Opened in 1942, the Akeley Hall of African Mammals in New York's American Museum of Natural History is perhaps taxidermy's crowning achievement. But, as an excellent essay from Lapham's Quarterly recounts, the hall is more than mere artistry. It's also drenched in the egos of presidents and industrialists, men who were just as eager to preserve the memory of disappearing landscapes as they were to shoot and skin the last vestiges of it. The hall is an emblem of the American attitude towards nature and conservation:
"In a “period of worldwide turmoil,” the dioramas could be offered as a cultural and moral resource, a kind of antidote to “man’s destructive powers” and an invitation to “get back to first principles.” The stuffed animal had become a figure of Manifest Destiny whose job it was to lead man out of the nightmare of history and save the beginnings... The museum scientists who carped that the dioramas were “totally devoid of intellectual content” had missed the point. “There are times when reality becomes too complex for oral communication,” says the computer in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Alphaville. “But legend gives it a form by which it pervades the whole world.”
We often think of fake nature as the least interesting manifestation of our relationship with the natural world. It's easy to be fake. Fake is static. How to Be a Stuffed Animal, however, demonstrates that there's more to recreated nature than plastic flowers and mobile phone antenna trees. The museum's mounts go above artifice to embody national character and a hyperreal philosophy of conservation.