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All God’s Creatures

The North Carolina Museum of Creation and Taxidermy Hall of Fame is located in a Christian bookstore in Southern Pines, a region known primarily for its golf resorts. The nearby town of Pinehurst has hosted the U.S. Open several times, and the Pinehurst Resort alone has nine golf courses.

But I was not there to see famous golfers. I was there to see animals that had entered their own hall of fame, in a manner of speaking. Taxidermied animals, in fact—over 400 in total, which, according to the website of the museum I was about to enter, were incontrovertible evidence of “God’s creation.” I was curious to see this static universe. On the sidewalk outside of the bookshop, a large plastic black bear welcomed me with a sign around its neck:

CREATION MUSEUM
ANTIQUE TOOL MUSEUM

It seemed that the bear itself was intended to represent the taxidermy museum, which was not explicitly mentioned. As it turned out, he was only the first of many artificial animals I would encounter before gaining access to the real thing. The bookstore overflowed with porcelain animal figurines, animal throw pillows, teddy bears, and other plush stuffed animals: purple penguins with pink polka-dotted chests; a white dog with aqua spots; and a blue and yellow koala. Mock yellow street signs hung on a chain above my head—CHIHUAHUA CROSSING, DEER CROSSING, CAT CROSSING—and a plush snake twisted himself around the chain, waiting to tempt me into a fallen world.

The shelves were stocked with Bible playing cards, Bible pens, Bible cases, decorative plates depicting Jesus, and books with titles like The Blood Atonement, The Last Judgment of the Unsaved Dead, and Lionproof: Keeping Your Children From the Claw of the Devil, complete with ferocious lion on the cover with a tagline that boasted: “Based on exclusive interviews with the young people who survived!” Display racks teemed with pamphlets on subjects including “The Lie of Global Warming,” “The Myth of Separation of Church and State,” and “Whatever Happened to the American Dream?”

Lined up along the floor in front of birthday greeting cards (“Happy Birthday to a Special Boy!”), signs proclaimed “Guns Are Welcome On Premises”; “I’d Rather Have a Gun In My Hand Than a Cop On the Phone”; “Warning: If You Can Read This, You Are Within Range”; and “God, Guns, and Guts Made America Free.” I began to suspect that the true object of hostility and violence in this place was not the animal kingdom, but man.

To enter the Creation Museum and Taxidermy Hall of Fame (and the Antique Tool Museum), I walked down a flight of stairs into an underground lair that was guarded by an enormous armored knight. I learned from the woman working behind the counter that this knight used to be located in the middle of the bookstore, and indeed there was a sizeable hole cut in the ceiling to accommodate him. He had been found years ago at a flea market, strapped to the roof of a Ford Taurus, and transported to his new home. Looking up at him, I was pretty sure that this feat defied physics, but it was a good story. Behind him, a florescent light flickered, and two ducks dangled from the ceiling on clear thread, their wings outstretched as in mid-flight. A sign proclaimed:

THIS PLACE IS A ZOO. PLEASE DO NOT ANNOY,
TORMENT, PESTER, PLAGUE, MOLEST,
WORRY, BADGER, HARRY, HARASS, HECKLE,
PERSECUTE, IRK, BULLYRAG, VEX, DISQUIET, GRATE,
BOTHER, TEASE, NETTLE, TANTALIZE,
OR RUFFLE ANY OF THE ANIMALS.

A zoo. Were these animals captive? Was I entering a menagerie of death? I supposed so. Why would someone collect so many stuffed critters? I thought of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s classic Psycho: the ultimate representation of taxidermy as emblematic of a twisted mind, his birds frozen in space and time above him, preserved beasts that prefigure the discovery of his less well-preserved mother in the fruit cellar.

Two men walked past me and headed down the stairs.

“Does this make you want to go hunting?” one asked.

The other laughed. “It just might.”

Taxidermy comes from Greek, meaning arrangement of skin

The museum’s collection was amassed by local pastor Kent Kelly from 1991 to 2003. Kelly had a stroke 1989 that left him unable to work, so he filled his time by acquiring things. He began collecting slowly, purchasing many of the animals from taxidermists directly; other pieces—including a resplendent peacock—were donated. Many of the animals are native to North Carolina, so the collection is intended to have a distinctly regional feel. But taxidermy was not enough. Kelly also started to collect antique tools, to restore them, and to submit them to competitions. I passed through rooms that teemed with saws, hammers, levels, and pitchforks. A massive collection of barbed wire was displayed on the ceiling. If the relationship between taxidermy and tools wasn’t exactly clear, one thing certainly was: the collector is never finished collecting. The more he acquires, the more he desires.

Taxidermy is the art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals for display; the term comes from the Greek for “the arrangement of skin.” Since the eighteenth century, it has evolved from a crude, literal stuffing of animal skins practiced chiefly by hunters, scientists, and explorers to preserve specimens to a more sophisticated process that involves molding the animal’s body in a realistic form.

Many early examples of taxidermy are just a little bit off—or sometimes very far off—from the animal itself, generating a sense of the uncanny. Years ago, I saw Napoleon’s horse Le Vizir, which died in 1826 and is now on display at the Musée d’Armée at Les Invalides in Paris. Branded on his flank with a crown and an “N,” he’s surprisingly scrawny in his under-stuffed form, more like a gray zebra than a horse, but an attempt to preserve the past through the illusion of life nonetheless. Another of Napoleon’s horses lives on in a less fleshy form: the skeleton of Marengo, believed to be the horse in Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, can be found at the National Army Museum in London.

Napoleon’s horse, Le Vizir. Photo: Susan Harlan

Taxidermy was massively popular during the Victorian period, although it’s difficult to find well-preserved examples because carpet beetles, moths, and cockroaches infested many of the works. The goal of Victorian taxidermy was not necessarily to present an animal in a “natural” manner; this was a later development.

In fact, in late nineteenth-century Europe, anthropomorphic taxidermy was favored, particularly in Germany and Austria. The chief English practitioner Walter Potter was likely exposed to the practice at the Great Exhibition in 1851, when he was sixteen, and he began arranging animals in human-like scenes that included a village school (with rabbits), tea and croquet parties (with kittens), sporting parties (with rabbits and miniature dogs), card games at the club (with squirrels), and weddings (also with kittens).

The animals were like dolls. Some even cry glass tears. Potter’s “Death and Burial of Cock Robin” (1861) was seven years in the making and displayed over 100 birds in a solemn cortege. “The Lower Five” depicted a rats’ den being raided by the police. The rats’ faces are flattened to give them a more human appearance, and they sit in miniature chairs at miniature tables. People also brought their beloved pets to Potter to preserve. He opened a small museum in 1880 that drew many visitors until World War I, when it closed, and he died in 1918 at the age of eighty-two. An item in The People on January 4, 1914, referred to him as “a genius who has created a fairy-land of nursery rhymes.”

Walter Potter’s “The Kittens’ Wedding,” c. 1890. Photo courtesy of Joanna Ebenstein.

The display cases at the North Carolina Taxidermy Hall of Fame had one thing in common with Potter: the denseness of their scenes. While the animals were situated in glass cases that mocked up something resembling nature—not, say, in a village schoolroom—the scenes were nonetheless fantastical in their combinations, as if these animals had all stumbled into the same place at the same time.

The first two cases were labeled DESERT SOUTHWEST and SOUTHEASTERN POND SCENE. The former contained rabbits, armadillos, snakes, an iguana, a bobcat next to a crow, and a thin baby deer bent back awkwardly over a branch, as if he was trying to jump it. A Coatimundi—raccoon-like and described as a “strange fellow” on his identifying sign—hung out next to an Abert Squirrel, both of them nestled into an artificial desert that contained green plastic cacti. The Southeastern Pond Scene was populated with piranhas, turtles, and fish, some with their mouths opened wide, gasping for flies, and all flanked by Christmas-y fake fir garlands, moss, artificial flowers, and honeycomb. Butterflies, frogs, a white rabbit, and a snake filled out the party, and in the middle of the case, a swan floated on a mirror.

The displays felt like collages—not a unified vision, but a mélange of related elements. The animals were too close to one another, crammed together like the tract houses I had driven past earlier in the day, perched above an expansive golf course.

Some of the animals were represented in motion, as if they had been interrupted in the undertaking of living. I passed a peccary with smooth-looking sable fur and plasticky nose. Looking into its mouth, I thought of the plastic models of human teeth in waiting rooms of dentist’s offices. A woodland creature of some sort nibbled on a nut, and next to him, a pathetic fox had been transformed into a dog that wanted a treat. Behind the fox, a neat row of its compatriots’ tails lined the wall, like the squirrel tails my family’s cat used to leave on our back stoop as offerings. And in a case alone, a too-plump mountain lion lounged on a tree branch like Manet’s Olympia. The sign said that the lion had been in the circus. A debased thing, captive and on display from the beginning.

A fox in his glass cabinet at the North Carolina Museum of Creation, Taxidermy Hall of Fame, and Antique Tool Museum. Photo: Susan Harlan

But this museum had several purposes; taxidermy was just one element of the bigger picture. Other seemingly unrelated objects peppered the exhibits: micro-collections that appeared to have been spawned by the macro-collection. License plates from all fifty states. National Hot Rod Association autographed posters. Anti-abortion signs. A case containing an American flag sent to the museum from Jesse Helms. A cabinet of VARIOUS GODS WORSHIPPED AROUND THE WORLD, including a can of Budweiser, a television from about 1980 (“One of the devil’s favorite tools!”), Harry Potter books, prescription medications, a body-building magazine, a biology textbook, a stack of country music CDs, and a copy of The Satanic Verses. A man and his young son walked up to this display and chuckled.

Some of these non-taxidermy materials related to the museum’s other purpose: to preach Creationism. The errors of “SCIENCE” were outlined in typed pages stapled to the walls. Above one display case, a carved wooden sign proclaimed:

IN THIS CASE WE HAVE DISPLAYED ALL
THE CREDIBLE EVIDENCE OF EVOLUTION

The case was empty, save for a small plastic snake curled up in the middle. On top of the glass sat a bronze cast of a monkey, posed as Rodin’s The Thinker and holding a skull—somewhat perplexingly—in Hamlet-esque fashion. This monkey had a nametag that identified him as Darwin. Nearby was a collection of dozens of Bibles in different languages. In a revolving case were little rocks glued to pieces of paper, some of which, the captions outlined, proved the date of the Great Flood. The stones looked like jewelry in a department store display.

“Come look at this,” the man said to his son, leading him over to a cabinet that held a kangaroo with a baby in her pouch. (“Kangaroo—and Joey, too!”).

“See? It’s from Australia.”

The boy rested his small hands on the glass.

“She has her baby.”

I looked over his shoulders. Eight large, nondescript cream-colored eggs and a smaller, darker emu egg had been arranged around her. They looked like stage props, but they were real. Patches of the kangaroo’s fur were matted, as if she had gotten wet, and she looked sad and dead, surrounded by all those eggs.

He was famous for killing a leopard with his bare hands

The museum’s low ceiling created the effect of a bunker, and I could hear people shuffling around in the bookshop and the sound of the floor creaking under the bright patches of carpet that covered it like a quilt. A case labeled “ANTIQUE TAXIDERMY” included a wolf whose eyes appeared too small. A beaver stood over his piece of chewed wood, his face slightly smashed. Some of the baby animals had won ribbons, which were displayed at their feet.

I tried to envision a real, live animal. Something running. Or swimming. Or attacking another animal. Something truly gruesome—not the gruesomeness of an arrested thing, but a gruesomeness that would indicate life. Scenes from nature documentaries ran through my head. On the stairs leading back above ground, several white arctic foxes were dusted with broken glass and glitter to look like snow. A badger and porcupine kept company with a Jackalope, part antelope and part rabbit, a haunting creation of man, a novelty. At the top of the stairs, I could almost touch the snout of an elk mount, his mouth open to reveal a fake glistening tongue and glossy pink gums.

When I used to live in New York City, I would go see the habitat dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. Carl Akeley was the father of modern taxidermy, as well as a naturalist, explorer, conservationist, photographer, and sculptor, and he worked at the museum from 1909-1926, constructing the dioramas as educational tools. (He also mounted Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s elephant, who had been killed in a train accident.) The Akeley Hall of African Mammals houses eight charging elephants surrounded by 28 habitat dioramas. The stuffed animals in these picturesque scenes always struck me as beautiful but haunting creations, like wild shadows of something beyond the city. Akeley was known for his ability to render animals as if they were in motion, but the dioramas always seemed profoundly still to me, a calm that was the result of much violence and destruction. He was famous for killing a leopard with his bare hands. He made five trips to Africa and saw “collecting” animals for taxidermy as a crucial part of conservation.

The animal had to die in order to take on his new role as an idealized, static, lifelike representation of himself. Akeley killed many of the animals himself, preserving their skins with salt and a vegetable tan that kept them pliable and prevented them from rotting. He took precise measurements right after death—so his creations did not look like Napoleon’s horse. And he achieved a more realistic effect than had previously existed by devising frames made of wood, wire, and sometimes even the animal’s skeleton and then modeling clay and plaster to shape their muscles and tendons. Onto this went the skin and fur, and then the last details such as glass eyes, a nose, a tongue.

I had come to the end of the museum, so I walked back into the fluorescently lit Christian bookstore, where I spent several minutes flipping though books about hell. I felt compromised, as if I had witnessed something vaguely terrible. It wasn’t just the animals themselves, but the world they were forced to inhabit.

I picked out a pair of $2.00 vintage sherbet glasses from a display of antique dishes and walked up to the cashier.

“Thank you for coming to the museum,” the woman behind the counter said, wrapping my glasses in paper. She continued, as if prompted, “The man who put this collection together really wanted to found a museum of Creationism. And animals are an excellent support of Creationism.”

I fumbled around in my purse for my wallet.

“Some people don’t like it, you know—killing and stuffing animals,” she said. “But this is the only opportunity for a lot of people to see these animals.”

This is exactly what Akeley maintained decades ago, although he seems to have had occasional qualms. After killing his first silverback gorilla, he had a crisis of conscience and said he felt “like a murderer.”

She placed the wrapped glasses in a bag and handed it to me.

“Some of the pieces in the collection are antique, right?” I asked.

“Yes—some of them. I don’t know from when.”

“I found a dead hawk in my driveway a little while ago,” said a young man behind the counter who was filling out forms at a desk. “I wanted to see if I could take it, but it turned out that you’re not even supposed to touch them.”

The woman nodded. “If you have even one feather, and you can get fined like $10,000.”

She looked over at some of the animals poised at the museum’s entrance and sighed. “It’s as if they could get up and walk away,” she said. “That fox there. It’s like he’s going to jump up at you.”

I didn’t think he looked like he was going anywhere. To me, one of the goals of taxidermy was to fix moving things in your gaze. To make them still. The fox looked absolutely still, like a decoration. As I drove home in the rain, past squirrels dashing across empty golf courses, I tried to fix this fox in my mind. He watched over the bookstore with his glassy eyes, gathering dust.

Susan Harlan
Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Toast, Literary Mothers, The Awl, The Morning News, Public Books, The Manifest-Station, and Skirt!, and she has a monthly column for Nowhere magazine entitled “The Nostalgic Traveler”.
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