Adirondack Experience, the Museum on Blue Mountain Lake, is set to exhibit approximately 100 pieces of extraordinary taxidermy on loan from private Adirondack collections and camps as well as mounts, photographs, and manuscript materials from its own collection, beginning May 24th.
The exhibition will include taxidermy as well as advertisements, business ledgers, and period photographs of Adirondack trophy lodges, camp interiors, and taxidermists and their studios. Taxidermy and the law; hunting and fishing trophies; Adirondack style and taxidermy; natural history; beastly fables and fantasy, and taxidermy today will be among the topics covered.
The exhibit will include the work of famed English taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918). Two of his pieces will be on exhibit at the ADKX for the first time in the United States. Rabbits’ Village School, 1888 and Monkey Riding the Goat.
Taxidermy animals and animal parts have long been used as camp décor in the Adirondacks. Beginning in the 19th century, black bear skin rugs, mounted moose heads, antler footstools, and deer hoof gun racks testified to the hunter’s prowess, and proclaimed conquest of, and superiority over, wild nature. Mounted creatures were also considered to have educational value, and brought a sense of the outdoors inside.
Hunting and fishing trophies, particularly mounted white tailed deer, are still commonplace in Adirondack camps and homes, but in the late 1800s many camp owners added an exotic note to their décor by displaying animals from all over the world: mounted lions, tigers, elephants, and polar bears; zebra and leopard skin rugs; and furniture upholstered with jaguar and cow hide. Such animal objects added to the air of exoticism created by assemblages of Japanese paper lanterns, Navajo rugs, Balinese statues, Turkish textiles and other rarities. The overall effect was that of a cabinet of curiosities — a private wunderkammer.
Several of today’s Adirondack collectors have created their own taxidermy wunderkammer that mirror the 19th-century camp aesthetic. Examples of their holdings in the exhibition include antique and new mounted hunting trophies as well as oddities such as deer hoof inkwells, fox tail thermometers, antler furniture, and cased dioramas.
Tableaux of animals engaged in human activities — dancing, playing tennis and cards, smoking, and getting married were popular in the 19th century and with today’s collectors as well. A set of boxing squirrels was shown at the 1851 Crystal Palace Great Exhibition; a monkey riding a goat illustrates a scene from one of Aesop’s Fables; and a class of baby rabbits study writing, sewing, and music in a village school.
Grieving pet owners, not wishing to be parted from their beloved companions, had their dogs and cats mounted. Their owners too now gone, these mounts grace the rooms of an Adirondack camp and silently testify to the bond between humans and their animal companions. While some today may find these, and other mounts in the show disturbing, Curious Creatures seeks to help visitors understand the historical and social circumstances that led to their creation.
The word taxidermy comes from the Greek taxis, meaning arrangement, and derma, meaning skin. It is the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting skins to recreate the appearance of a live animal. Today, taxidermy is seeing a resurgence among collectors and artists who are pushing beyond the traditional aesthetics of merely simulating life. Best known for his rustic furniture, Adirondack artist Barney Bellinger incorporates vintage taxidermy pieces in his work, “deconstructing” mounts to reveal what lies beneath. A selection of his art will be include in this exhibition.
Adirondack Experience is located at 9097 NY-30, Blue Mountain Lake. For additional information, call (518) 352-7311 or visit their website.
Photo of taxidermy Jackalope provided by Adirondack Experience.
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.