A new display at the American Museum of Agriculture in Lubbock, Texas has brought the subject of taxidermy morality to the public eye — a question that natural history museums regularly face. The AMA found two mules to euthanize and stuff for a 19th century farming display featuring a McCormick reaper.
A number of Care2 Members vocally disapprove of using the mules as taxidermy models now that the original call to action failed to save the mules’ lives. Now, an animal rights activist is suing the museum for violating state law by killing livestock for “nefarious purposes.” If he wins his case, the mules will belong to the state.
Allegedly, if the mules hadn’t been euthanized for the exhibit, their trader would have sent them to a slaughterhouse in Mexico. They explained that at the ages of 28 and 32, the pair of mules could no longer serve any practical use. We know these were not the only options.
The AMA justifies their decision: “With the assistance of Museum Arts, we have installed a very realistic exhibit showing the reaper and its operation. To complete this exhibit, Museum Arts strongly recommended that we obtain professionally preserved mules in full harness to allow our visitors to understand how essential animal power was to this stage of American agriculture.”
So essential that even present day mules should die to convey the message, apparently.
Fiberglass or taxidermy — what’s the difference?
Phil Paramore of Museum Arts, an exhibit arts company, believes that the only way to truly depict Lubbock mules’ role in 19th century farms is by transporting visitors back to the original scene — fur, fake eyes and all.
It’s true that taxidermy has sparked controversy even in the case of famous or now extinct animals who have died of natural causes, regardless of their potential educational contributions. But even with the decrease in taxidermist positions in most major museums, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s award winning Hall of Mammals opened as recently as 2003. Its conception involved accruing 274 taxidermy specimens from research facilities and zoos.
Visitors react to the tangibility of these displays, which spurns the argument for their existence in the first place. Taxidermy seems to convey a certain legitimacy that, for better or worse, either awes or alarms. Displays so lifelike they can only exist in a certain setting definitely leave an impression.
But how “natural” is taxidermy in the case of the Lubbock mules, at least compared to manufactured replicas?
The reality of authenticity
More often now than in past years, museums opt for fiberglass replicas precisely because an animal has distinctive features — like skin, fur, or mouth — that would be difficult to preserve or do justice to in taxidermy form.
Texas’s American Museum of Agriculture aims “to build a first-class museum facility that will teach visitors where their food and fiber comes from through artifacts, interpretive displays and interactive exhibits,” according to their website. Taxidermy mules are not artifacts, nor are they interactive. As far as I can tell, interpretive displays are up to interpretation — fiberglass replicas don’t seem to technically interfere with the museum’s mission.
Traditionally, animals used for museum displays allowed for a greater understanding of animal bodies in true scale. I know that seeing SUE, the world’s best-preserved Tyrannousaurus Rex skeleton housed at Chicago’s Field Museum, definitely shifted my perspective as a kid. But there are clearly thin lines between bone, fossil and fur.
So I have to wonder — since the display intends to depict mules in a 19th century farming scene, how accurate would a 21st century mule’s body even be? Remember, these mules did not spend any time pulling the vintage reaper used in the display.
Do you think the use of animal replicas in place of taxidermy originals is equally effective to a museum’s educational aim? Since the mules have already been euthanized, what is there to gain or lose by not using them for an exhibit?
I’d love to hear what sort of dialogue surrounding taxidermy you’d like to see opened up — or shut down — in museums!