In this short feature by Channel News Asia, Professor Peter Ng (Head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum) and Ms Kate Pocklington (our Conservator) shared their thoughts on taxidermy and the importance of taxidermy to science. This CNA feature was aired on 8th October 2014.
SINGAPORE: Taxidermy relies on the dead, but still thrives in Singapore despite being a subject few know anything about. It is an art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals for display.
When Singapore’s first polar bear Sheba died at the age of 35, a decision to preserve her means she ‘lives on’ – immortalised through taxidermy.
But more than just a load of stuffing, making dead animals look alive dates back to Egyptian times when pets, among other more exotic animals, were mummified for eternity. Even today, there is a demand to keep pets around long after their death.
Mr Ken Mar is one of Singapore’s last remaining taxidermists. “I have come across many pet owners with tears in their eyes when they bring their pets to me … it’s quite heart-wrenching. A client who collected her deceased pet dog burst into tears and called the name of her pet and happily brought it home,” he said. But a passion for the preserved goes beyond a teary reluctance to say goodbye.
Singapore’s very first Natural History Museum, set to open next year, will house hundreds of thousands of immortalised specimens.
Ms Kate Pocklington, conservator at Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, said: “Without the collections you can’t compare anything to the past … it’s like a library, but a library of a different sort. There’s been a lot of debate about this lately, because people are saying, ‘why can’t we use photographs?’ But then you can’t access the DNA, you can’t get all the information from the specimens.”
Professor Peter Ng, Head of Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, said: “When we built up a small gallery in the university in 1998, we had all these old specimens … from the 1800s, 1900s, 1920s, 1930s there, and when we see all the kids and the public walking through, what they were excited about was not that this bird is beautiful or nicely mounted in all its glory, but they would look at the labels, ‘You mean this used to be in Siglap? You mean Pasir Ris was like this?’ They get excited when they see something that they know is real. It’s not a cast, it’s not a model, it’s something real, linked to something they can identify with.”
And taxidermied animals could be closer. Many are finding their way into homes. The costs, which include the imported pelt, import fees and the services of the taxidermist do not come cheap.
In Hougang, a Hamydryas baboon graces one family’s dining room. In a Bishan HDB flat, a pricey North American black bear is a permanent feature in the bedroom, while in Bukit Timah, a $14,000 African lioness takes pride of place in a semi-detached home.
Despite their flamboyant pastime, many collectors prefer to remain private. Ms Rachel, a private taxidermy collector, said: “There’s a range of reactions that I get from friends, they are fascinated by it and there are those who just hate the taxidermy. It’s something that evokes strong emotions in different people, mostly they are polite about it.”
Rachel’s interest began with a coyote. Her most recent acquisition is an African Zebra that straddles two rooms in her residence. “I love animals, a lot of my taxidermy (collections) are pests, they are not hunted purely to become a taxidermied trophy. Then there are some animals like the tiger, it’s high on the list of conservation. I personally would not get that. There’s a line to be drawn somewhere,” she said.
That line has become controversially blurred around the world. In a new trend, hipsters are going for ‘rogue’ taxidermy. Gutsy taxidermists, looking for glory, compete to create more unique pieces. The more creative the final result, the cooler the cadaver.
But it’s not a style the scientific world readily embraces. Ms Pocklington said: “I’m sure there are people who have taxidermy for decoration, but there’s two ways to look at it. You make it look like it was alive, that’s the kind of stuff that goes on display in the museum. That’s when you see the tiger growling at you or an orangutan in a tree. But then you have the other kind, which is scientific – each one is there for the measurements, for colour. If you just do it anyhow, there’s no creativity in that.”
© 2014 Channel News Asia, Mediacorp