The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

28 March 2011

Hop the Fourth - Taxidermy!

Sarah Conrad Gothie, Vaguely Colonial Curiousities: Hipness, the Home, and Natural History Specimens in Domino Magazine

Imagine a feminine interior. A classic design magazine image. Imagine, then, an interloper - the highly masculine antlered stag head. This appeared in Domino magazine, a hipster magazine, and started something of a trend. Though Domino works through post-femininity, the focus today is upon the significance of this object itself.

Domino was distributed nationally between 2005 and 2009. Most readers are married women, with a comfortable income. The editors are 30something women, the magazine is described as 'fizzy and girlish.' So why did the hunting trophy of stag horns keep reappearing - even in the kitchen, of all places? They even appeared in light fittings. Full sized stags appeared as many as fifteen times. Antlers, it seems, are central to the dominant aesthetic. Other strange oddities do appear - cabinets of curiousity and stuffed squirrels.

Domino's logic lies in the balance of past and present, juxtaposing and mixing periods and styles. It seems that this brings a playful ideosyncracity to the aesthetic, speaking to the arbitrariness of the hipster. Domino trivialises the violence of taxidermy, and distances the peices from their origins. The magazine, however, addresses this through the use of carved, wooden or metal replicas, as 'animal friendly' alternatives. It speaks to the move of taxidermy from lowbrow kitsch, which has, often, inspired hipster culture. But Domino mystifies this process and origin, hiding these rural origins by musealising and stylising the objects. The rhetorical tactics of Domino establishes temporal and spatial distances - through labelling them as antiques, objects created by 'lesser' people in the past, and position them in proximity to highly feminised elements. This makes the stag head docile, amusing, non-masculine, almost personal and even benevolent. They become romantic companions, as strange as they are, heads decontextualised from their bodily forms.

How strange it is, that the closeness of the act of violence is what creates our feeling of discomfort. What is this to do with museums? Taxidermy is still resonant in the present, particularly when we deal with questions of colonialism, ownership of nations and peoples, the age of empire and Western supremacy. It's an uncomfortable kind of object to display a past which is also sometimes uncomfortable. For we still create those temporal distances ourselves, to create a sense of comfort and separateness from our acts in the present. When we display these narratives of the past as incorrect, as out of date, we trivialise them - and we risk ignoring our own particular position. And its an appropriate object with which to question those notions of trust and authenticity about which our plenary spoke. As it turns out, the choice of antlers isn't arbitrary. For they allow the magazine to appropriate status, performing a post-feminist critique which is at the same time a discussion of authority and social and museal histories. The appropriation of museal forms allows us to think about how the appropriation of curious objects can be both celebratory and traumatic - and this allows us, as museum professionals, to understand our role, and our position as purveyours of the weirdly authentic.

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