285 pages, no illustrations
Taxidermy is everywhere these days – from hip restaurants to posh clothing stores. Yet few realize that behind these "stuffed" animals is a world of intrepid hunterexplorers, eccentric naturalists, and museum artisans, all devoted to the paradoxical pursuit of creating the illusion of life.
Into this subculture of insanely passionate animal lovers ventures journalist Melissa Milgrom, whose journey stretches from the anachronistic family workshop of the last chief taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History to the studio where an English sculptor, granddaughter of a surrealist artist, preserves the animals for Damien Hirst's most disturbing artworks. She wanders through Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities in the final days of its existence to watch dealers vie for preserved Victorian oddities, and visits the Smithsonian's offsite lab, where taxidermists transform zoo skins into vivacious beasts. She tags along with a Canadian bear trapper and former Roy Orbison impersonator – the three-time World Taxidermy Champion – as he resurrects an extinct Irish elk using DNA studies and Paleolithic cave art for reference; she even ultimately picks up a scalpel and stuffs her own squirrel. Transformed from a curious onlooker to an empathetic participant, Milgrom takes us deep into the world of taxidermy and reveals its uncanny appeal.
"Hilarious but respectful."
– Washington Post
– New Yorker
"[A] delightful debut [...] Milgrom has in Still Life opened up a whole world to readers."
– Chicago Tribune
"[A] literate, fascinating history."
"If you're an outdoorsman, museum-goer, or a pragmatic animal lover, find this book, grab a shopping bag and stuff it."
– Yankton Press & Dakotan
"An absorbing tour."
– Boston Globe
"Milgrom's eye for detail and sense of humor makes Still Life an entertaining and educating look at this intriguing subculture."
– Florida Times-Union
"Under Milgrom's direction, readers may find themselves more interested in – and entertained by – the world of taxidermy than they thought imaginable."
– Christian Science Monitor
"A delightful, illuminating journey through a passionate subculture that prizes the natural world (even if nature's inhabitants are dead when taxidermists work their magic on them)."
– Shelf Awareness
"An absorbing blend of bright-eyed reportage and hands-on participation [...] a genuine appreciation for a true art form, an enthusiasm the author imparts with style in this substantial study."
– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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Melissa Milgrom has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Salon, the Daily Beast and Travel and Leisure, among other publications; she has also produced radio segments for NPR. She has a master's degree in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.