First published on 14 Oct 2008. Updated on 26 May 2009.
How old were you when you started to get interested in taxidermy? I was nine. The 'Museum in a Box' came to my school (which I now organise for other schools) and inside was a platypus.We had to do a project on the animal, and I thought, I don't want to do the platypus, I want to explore the taxidermy of the platypus. I researched that area and did a project on taxidermy.
That is a fairly extraordinary insight for a child to have. It was I suppose. I kept a lot of animals, and at that age I volunteered at Sydney Zoo as a guide at the weekends. It just fascinated me.
How did you end up at the museum? I did work experience there from the age of 11 during my summer holidays. I started to practice taxidermy at the age of nine and my parents bought me books on the practice. I read up on how to do it, then my grandfather and I did my first bird together, which was a common Myna bird. I then arranged for a licence from the National Parks to be able to work on native fauna and I did that during school holidays. I built up enough work to get the museum to see that I was serious in what I wanted to do and managed to get a position by the time I was 15. It was rather fortuitous that the taxidermist they had at the time left and I was offered the chance to take on the post, which is amazing as these situations so rarely come up.
Can you break down the process of taxidermy for us? The animals we work on are washed up from the sea, road kill, or donated from zoos and other institutions. We then work out the animal's relevance to the collection. If scientifically valuable the skins and features of the animal are preserved and displayed in drawers to be observed in terms of 'sets' of species, their markings, their varying sizes. The other 'mounts' are [positioned ] in lifelike poses, where the specimen is skinned fully, the main bones used, but the rest of the body is discarded. Then the skin itself is preserved using a simple white borax powder, which dries the skin, and also insect-proofs it. Then we make a body form by taking shavings of wood compressed very tightly in your hand, wrapping it with cotton to create a dense body shape, replicating that which has been removed. Wires are used to attach the head and legs and make up the neck and these are then wrapped with cotton to replicate the amount of meat removed from that body area. It is an intricate procedure and we take every care to be as authentic to the essence of the animal. It's about creating a magpie that looks like a magpie, and so on.
What is 'rogue taxidermy'? Does it detract from taxidermy proper? I have actually made some 'grotesque taxidermy' as it is otherwise known. Some people have created 'griffins' using the lower torsos of lions and the upper torsos of eagles. It is a practice which dates back to the 1800s. It took on political satire with people using taxidermy to showcase different beliefs of the day; it was a way of getting around censorship. People have also created mythological creatures like Flabbits, which were rabbits with wings. These were often passed off at sideshow attractions common to the period. I've made Moads, a mouse crossed with a toad. It's weird, but I do not feel it detracts from the true nature of taxidermy; it's instead an extension of the art.
Do you think taxidermy of pets and game is more prevalent in other cultures than it is in Australia? Game hunting has always [used] taxidermy [for making] trophies, which is just not applicable here, as we do not have the provisions or need for such hunting. Historically that is the preserve of Europe, America and Africa - our fauna is protected. This sort of taxidermy is treated as a craft in America, as an art form. There are huge taxidermy conventions there.
Do you think taxidermy elicits the fear that we may one day be stuffed and stuck in a tableau ourselves? It's strange you should mention that. There is actually a person who has been stuffed. [English philosopher] Jeremy Bentham [1748-1832] bequeathed his body to one of the more noted universities, I can't quite recall which one. He was mounted and is on display in a university cupboard and on occasion gets wheeled into the board meetings to sit in on proceedings. It's extraordinary, because from a legal standpoint one would not normally be able to do such a thing, so obviously he found a loophole somewhere.
Would you consider being stuffed? Um, no, no, no, no, definitely not.
Do you ever 'talk to the animals'? No, I don't talk to them. I've come close to swearing around them because the process can be incredibly difficult sometimes!
What qualities make a good taxidermist? Taking the nuances of an animal, the poses, the animal's essence, and putting that into the mount is what makes an excellent taxidermist - someone who is more than someone who just stuffs animals. You need a strong stomach, a respect and understanding for species, and also an aptitude for carpentry. You have to have the eye, the artistic ability to be able to interpret this material, and be able to look at an animal and say "that is the pose that says, 'this is a specific creature, and it is alive.'"
People must love you at dinner parties when they ask "so, what do you do?" Everyone has been fascinated. Very few people have been repulsed - even those with extreme animal rights views can understand the qualities that are inherent in the art. I suppose it is rather akin to being an undertaker. It is an important process in terms of educating people about nature.
What would your dream taxidermy assignment be? Perhaps a horse - utterly complex, every vein on their skin is visible, just incredible anatomical detail, which must be just so. It would take the very highest level of taxidermy to make that horse look like a horse, not just a stuffed horse, and therein lies the challenge.
More information on The Australian Museum.