Dead or Alive: Animal Bodies in the Museum

Dead or Alive: Animal Bodies in the Museum, is an Masters thesis in Art Education, exploring the strange, seductive, and often complicated world of museum taxidermy. More specifically, the research has examined what roles art-making (in the form of participatory in-museum practice and subsequent studio-based research-creation) can play in conversations around taxidermied animals, and how these acts of art-making contribute to the generation of knowledge about the cultural display of animal bodies and wider discourses surrounding animal issues.

This thesis has been realized in two distinct phases, a participatory/collaborative art making museum intervention at the Redpath Museum at McGill University, and the creation of a series of research-creation artworks*. Both phases centred on four specimens of zoological museum taxidermy on display at the Redpath; a polar bear, a gorilla, a whooping crane, and a beaver diorama.

                             Gorilla    Crane               


The museum intervention brought twelve non-expert viewers (i.e. individuals who are not qualified scientists with specific academic level knowledge of the research) into the Redpath museum, and engaged them in framed discourses around the four animal specimens. Each specimen was selected for its distinct difference in species, varied location within the museum, as well as differing contexts of display.

    Intervention 1 Intervention 2

    Intervention 3 Intervention 4

Intervention 5 Intervention 6

    Intervention 6 Intervention 7

    Intervention 8 Intervention 9

Following their specimen discussions, participants were given the opportunity to collaboratively contribute to an artwork disseminating their discussions. This collaborative artwork, an over-scaled fabric banner , was visually activated before the intervention through the stitching of each of the animal’s names, giving participants an additional framework within which to situate their contributions. Working with a provided range of materials, the participants contributions, movements, interactions, and reactions in the gallery were physically recorded through their artistic expression onto this fabric panel. This not only allowed them to join in the work’s collective authorship, but also to create a visual memory bank of their shared knowledge and experiences within the museum.

Collaborative Art Work

The second phase of this research was centred on the creation of a series of researchcreation artworks* (eight mixed-method watercolour paintings/collages), embodying and reconstructing responses from the museum intervention and surrounding scholarship.

     Beaver 1 Gorilla 1

     Polar Bear 1 Crane 1

Each animal is addressed through two paintings/collages. The first work of each pair imagine a view of the animals as they might appear when un-observed in their natural habitats, and draw on historical ideas of natural history dioramas as “windows on nature”.**

    Beaver 2 Gorilla 2

    Polar Bear 2 Crane 2

The second work of each pair imagine a situation in which it would be possible to view each animal through a different window of the museum. In reality, no such views exist, however re-situating the animals just inside the museum windows, the Redpath’s architecture provides a literal reference to the cultural framework that separates the animals from both viewer and their natural origins/past lives as living animals.

Additionally, a reference is made to natural history dioramas, creating visual tension between the animals and the natural world that exists just beyond their reach outside the museum; essentially reversing the “window on nature” concept, and prompting the viewer to recognize that contained inside every natural history diorama is an animal looking back out at a living, breathing natural world that is kept just outside its reach.

                             Exhibit 1 Exhibit 2

   Exhibit 3 Exhibit 4

At the conclusion of this thesis, this body of work was installed with accompanying texts, images and participatory artwork, and exhibited at CaPSL: Curating and Public Scholarship Lab at Concordia University in December 2017.

It is important to note that this research has not aimed to be critical of the Redpath Museum’s collection, its history, or contemporary activity. This research has been approached from the perspective of the “affable intervention” as discussed by Robbins (2013)***. The concept of the “affable intervention” seeks to engage audiences differently within museum spaces, promoting research and extending the scope of discursive museum practices while remaining non-critical of the particular institution within which it is carries out. Such an intervention strives for the collaboration between artist and institution to remain cooperative and open, enabling differing fields of study, such as the sciences and the arts to work together and enlighten each other.

*The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) defines research-creation as an approach to scholarly research that combines creative and academic research practices, and supports the development of knowledge and innovation through artistic expression, scholarly investigation and experimentation.

**Kamcke, C., & Hutterer, R. (2015). History of dioramas. In Natural History Dioramas (pp. 7-21). Springer Netherlands.

***Robins, C. (2013). Curious lessons in the museum: the pedagogic potential of artists' interventions. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..

Photos by Emma Harake