This time last week I was sat in a room, with thirty other people, staring at a dead bird. In the previous two hours it had been through the incredibly involved and yet stunningly simple process of taxidermy, as demonstrated by artist Polly Morgan.
Behind the walls of the museum, in its inner sanctum*, we gathered. In front of shelves which held all manner of taxidermied and skeletonised animals there was an old wooden workbench on wheels. A semi-circle of chairs looked in upon this workbench, where Morgan sat and transformed a blue tit from something fragile in its state of death, into something that would endure.
It was fascinating.
The amount of time, skill, patience, and effort that is applied solely to create something that looks almost exactly like it did when you set out, is remarkable. Especially since if it is done well, all of this will be forgotten.
It is perhaps odd, that I have more experience with deceased humans than I do with other animals, and so naturally I found myself reflecting upon situations from the dissection room while watching Morgan work. Although they are performed for very different reasons, taxidermying a bird and dissecting a cadaver, many of the processes are similar – and I found my shifting perception of the bird throughout the afternoon, very similar to those I experienced while in the dissection room.
I suppose what surprised me most were the stages of transformation the bird experienced throughout the two hour period while we all sat and watched – often in silence† – while Morgan explained the various methods and steps in the process.
To begin, the bird is almost exactly as it was when it died, except that it has been frozen and then thawed. Unfortunately, this little blue tit had suffered some freezer burn, which meant its skin was a bit more fragile than is ideal.
As I sit here and write this, there are very similar looking blue tits visiting the window feeder in my kitchen, one after the other, collecting peanuts and winging them away into the woods. It was not so hard to imagine the lifeless little bird that Morgan held in her hand shaking off the throws of death and exiting the room via the open window. But it remained still…
In order to ensure the bird is preserved, but looks as it did in life and does in death, the flesh must be removed. A single incision is made in the abdomen of the bird, making sure not to cut any feathers. The skin is separated from the flesh by scalpel and the body of the bird is removed, entire. In order for this to be achieved, its tiny legs are dislocated at the body and the head is severed at the neck. The body is kept, so that a replica can be made later from wood wool, hemp, and string.
The bird, in this state, will still not last. Every last bit of flesh and fat must be removed so that it will not spoil. The flesh must be removed from the legs and wings. To accomplish this, the limbs are turned inside out, pushed into the space where the abdominal cavity would be, if it had not been slit open earlier and the contents removed. All the while the bird is being kept wet with a brush to keep the skin flexible. One leg is broken, it has been since before it was frozen. This is removed entirely – a replica will be made with wire. The bird is laid out flat and any remaining flesh or fat is removed with the scalpel and tweezers. Throughout, the skin and feathers of the bird have become damp, untidy, and distressing; it no longer looks so serene.
Next, a stage that many of us are familiar with, although perhaps not intimately, but of the concept we are all aware because of our everlasting cultural obsession with mummies. It is necessary for all the flesh of the bird to be removed, which includes the brain. It is not so delicate a procedure as you may imagine. In order to access the skull the skin must be pulled over it, almost as though the bird is wearing a jumper of feathers and you are simply helping it undress. Oh, but you must remember to remove the eyes – perhaps this was done earlier. I have not forgotten the moment, but I do not remember when it occurred. A simple step, with a pinch on one side, and then again on the other. Once the skull is exposed, a hole is made in the back of the skull and the brain tissue is removed, in this case with tweezers. The tongue is also removed, in addition to any flesh that clings to the cranium. It takes a lot longer than you might imagine.
At this point, the bird is both empty and inside out. All of the flesh and fat has been removed. The skeleton has been exposed. It faces itself in a macabre pose, staring, if it had eyes, directly into a perfect costume of skin and feathers that now bear very little resemblance to a bird of any description.
It is brutal.
And yet, it has been done with care. The entire time this bird is being… disassembled, delicate hands and fingers support it and travel knowledgably through its anatomy. There is no malice; only calm expertise. Even though it ceases to look like a bird very early one, the brain does not cease to remember that it is one.
The rough treatment this bird has experienced over the last hour is at an end. From this point forward, every step will be towards its reassembly.
It is turned the right way about, skin on the inside, feathers on the outside and it is washed to remove any oils, grease, blood, and dirt. It returns to the workbench a pathetic specimen, you feel awfully sorry for the beautiful little bird from the beginning of the process. You feel even worse when it is unceremoniously dropped into a paper cup filled with potato flour. (Yes!)
Using a brush to dab the bird with the flour and brush it through the feathers though, it slowly starts to come back to life (not literally, of course). The bedraggled form begins to fluff up, the feathers take shape once more, and it almost resembles a bird, albeit a misshapen one. Once the feathers are nearly dry the potato flour is shaken from the skin and feathers and it is subjected to the delightful breeze of a blow dryer on cool.
At this point, the bird looks the most alive it probably ever will again. Its feathers ruffle and smooth, its wings flap, and it looks to try and escape from Morgan’s hand. But her grip is firm. Once dry, the bird is once more placed upon the workbench. Now the final direct action on the bird, to aid preservation is committed, by applying a tanning agent. For one final time the bird is entered into bizarro world, its legs, wings, and head inside out so that all of the skin is exposed and treated as necessary. Finally, it is now allowed to rest.
While it lies at the side of the bench, the body is revisited. Wood wool is used to create a facsimile of the original, secured with cotton thread. A wire is pushed in to create the neck, which is bulked out with strings of hemp. The points of entry for the legs and wings are marked in pen, from where earlier these limbs were delicately dislocated.
It is time now for the building to begin in earnest. The bird’s skull is filled out with air drying clay, smoothing over any bumps, filling out the hole created earlier. The skin is pulled back over the skull for a final time, the eyes are filled out with more clay and they are closed, as though it were asleep… or deceased. The body, one which will not decay, is attached to the skull by the wire in the neck. It is starting to resemble a proper bird again, although not quite yet itself.
Small thin wires are pushed through the wings, along the bones. The flesh that was removed is now replaced with more strings of hemp. The bird is being flesh back out, but without any flesh. Wires are also pushed through the feet, along the bones in the leg, to act as the muscles that are no longer there to support the bird. The empty leg, where the broken bones were removed, is rebuilt entirely. The tail is centred on the body, with a wire, and those wires now extending from the wings and legs are fixed into place, guided by the marks made in pen.
The bird takes shape. Its wings are curved against its side. Its legs are bent up. It looks relaxed, even though it is in actual fact, stiff with wire. Any areas of the body that need smoothing over, are padded with finely chopped hemp. Once the bird is finished, as it dries, it will shrink, and anything unsightly in its form will be exposed. Its joints are padded, its torso is smoothed, and its mock-flesh is filled out.
And then it is stitched up.
Lying on its back, wings at its side, feet in the air, the thread passes in one side and out the other, slowly drawing its abdomen back together. Careful not to catch any feathers, the attention to detail is palpable. It is a long and delicate process. The damage caused to the skin from the freezing is making it more difficult. But it slowly comes together.
It is nearly done.
Finally, the bird is set onto a board. It is fussed, and preened, and shaped. It isn’t finished, but the time is up. Speed taxidermy has just been carried out, from start to (almost) finish. Once we leave it will make its way back into the world with Morgan where the final touches will be carried out, but still…
It looks almost like it did when we arrived in the room.
Except now, it will look like this forever.
Morgan is right. An animal taxidermied to look alive only deceives you for a moment and after that moment, something gnaws at you, while you scrutinise this animal that is made to be alive, if only in appearance. Of course even in the most accomplished of examples it can never achieve the essence that is needed to believe, because that essence is life. Any imagination that could be applied to the phenomenal range of taxidermied specimens in museums and galleries across the world is used up just trying to accept the ruse. But an animal taxidermied to look dead, made in such a way that there is no doubt about the reality of its situation, allows you mind to explore and wander and investigate.
Freed from the distraction of a falsified life.
Perhaps that is what has been missing from taxidermy.
Polly Morgan’s work is currently being exhibited at the Warrington Museum and Art Gallery in ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’ until January 11, 2014. You can see a photograph of one of the works on display (my personal favourite) below.
*Interesting fact, inner sanctums can often look a lot like classrooms.
†Of course we were not silent all afternoon. There were questions and answers and discussions throughout the demonstration. However, when there were periods of silence, it was of pure concentration (on Morgan’s part) and fascination (on our part).
I had also meant to write on the imagery of birds, in the taxidermied pieces on display and in art more generally, but this post has got terribly out of control (read: long).
Another time then, shall we?
I do love my birds.