrespectful to the animal. Animals don’t mourn their dead, they generally eat them.” And perhaps the renewed enthusiasm for the subject comes from the public understanding that, as the disclaimer always puts it, no animals were harmed in this process.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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