Squirrels and crows may be the most conspicuous creatures on campus, but the College boasts a bevy of beasts far more majestic—albeit less lively. A regal walrus and black-crowned night heron are among the many taxidermy specimens in Bowdoin's collection, and while scores of students weave around the iconic polar bear in Buck every day, other animals lie just off the beaten path.
Many of these creatures can be found in the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. A snowy white caribou, several seals, an arctic fox, and a nuclear family of polar bears stare down at visitors from a ledge above the entrance. It's easy to imagine the animals moving in the morning hours before the museum opens its doors, relaxing out of the poses they are forever frozen in. Most members of this menagerie were collected by MacMillan himself and mounted in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
But the museum is currently planning a new exhibition, slated to open in April, that will showcase some of its animal specimens and the importance of various Arctic species to native peoples.
The exhibit is mid-installation, and the closed off gallery space is in a state of cluttered, but controlled chaos overseen by an enormous polar bear. This more recent specimen, acquired sometime in the 1970s, makes MacMillan's look benign, with ripple-like wrinkles raised around its snarling black lips. Out of the scaffolding, sketches, and sheets of bubble wrap emerge other creatures, including a massive musk ox. Her coat and curling tusks look as though they could have inspired the beasts of burden on Tatooine.
"The musk ox will eventually live up there," said Curator Genevieve Lemoine pointing to a high platform. A fitting perch, as "musk ox like to be up high looking down on everyone"
Placing the ox above eye level will also help to conceal the saddle-shaped patch on her back where her long, shaggy coat has been worn down to a crew cut.
The ox, like the many other animals Donald MacMillan collected on his Arctic expeditions, used to reside in Searles Hall, unprotected. Some aged alumni still fondly remember sitting astride the animals. Despite the damage, the musk ox stares ahead brightly, seemingly unfazed by any past indignities.
She is not the only specimen with stories of questionable student behavior. The polar bear in Buck will never forget a certain Busta Rhymes concert, sometime before the year 2000, when someone crashed into his glass case.
"Somebody got thrown through the glass, and it was old glass so it just came down like guillotines," Dave Maschino, the Arctic Museum's exhibit coordinator, said animatedly.
Remarkably, no one was hurt—including the bear.
Though Lemoine says she would not commission a specimen now, the ones in the museum are useful teaching tools that offer visitors more immediacy than photographs can. The Arctic Museum is not alone. Despite the fact that there is currently more technology at museums' disposal than ever before, most natural history museums have maintained their taxidermy collections, spending millions restoring their classic specimens.
On a popular level, taxidermy is also very much in vogue. Specimens are studding fashion shoots and defining the décor of trendy bars. It seems as though every Williamsburg apartment boasts a small collection, but you know it's gone mainstream when Martha Stewart runs a feature showcasing her own assortment of mallard ducks and bear cubs. "American Stuffers," an Animal Planet reality show that first aired last month, follows a family taxidermy business specializing in the preservation of pets.
"All of this to me illustrates our detachment from real nature," said ornithologist and Professor of Biology Nat Wheelwright. "It's sort of phase two when we should know better, using animals to entertain ourselves and others and use them as ornaments. I got it in the 19th century and early 20th century, but to see a resurgence—that's odd."
For much of the 19th century, taxidermy was the work of upholsterers who sewed and stuffed skins as they would a sofa. Modeling techniques developed toward the end of the century enabled taxidermists to give their specimens life-like attitudes. Good taxidermy can evoke complex, contradictory reactions from viewers, and its appeal may very well lie in its simultaneously attractive and disturbing quality.
Taxidermy's pull is its ability to make humans feel closer to nature, allowing urbanites to admire animals they may otherwise never see. This allure, however, is accompanied by an unsettling effect that does not necessarily compromise viewers' appreciation, though it does complicate it. Discomfort with taxidermy is partly due to our attitudes toward animal rights. Today, popular morality decries animal cruelty and the fact that taxidermy specimens (especially highly endangered species like the polar bear) were hunted and killed is troubling on a basic level. On top of that, however, the manipulation of the dead such that they look alive constitutes a macabre resurrection.
Wheelwright and I are standing in front of the small taxidermy aviary on the first floor of Druckenmiller Hall. In a case bearing no information on the origins or ages of the specimens on view (though Wheelwright estimates they are at least 90 years old), 18 birds are silently roosting.
Many are woefully dusty, but the passenger pigeon may feel forgotten for other reasons. The North American species once numbered in the billions but is now extinct. John James Audubon described a flock in terms that evoke Old Testament locusts: "The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of the noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse...and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose."
Massive hunting and deforestation wiped out the species, which was often used to feed slaves and even hogs. The card below the bird states that 7.5 million were shot at a single nesting site in 1869.
With its splayed tail feathers and wide eye (its right is missing), the pigeon looks rather scandalized by the thought of its own extinction. The postures of the pigeon and his fellow birds reflect an attempt on the part of the taxidermist to imbue them with personality.
Wheelwright said the mounted specimens are not that educational, compared to the department's other holdings: "They get dusty and they kind of give the whole field a dusty reputation."
When he realized I thought the dusty mounts were the building's main ornithological attraction, Wheelwright laughed and said, "You haven't seen anything."
We made for the second floor, and I, half-expecting to encounter a Hitchcock-sized flock, followed him into one of the labs. Instead, on the table lay the beautiful, perfectly preserved wings of blue jays and raptors.
I was invited to move one of the hawk wings through space, to feel the way it catches the air, and to examine special frayed feathers that muffle the sound of the predator's approach. The wings were just the beginning. The next room contained dozens of shallow drawers, each full of colorful birds in clear cylinders, like so many jewels in a case. Some are from as long ago as the 1890s, and many of the birds were prepared by students, who continue to use them to memorize markings and morphology.
"I think it's very educational in terms of just getting a little bit of blood under your fingernails," said Wheelwright of the preparation process. "When you actually open the bird up and look inside, I think you remember it in a different way."