Thursday, 17 September 2009

Stuffing pandas, stuffing gorillas

I spent yesterday at the wonderful library of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, where I’d ordered up several interesting-looking folders from the archives. I’ve seen one of them before – a ream of correspondence relating to the taxidermy of Chi Chi, the famous panda that lived at London Zoo from 1958 until 1972. There are several fun things in there, including clear evidence of the public’s keenness to watch over the shoulder of the Museum’s taxidermist as he prepared her body for exhibition. The Museum had not anticipated this and decided to give the press a chance to see Chi Chi in mid-stuffing.

This interest in taxidermy differs quite markedly from events just a few years later when, in 1978, Guy the Gorilla died after more than 30 years at London Zoo. Word got out that he was to receive the same treatment as Chi Chi and the public was outraged. The archivists at the Natural History Museum have a wonderful folder on Guy that charts the whole troubled affair in a flurry of internal memos.

Best of all, there are letters from the public expressing their disgust at the proposed use of his mortal remains. Easily the best comes from a former Honorary Secretary of the Zoological Society of London. He was “utterly revolted” at the idea of stuffing his old friend and asked his incumbent: “Are all future Hon. Secs, Presidents etc. of the Society to be stuffed and exhibited in a museum?" The Zoo, irritated that they had to deal with such explosive stuff, wrote to express their disappointment at the Natural History Museum’s poor handling of such sensitive information (which is how it comes to be in the Guy dossier).

The Museum’s handling of Chi Chi and Guy are two wonderful stories that I’m planning to tell briefly in my chapter on Chi Chi’s post-mortem that will appear in Political Animal. I’m also working it up in more detail for an exciting meeting that will take place at Manchester University in December. I imagine I’ll reveal more about this nearer the time, but briefly it’s a project to explore the “Afterlife of Animals”, the fascinating tales that zoological specimens have to tell as curators made decisions about their preservation and presentation to the public. It says a lot about attitudes towards animals and how much these have changed.

At the moment, I’m uncertain what to make of the differences between public reaction to the stuffing of Chi Chi and Guy. I’d like to argue that as the 1970s unfolded something changed in the public’s attitudes towards animals and that come 1978 stuffing a famous animal was no longer acceptable practice as it had been in Chi Chi’s day. But of course, Chi Chi was a panda and Guy a gorilla and as anthropomorphised as Chi Chi (and pandas in general) undoubtedly are, Guy (and gorillas) are that much more like us Homo sapiens so stuffing is a more touchy subject. I need to think about what the reaction would have been like had roles been reversed and Guy died in 1972 and Chi Chi in 1978.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting article, looking forward to reading more and more information about the book.

    I run the Panda News website. Let me know if I can be of service.

    Andi

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  2. Thanks Andi. I'm pretty sure you can be.

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  3. I am on Twitter, just trying to make sense of how it works. Thanks for the Creation invite. I had a great evening even if I was disappointed in the movie. Going to blog about it in due course.

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  4. Thanks for this post, and for the blog in general, Henry - and you're so right to note the post-mortem power of of iconic beasts like Guy and Chi Chi. Their stories continue after their death, and their treatment and responses in the museum tell us a great deal about both the value and the problems of natural history collections...no doubt we will talk more as the 'Afterlife of animals' project progresses, we look forward to your contribution!

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  5. Thanks Sam. I'm looking forward to the Afterlife of Animals meeting very much. I've been able to think this through more and I believe public attitudes did undergo a radical change in the 1970s, especially with respect to great apes. The Jane Goodall Trust appeared in 1977, Dian Fossey Foundation in 1978 and BBC's Life on Earth in 1979.

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