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Life after death: about ethical taxidermy

Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy’ is currently on display in our Natural History Gallery. Here, ethical taxidermist and artist, Jazmine Miles-Long, tells us about the process of taxidermy.

  • About ethical taxidermy, Jazmine Miles-Long painting a taxidermy stoat ,  Ali Graham
    Jazmine Miles-Long painting a taxidermy stoat ,  Ali Graham

How do you create taxidermy?

Taxidermy involves a lot of processes and skills. The first thing that must be done is to collect all of the details about the specimen – how, when and where it died. There are many laws to protect wildlife in the UK that taxidermists must adhere to. So it is important to check if the species you are working with needs specific legal paperwork.

Then comes the skinning, which I think many presume will be very messy but it’s not that bad. Underneath the skin is a membrane that acts like a second skin keeping the body together in one piece. Working carefully between these layers means the skin can be simply peeled away. If all goes well not much blood is actually present. If I am working on a mammal, the skin must be pickled and tanned in a similar process to leather. Whereas with birds, all of the fat must be cleaned away from the feather tracts where the quills poke through on the inside of the skin.

Then the form replacing the muscular structure of the animal has to be created using measurements taken from the actual animal's body to recreate the same shape and size. Taxidermists use a variety of materials to make this form, I use carved balsa wood for birds and a bind-up for the mammals. A bind-up is made by wrapping wood-wool (fine, soft wood-shavings, typically used as a packing material) tightly around wire using cotton thread to hold the structure together. In both birds and mammals the skull is cleaned and used within the head. Some of the wing and leg bones are kept attached to the bird skin with all the flesh cleaned away.

The skin is then mounted onto the form, the facial expression is sculpted under the skin often with clay and the eyes are made from glass or acrylic. Once the piece has dried, any skin not covered by fur or feathers loses its colour turning a dark yellow or grey. Such as around the eyes, within ears, on pads of the feet of mammals and legs and bills of birds. Finally the last stage is to paint these areas using acrylic paints. 

See a video of this process below. Please be aware that this video shows scenes of animals being skinned and flesh being removed from bones.

How long will an artwork take to complete from start to finish?

It depends on the size and type of the animal. For instance larger mammals take longer as there is simply more body to build and skin to sew, also a longer time is needed to pickle a larger skin and for the piece to then dry once finished. On the other hand a smaller specimen such as a tiny bird, needs a far more delicate approach working slowly so not to rip the skin. I would work on a larger mammal over the period of a month while the skin pickles and dries. And although I can complete a small bird in one day, I prefer to break up the stages over a few days so I can take my time and get the piece right. Alongside making the taxidermy I create the cases and groundwork to accompany them and often will be working on several pieces at once.

Do you have to know a lot about zoology and natural history?

To be a good taxidermist you must have a keen love of animals and the natural world to understand the way they live and move. I did not study Zoology or Natural History but have always been fascinated by nature and learnt a lot through physically making taxidermy. I have discovered so much about the individuality of species through working closely with the animals in a way I’m not sure I could have from a distance.

How did you get into Taxidermy as a career?

When I finished university in 2007 I wanted to work in museum conservation and so volunteered at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton. While I was there my focus turned to the taxidermy and I decided to give it go with the help of the museum's Curator. After that I wanted to be a taxidermist and spent the years that followed practicing and learning about the craft. I now work with the Booth Museum often and am grateful that they helped point me in the direction I have taken. Museums are amazing places that can truly inspire.

'Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy' is on display from 22 October 2016 to 1 May 2017.

Avian Forms: the artistic process

Artist Jane Edden tells us how she created the artwork in her Avian Forms exhibition.

Where do you get the feathers from to make your artwork?

I only use feathers that are by-products of food – chicken, pheasant, guinea fowl, and pigeon – the feathers that would normally get thrown away.

Pigeons have the most beautiful feathers, but no one would think of them as beautiful – especially in London where they look a bit scruffy. Some pheasant neck feathers are that iridescent blue you get on butterflies – it is absolutely incredible, but these feathers just get plucked and thrown away when the birds are prepared for cooking.

Tell us about the process of making your Flying Jackets.

  • About the Art: Jane Edden, 09 Piper PA-31 Navajo, 2012. 
Bird feathers and resin in perspex case
− © copyright: Jane Edden, courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York
    09 Piper PA-31 Navajo, 2012. Bird feathers and resin in perspex case

I get my feathers directly from the butchers before they are discarded, that way I can keep them in order and label them as I go. I can then recreate them as accurately as possible. I then freeze them to de-bug them in much the same way that museums freeze objects. So my freezer can sometimes be full of feathers.

The Flying Jackets are tiny. I only use the tip of the feathers. It is very intricate work so if I am sitting in my studio and anyone opens the door too fast and creates a gust, I get very frustrated!

I then make a little resin human form and start laying on a fringe of feathers from the bottom upwards. After that I use dental drills to drill the resin at the neck so you don’t ever see it. I try and create that perfect bird form, however, you can never lay the feathers on as beautifully as they are in nature – it is an impossibility.

How did you capture the Swan Arm photographs?

  • Avian Forms: the artistic process, 'Left Elbow' by Jane Edden− © copyright: Jane Edden, courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York
    'Left Elbow' by Jane Edden

The Swam Arms are photographs of swans grooming from above. What I did was feed the swans so that they were all full and happy, and once they are full they start grooming. I would go every day so they got used to me, and then I would go and photograph them from above standing on a bridge.

But to me the Swan Arms look like a person putting on a coat – the way your arm twists around when you reach back to insert your arm into a sleeve. And when you see that arm in the photograph, you can’t see anything else.

I am interested in the human-bird cross over and also myths throughout history. There are so many examples of birds turning into humans and visa-versa across cultures, such as Swan Lake.

What about the Icarus Birds? How did those images get made?

  • Avian Forms: the artistic process, 'Lift Off' by Jane Edden− © copyright: Jane Edden, courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York
    'Lift Off' by Jane Edden

I found a very skeletal bird which had died and fallen down my cousin’s chimney. I took the bird to the vets because they have a digital x-ray machine there. We then produced the digital images that I used by placing the bird skeleton in different positions.

I drew a lot of inspiration from the comparative anatomy drawings of Pierre Belon where he compares the human skeleton to that of a bird skeleton. I think it is very strange how human the bird skeleton looks – although they are more related to dinosaurs than humans.

I then added wires - linking the elbow to the foot as if it was going to pull the wing, which made it look even more human.

Cartilage doesn’t show up on x-rays very much so you get a slight shadow where the feathers would have been but not much more than that. So I added the feathers – which is where the artworks’ name Icarus Birds came in, because it gives the idea of strapping on feathers – a human able to fly.

See Avian Forms on display in the Natural History Gallery until the 9 October 2016.

About the Art: Jane Edden

We interviewed artist Jane Edden to hear more about the Flying Jacket artworks in her new Avian Forms exhibition now on display in the Natural History Gallery. 

  • About the Art: Jane Edden, 09 Piper PA-31 Navajo, 2012. 
Bird feathers and resin in perspex case
− © copyright: Jane Edden, courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York
    09 Piper PA-31 Navajo, 2012. Bird feathers and resin in perspex case

What inspired the pieces in this exhibition?

I am fascinated by the way people collect, categorise, name and order objects in museums. Especially in the Victorian era.

I am also interested in the human obsession with flight.

Because of the interest in flight and categorisation I decided to look at stuffed birds, and especially small stuffed birds. When you look at a hummingbird, it looks impossible and too beautiful to exist. There is an almost fake look to them. I was trying to recreate that feeling of something so small and so perfect – and then introduce all the ideas about flight.

  • About the Art: Jane Edden, 046 Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, 2015
Bird feathers and resin in perspex case
− © copyright: Jane Edden, courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York
    046 Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, 2015 Bird feathers and resin in perspex case

The Flying Jackets are beautiful – tell us more about those.

Humans are drawn to birds and feathers and flight and I think there is something innately human about wearing feathers. You go to a wedding and people have feathers stuck on their heads and it is the same in Papua New Guinea or Peru. People all over the world wear feathers on hats or coats or on other items of clothing and decoration. Even if you go for a walk in the park - you pick up a feather, twiddle it around and stick it in your button hole – it is just something that we do.

With the Flying Jackets, it was also about them being miniature. If you look at a dolls house you can imagine yourself in the house - you are able to move yourself into that space and imagine what it is like. Many people say with the Flying Jackets, ‘I would like one in my size’ but I think if I made one in life-size it wouldn’t have the same impact at all. Their size allows you to step out of where you are and into your imagination – and that is what interests me.

Some of the Flying Jackets are named after aeroplanes that are themselves named after birds, for example, Osprey. Some of the Flying Jackets are also named after Native Americans, who in turn wore feathers in their headdresses. I like the way by categorising them with these names, it brings the ideas of interaction between humans and birds full circle.  

See Avian Forms in the Natural History Gallery from 25 June - 9 October 2016. 

Travellers' tails

Inspired by the Travellers' Tails project, we asked our visitors, 'Where would you like to explore?'

Since March, our Natural History Gallery has been home to the Travellers' Tails display. This display brings together the first European painting of an Australian animal, 'The Kongouro from New Holland' by George Stubbs, alongside the Horniman's taxidermy mount of an Eastern Grey Kangaroo and describes Captain's Cook's first voyage to the Pacific, where he encountered new landscapes, people, plants and animals. 

The Travellers' Tails project is a collaboration between five museums investigating the history of exploration, art and science. It brings together artists, scientists, explorers and museum professionals to investigate the nature of exploration in the Enlightenment era, how the multitude of histories can be explored and experienced in a gallery, heritage and museum setting, and to question what exploration means today.

Inspired by Travellers' Tails, we asked our visitors and our online audience to share their thoughts on exploration. The four questions we asked were: Where would you like to explore? What is left to explore? Exploration is... and My favourite explorer is...

We recieved some interesting answers. Some wanted to explore places they had never been to before. 

Some wanted to travel to hot countries, and some to cold. 

Some people wanted to go back in time to explore earth when the dinosaurs were alive. 

Many people suggested that still left to explore was the deepest oceans and outer space. 

Have you got a burning desire to explore somewhere? Who is your favourite explorer? Tweet us with the hashtag #TravellersTails to share your stories. 

Introducing Favela: joy and pain in the city

Our current photography exhibition, Favela: joy and pain in the city, is a collaboration with the Observatory of the Favelas – a social organisation based in Maré, the largest complex of favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

Jailson de Souza e Silva, Founder and Director of the Observatory of the Favelas, spoke to us about the three photographers who trained with the Observatory of the Favelas and are exhibiting here this summer.

When thinking about peripheral spaces, such as favelas, there are many prejudices. They are seen as places characterised by absence and deprivation deficient in decent facilities, services, order, education, culture and civic values. They are believed to be lawless and overrun by violence, representing the height of urban chaos.

These photographs allow us to judge favelas according to what they actually have: intense joy, pain, life, death, respect, violence, struggle, celebration, games, play, work, intimacy, complicity, complexity, simplicity and sociability among many other expressions of life.

  • Introducing Favela: joy and pain in the city, Leisure Day on the Avenida Brasil, the biggest avenue in Brazil., Elisângela Leite
    Leisure Day on the Avenida Brasil, the biggest avenue in Brazil., Elisângela Leite

Bira Carvalho, Elisângela Leite and AF (Adriano) Rodrigues all come from the favela of Maré – an important point of reference in their artistic work. They are all members of a vast contingent of young people from favelas and the peripheries of Brazil who refuse to be categorised as the “beneficiaries of social projects”, or mere documenters of their own daily lives.

We train the photographers to have excellent technique and an anthropological outlook. This seeks to recognise life where many see only death, invention where many see only deficit, beauty where many see only aesthetic compromise, and violence where many see only the inequality that has been normalised by the social system.

  • Introducing Favela: joy and pain in the city, Panoramic view of the Alemão favela complex from a cable car., AF Rodrigues
    Panoramic view of the Alemão favela complex from a cable car., AF Rodrigues

The work of these photographers allows the fluidity, richness and density of the life that is present in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas – and in all peripheral communities the world over – flow past your eyes.

Every day, by exercising their profession and their art, they show people can reinvent themselves, no matter where they come from or where they live. Because, for the person who sets out to find it, the world is never too far away, and life is never small.

  • Introducing Favela: joy and pain in the city, A boy and the Sugarloaf Mountain. View from Morro dos Prazeres, South Zone of Rio., Elisângela Leite
    A boy and the Sugarloaf Mountain. View from Morro dos Prazeres, South Zone of Rio., Elisângela Leite

“Favela: Joy and pain in the city” is realised through a partnership between The Horniman Museum and Gardens, Observatório de Favelas and People’s Palace Projects.

The Art of Islam

Objects from the Horniman's collection are on display now in a new major exhibition at Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury.

The exhibition, running from March 26 until September 24 2016, is part of the Art of Islam Festival and reflects Islamic culture and its links with Western Europe, 

Treasures on display will include carpets, paintings, furniture, metalwork, jewellery and splendid calligraphy from across the Middle East.

Among the objects from the Horniman's collection are this ewer, seal and baby cover.


This Bidri ware ewer is from India and dates from the late 19th century, when it was sold to Frederick Horniman.


This seal, dating from 1776, is engraved in Persian with a floral border. It belonged to James Peter Auriol of the Bengal civil service, who was secretary to the government of Warren Hastings in India in the late 18th century.

This cover from Sumatra is placed on the forehead of a baby (along with another cover for the baby's body) when visitors come to see it during the first forty days of life.

In addition to the Horniman's collection, exhibits will also be borrowed from the British Museum, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and from the private collection of Razwan and Sarya Baig.

About the art: Here, Now

Our current exhibition Here, Now is a collaborative project delivered in partnership with photographer Nana Varveropoulou and Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers.

Nana spent four months working alongside ten newly arrived migrants in the local area to produce a series of portraits. In this blog, we ask her about the story behind this portrait.

How did you approach this project?

The first step was to spend several days at Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, so that people got to know me and start to feel comfortable. I spent the first whole day approaching people, showing them examples of pictures and discussing the project idea.

Some people seemed interested, but most of them were understandably pre-occupied with their lives, their papers, their circumstances.

How did this particular photograph come about?

One day, I was waiting at Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers to meet another project participant. While waiting, I approached this man.

OS didn't speak English, but luckily one of the many volunteers at the centre offered to help with translating. While we tried to work out a theme and a location for his portraits, he received a phone call from his caseworker who informed him that he was being moved to Scotland with immediate effect.

We were all slightly shocked - particularly OS. He kindly got back to me and told the interpreter, if you want to photograph me, you better do it here and now. I doubt that I will be here next week.

What was his reaction to this? 

He didn't seem angry or upset. He looked more resigned to the fact that he had no choice.

I asked him if he wanted to move and he said no, he didn't know anyone in Scotland. I realised that he was right - we had to do his portrait on the spot.

His experience really captures part of the reality of being an asylum seeker.

We looked around the centre to find the right spot for the portrait and came across a "Welcome" sign, which I found quite ironic. We took the portrait there.

Here, Now is on display at the Horniman until 6 June 2016.

About the Art: Luis Rey

We interviewed Luis Rey, artist of Dinosaurs: Monster Families, focusing on his vivid piece: Gigantoraptor Found.

What scene have you portrayed here?

This painting shows Gigantoraptors, a gigantic versions of the oviraptor. These huge dinosaurs were larger than even T Rex and the Alectrosaurus. They actually laid the biggest eggs of all dinosaurs.
Inspired by these dinosaurs, I wanted to recreate their nesting grounds.

What inspired you to paint this scene, and create this artwork?

First of all, my fascination with dinosaurs, usually I go to the species that fascinate me first.

Then I try to produce something that is different, and think what can I do that is different. Conducting scientific research, looking at fossils and other work is essential - if you do this, the sky is the limit.

I want to be ground breaking and provide a new vision

How do you balance the scientific facts with your own creativity?

You have to study the evidence, but paleo-illustration isn't an exact science. I study the anatomy, and the environment; I want to make them more believable animals, monstrous, not monsters.
I also want to show the dinosaur link to birds, they are not extinct and live on in this form.

What advice would you give young artists, illustrators or paleo illustrators wanting to develop their own work?

You always need to do your homework, studying your medium but the work of others and then make it your own. Everyone starts by copying, and that leads to inspiration. If you look at the Great Ovirpators next to the nesting portrait they are different medium, but my style is still there and distinctive.

The artwork on the left is digital, on the right acrylic and cardboard

How do you use digital tools in your artistic process?

We have to follow evidence, so I make amendments to paintings when new evidence is found, naturally this is a lot easier with digital art and tools.

Like dinosaurs, art is a product of evolution, with new digital media we can correct and create artworks in new ways


Nests and nurture

In Dinosaurs: Monster Families, we have a case dedicated to the animals who use nests to protect their eggs and raise their young.

Nests come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, using a variety of different materials. These hummingbird nests are incredibly intricate, lined with spider silk and camouflaged with lichen.

Hummingbird eggs are very small, but not relative to the adults' tiny size. On the other hand kiwis, native to New Zealand, lay the largest eggs compared to their body size.

Laying out the nest and egg related objects for our case.

The largest bird egg comes from the extinct Great Elephant Bird, once native to Madagascar. Their eggs were even larger than dinosaur eggs. These huge birds could be 3 metres tall and weigh half a tonne, more than the vast moas of New Zealand.

Some egg laying parents are very caring. Nile crocodiles are very ferocious hunters, capable of hunting fish and even antelope, but they are also nurturing parents, guarding their eggs and gently carrying their young to the water's edge once hatched.

  •  Crocodile head, clean and on its mount, 
Crocodile head, clean and on its mount
    Crocodile head, clean and on its mount

Nile crocodiles dig a shallow hole a few metres from a water source and then cover them with the sand or soil for incubation. The eggs take about 90 days to hatch, and the female crocodiles will try their best not to leave the nest side during this time - pretty dedicated parenting.

Be sure to visit Dinosaurs: Monster Families to see dinosaur nests, as well as the eggs and nests of modern-day animals.

Meet the Artist: Luis Rey

We caught up with artist, Luis Rey, whose vivid artworks capture the exciting world of dinosaur families in our exhibition, Dinosaurs: Monster Families.

How would you describe your artwork?

I consider myself a "paleoillustrator", so my art skills are at the service of palaeontology and science. My art techniques range between the traditional acrylics and inks on cardboard, to the digital painting, where I use my computers as an "orchestra".

I have fun recreating the dinosaurs in a distinctive style, but always based on my research

Reconstructing dinosaurs has both a scientific responsibility and a labour of the imagination, we are restricted by science but fuelled by imagination.

What first interested you in dinosaurs?

I have always been interested in dinosaurs.  The Dinosaur Renaissance in the seventies and eighties saw dinosaurs became "real" animals living in a different (even if similar) natural world from ages ago.

Every dinosaur is amazing, but I think I have become more fascinated and specialised with the bird-dinosaur link, from the real look of winged Velociraptors and Oviraptors to protofeathered T. Rexes. 

How are your representations of dinosaurs unique?

I want my dinosaurs to be colourful but believable, some people might be surprised by seeing colourful dinosaurs after so many years of people reconstructing them in drab colours. I also like them dramatic.

Years ago I might also have started a personal trend towards a new, dramatic viewing angle to Dinosauria.

How do you create the scenes you paint?

First and foremost studying the anatomy of the animal, and seeing what I can provide in the artistic sense, then the sky is the limit.

Sometimes I simply paint, sometimes I even use photography, real skin, hair and feathers as digital brushes.

Dinosaurs: Monster Families is now open, you can book online and beat the queues or become a Member and enjoy free unlimited entry to the exhibition.

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