By Nancy Cheah
It was a long awaited event. The morning of March 12 saw 8 museum volunteers waiting eagerly at the entrance of Gallery 2 for the walking tour of the taxidermy exhibition. Khairill Jemangin, Deputy Director cum curator from the Natural History Museum, greeted us at the entrance to Gallery 2. He brought along with him two taxidermists (Mohammed Ali Hj Mohaideen and Mohd Hasnor Tajur Amar).
Taxidermy…what is it? To the ordinary folks, the exhibits are just preserved and stuffed animals. Are they real? How is it different from mummification? Well, Khairill answered all our questions as he took us through the wonders of the taxidermy exhibition, otherwise known as the Eternal Life Exhibition.
The tour started with a brief explanation of the meaning of taxidermy. The word taxidermy originated from two Greek words “taxis” and “derma” meaning skin arrangement. It is a technique between art and science where only the skin is preserved and then mounted on an artificial body to make it appear lifelike as if in its natural habitat. The purpose of this preservation is for scientific research, education, exhibitions and even for references.
The tour continued with a journey down memory lane. Taxidermy started in 1400 when people became interested in the art of taxidermy. During those early years, museums all over the world started collecting fauna and flora specimens. However it was the British Museum that made taxidermy important. The British Museum had a huge collection of specimens and this spurred further interest in taxidermy. Taxidermy started in Malaysia as early as in the 1880s in the Perak Museum, Sarawak Museum and Selangor Museum, pioneered by foreign zoologists. The Selangor Museum at that time had a large collection of fauna and flora specimens. Unfortunately Allied Forces accidentally bombed the museum and its exhibits during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Local taxidermists involvement was believed to have begun when the new Muzium Negara was built in 1963, on the same spot as the Selangor Museum. Lack of funding and staffing have been perpetual issues facing the Museum. It was only in 1968 that the first Natural History Gallery was set up.
After the brief explanation on the history of the development of taxidermy in Malaysia, Khairill explained the main purpose of this exhibition was to create an awareness of Taxidermy and an appreciation of the animals that have were preserved as some of the animals may have become extinct. There are 126 preserved specimens in the exhibition and we were told to look out for 2 specimens that are not real! Some specimens were donated by other museums in the world and Malaysian taxidermists did most of the exhibits.
The tour continued with the showcasing of tools and materials used in the taxidermy process. Techniques have changed from olden days to modern techniques. Technology has enabled body parts to be lighter and easier to handle. Modern day taxidermists now wear protective gear as they go about their tasks. We were shocked to learn that taxidermists during those early years did not wear any protective gear at all. Perhaps during those early years, there were no dangerous viruses lurking in the bodies of the animals that they were working on?
The exhibits range from fishes, birds, frogs, rodents, reptiles and mammals. Many of the displays have their own story to tell. The preservation process sometimes takes a few years to complete. The smaller the animal, the more difficult it was to preserve, (much to our surprise). Wee Ho Cheng, a first generation local Taxidermist, led the early Taxidermy works together with Zainal Abidin and Abdullah Abu Hassan (2nd Generation Taxidermists). Taxidermy projects started as early as 1962 and animals which were preserved included a strutting pheasant, a sun bear, an otter, a tiger, and a saltwater crocodile, all of which are currently exhibited in the Gallery! Two animals deserve special mention! Wee Ho Cheng and Zainal Abidin stuffed the otter that is now 43 years old. The other animal is the pheasant that was stuffed by a Danish taxidermist, Arne Stockholm Dyhrberg. These two animals deserved special mention because they were the first preserved animals exhibited in Muzium Negara.
Collection of specimens is still ongoing subject to the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. Muzium Negara’s taxidermist team used animals which were found dead or killed. Some were donated by the public. An example was the iguana, which was donated by Jean Leong, one of our Museum Volunteers.
The Sumatran rhinoceros (preserved in 1902) is now extinct in Malaysia. The display is now 120 years old. Thanks to taxidermy, the younger generation can see a Sumatran rhinoceros. The Malayan tapir (an endangered species) is an icon of Malaysia, just as the panda is to China. There is also an Asian elephant fetus that was preserved in 1973. The fetus died while being removed from its mother which was found dead. A preserved tiger, which was donated by Datuk Mahmood, had bullet wounds. As you can see, each of the displays has a story behind it.
The Museum of Queensland, Australia gifted 2 preserved birds one of which is a Kookaburra. Do you know why it is called a laughing kookaburra? That is because its calls sound like a man laughing! That triggered some singing from members of the group. There was a bird, the hawkeyed eagle that was preserved at the time when the country was experiencing a haze. Apparently the bird dropped dead in front of a member of the museum staff due to the haze. The bird was quickly taxidermized. Khairill even showed how to differentiate between water birds.
Moving on, there is a section of the gallery dedicated to a video showing the taxidermy process. It was a much-needed break to rest our feet! After the video feed, we were shown a display of animal skeletons. The process is called articulation. Articulation is the technique of cleaning, degreasing, bleaching and assembling animal skeletons for preservation. We could see a lot of time and skill put in to assemble the skeletons. At the exit, there is a skull of an elephant, believed to be about 40 years old.
After about 2 hours, the guided tour ended. It was indeed an eye opener for all who joined the tour. This tour has been a very informative tour, thanks to Khairill, Ali and Hasnor.
The Exhibition has been extended to 17 April 2022 . There are plans to have a travelling museum and the first stop will be in Penang.