Friday, June 25

Saying Goodbye to Melbourne’s Weird and Wonderful Taxidermy

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January 2021 is the end of an era. Yes, of course, for the United States and all that, but also for something far less contentious: The “Wild” taxidermy exhibit at the Melbourne Museum.

I’ll never forget my first experience with the taxidermy room. While visiting my siblings in Melbourne when I still lived in Los Angeles, we took my son to the museum. We were slightly delirious with jet lag and the taxidermy room was a weird wonder, a tiered, starkly-white space filled with beasts from all corners of the world.

My sister pointed out one animal in particular, an otter with an expression so wonky and forlorn it sent me into fits of uncontrollable giggles. This, of course, was Sad Otter, who has since acquired a modicum of internet fame. (You can now buy Sad Otter plush toys at the museum gift shop.)

It is thought that Sad Otter got his bizarre appearance because the taxidermists who worked on him may never have seen a live otter. Whatever the cause, he is not alone.

While the otter is probably the weirdest specimen in the collection, he is one of many to appear with a certain macabre shoddiness. I also am quite fond of flea-bitten lion, disintegrating bat, and mangy bandicoot.

Many of these specimens are over 100 years old, and it shows.

(I highly recommend browsing the collection online, where you can see some amazing specimens that have not been recently displayed, such as this alarming leopard cat.)

It is the imperfection of the collection that makes it so endearing, at least to me. Often these types of displays in museums are so slick that it’s easy to forget these animals were once alive, are now dead, and one day will disintegrate completely. It is their impermanence that gives them gravitas.

Their impermanence is also one reason the display is going away. The taxidermy room will close on January 26, in part to make way for a 67-million-year-old triceratops skeleton, but also because exposure to the public leads to moth infestations and other environmental contaminants. Once the display is disassembled, the specimens will be put into a deep freeze to eradicate any creepy crawlies, before being stored.

I’m excited for the new triceratops — which is apparently one of the most complete and best-preserved dinosaur fossils anywhere — but I’ll always miss “Wild.”

Australia is often so eager to present itself as forward thinking and modern that it neglects to properly celebrate its own weirdness, and the taxidermy room was one place where that weirdness was on glorious display.

Now for this week’s stories.

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