The National Museum has recently embarked on a long process of upgrading its Mammal exhibition halls. While we are excited about the prospects of the changes, this mission also presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the composition and layout of the existing mammal displays. The National Museum currently exhibits 153 life-sized taxidermy (originally cotton-wrapped wire bodies supporting sewn-on cured skins) and fibreglass mammal specimens. Taxidermy specimens have a special place in the Museum exhibitions and allow visitors to see what rare or extinct animals looked like from up close when they were more common or alive. On the National Museum’s displays, these specimens are supplemented by the actual study skins, skulls, teeth and wet samples (specimens fixated in formalin), as well as by the text (including braille), sound recordings, maps, drawings, pictures and carvings.
The term taxidermy is derived from the Greek words taxis (arrangement) and derma (skin) and, according to the Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.: online), can be described as “the activity of cleaning, preserving and filling the skins of dead animals with special material to make them look as if they are still alive”. As the skins are basically mounted over a framework, the end products are also referred to as “taxidermy mounts” (Wikipedia n.d.: online). Preparation of the hunting and fishing trophies is an old practice. The techniques used in taxidermy were already formalised by the mid-18th century, when the first methods for the preparation of specimens for natural history exhibitions were published (Wikipedia n.d.: online). Soon after, professional taxidermists could be found in Germany, France, England and Denmark. They even “studied” to practice their trade, and competed to do their apprenticeships with the most well-known and recognised specialists in the field. Already then the trademarks of the true professionals included not only a good knowledge of skin tanning, animal anatomy and behaviour, but also of sculpture and painting. Interestingly, while many today consider taxidermy as a form of art, and taxidermy specimens therefore worthy of extreme preservation, others may treat it merely as a skill. As Hein van Grouw, Senior Curator of Birds at the Natural History Museum (London) remarked, “nature has done the designing for you, and you cannot get any better than that. A taxidermist (therefore) isn’t coming up with anything new” (Pavid n.d.: online) and therefore should not claim his skill as art per se.
The present collection of taxidermy specimens on the exhibition at the National Museum includes a number of remarkable items, some of which were imported from Europe. Arguably the most valuable and well-known examples, for which we have reliable information, were prepared by the Taxidermy Hall of Fame taxidermist and Master of Fine Arts, Herman Hendrikus ter Meer, a pioneer of modern dermoplasty (“developed his own technique for making manikins”; “By using a mixture of plaster, glue, and turf, he was able to make a manikin which could be sculpted as it slowly hardened”). Ter Meer was born on 16 December 1871 in Leiden, The Netherlands, and grew up in a family and tradition of taxidermists. His grandfather, father and uncle all worked in the Taxidermy department of the former Reich Museum of Natural History in Leiden, The Netherlands. This is also where he was first appointed as a taxidermist, on 1 February 1895. In 1907, he moved to the Zoological Institute of the University of Leipzig, Germany, where he worked until his death on 9 March 1934. Ter Meer prepared two of the specimens displayed at the National Museum: a Serval and a Black Wildebeest. These taxidermy mounts were produced during his tenure at the University of Leipzig, in 1931 and 1932 respectively. The skill and craftsmanship of this master taxidermist is still evident today (Becker, 2004). Even though most of our other mounts were done more than 30 years after those of ter Meer’s, his specimens are still the best preserved. These truly remarkable mounts remain our most prized taxidermy specimens – the real works of art, indeed.
Our oldest taxidermy specimen is the Giraffe calf, which stands next to an adult female on the ground floor, opposite the Museum shop. We unfortunately have no record of who the taxidermist was, nor the exact year when the work was completed. The small giraffe was first exhibited in the late 1890s in the First Raadsaal (during the days of the Orange Free State Republic, before the Second Anglo–Boer War). What we do know is that some of the taxidermy mounts displayed in the First Raadsaal during that period were prepared in Cape Town. It is, therefore, not impossible that our little giraffe was a passenger on one of the earliest trains between Cape Town and Bloemfontein! (The railway line first reached Bloemfontein in 1890.)
Specimens that came to South Africa as complete taxidermy mounts included the endangered Aye-Aye, endemic to Madagascar; the near threatened Platypus, endemic to Tasmania and the eastern part of Australia; the vulnerable Giant Anteater, endemic to Panama and the northern parts of South America; and the least concern, according to the IUCN (2023), Brown bear (also called the Grizzly bear) from Eurasia and North America; amongst others.
Long-time favourites in our mammal exhibitions are the large elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses, which are for many the focus points of specific halls. These impressive, live-size beasts are some of the most photographed items in the National Museum, and time and again leave large groups of pupils that frequent us, in awe. Since these specimens are made of more durable fibreglass, they are also favourites among visually impaired visitors, who are allowed to experience their size, shape and texture through the sense of touch.
Becker, Ch. 2004. Wie ein zweites Leben: der Tierbildner Herman H. ter Meer. Leipzig: Passage-Verlag.
Cambridge Dictionary [n.d.] Taxidermy. [online]. Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/taxidermy. [Accessed 3 April 2023].
Taxidermy Hall of Fame [n.d.] Herman H. ter Meer. [online]. Available from: http://taxidermyhalloffame.org/herman-h-ter-meer/. [Accessed 3 April 2023].
IUCN. 2023. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. Version 2022-2 [online]. Available from: https://www.iucnredlist.org./ [Accessed 3 April 2023].
Pavid, K. [n.d.] Why is taxidermy still valuable? Available from: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/why-is-taxidermy-still-valuable.html [Accessed 3 April 2023].
Wikipedia [n.d.] Taxidermy. [online]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxidermy. [Accessed 3 April 2023].