Is it real? – Taxidermy

One of the most common questions asked about our specimens, from visitors of all ages, is ‘Is it real?’. This seemingly simple question is actually many questions in one and hides a complexity of answers. 

In this FAQ mini-series we’ll unpack the ‘Is it real?’ conundrum by looking at different types of natural history specimens in turn. We’ll ask ‘Is it a real animal?’, ‘Is it real biological remains?’, ‘Is it a model?’ and many more reality-check questions.

First up: Taxidermy, by Mark Carnall

The Museum is well-known for its touchable taxidermy. As of today, we have two large bears, a Black Bear and a Brown Bear, greeting visitors as they enter the main court, as well as taxidermy specimens on our Sensing Evolution touch-tables. For children and adults alike, this close encounter with a taxidermy animal prompts the question – is it real?

Taxidermy, or ‘stuffed’ animals, are specimens that have been specially prepared, preserved and posed to show what the creature may have looked like in life, but real and not real here is tricky. The animal itself is, or was, a real animal – there are no taxidermy unicorns, for example. But the biologically real parts may only be the skin, the skull, and the skeleton inside the paws and feet, depending on the type of animal.

The touchable taxidermy Brown Bear greets visitors to the museum.

Inside taxidermy specimens there may be sculpted statues over which the skin is stretched; for older specimens, a wire and wood framework with paper, wood wool, straw and seeds may be used to fill out the skin. The animal’s squishy parts, which are not easy to preserve –such as eyes, lips and tongues – are normally made of glass or plaster.

Animals that have skins and skeletons that are relatively easy to preserve – including mammals, reptiles, and birds – are generally better suited to taxidermy. Marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, and fish are all less common as taxidermy because their skins are harder to treat and keep stable.

Dogfish and piranha taxidermy which have been painted and varnished in an attempt to make them resemble the living animals. Note the comedic eyes on the shark.

The hard parts of skin, such as crests, wattles and skin patterns in reptiles, are susceptible to discolouring and fading in light, so these areas may be repainted to show what the animals look like in life. This introduces another ‘non-real’ element: paint.

So although there are certainly real parts used in taxidermy, there’s yet another complication in answering the question: the animals are usually posed by a human, so even their posture and appearance could be considered ‘subjective’ and perhaps therefore not quite ‘real’.

In fact, some of our older taxidermy may have been prepared by taxidermists who hadn’t ever even seen a living example of the animal they were working on. This can lead to inaccurate positioning and posing, as in the taxidermy kiwi on display in our main court.

So, is it real? You decide.

Next time… Skeletons and bones



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