The Art of Taxidermy: A Guide to Taxidermy History
and Techniques

The Art of Taxidermy: A Guide to Taxidermy History and Techniques

From bone carving and big game trophies to cute as a button Victoriana, there are types of taxidermy for every taste. Whether you’re into hunting lodge chic, steampunk sleek, or a delightfully nerdy natural history museum, the world of taxidermy reveals an intriguing (and occasionally macabre) art form.

What is Taxidermy: The Art & Science of Preservation

At its simplest, taxidermy is the art of preserving and displaying dead animals. This usually involves removing the hide and replacing the animal’s innards with long-lasting materials like wood, wire, and foam. Early taxidermy techniques cured the animal whole, but modern types of taxidermy opt for more durable (and decidedly less funky) modes of preservation.

Taking its roots from the Greek word taxis - meaning arrangement, and derma - meaning skin, this traditional art form is all about outward appearances. Sometimes referred to as stuffed animals, taxidermy specimens are essentially a tanned hide bag filled with padding and supports. Modern taxidermists use the actual skin of the animal over specially formed armatures to recreate the lifelike appearance of the animal. Sometimes the mold is cast from the original animal’s body, while others are sculpted by hand by the artist or ordered from specialized taxidermy suppliers.

Taxidermy comes from the Greek words for arrangement (taxis), and skin (derma). Translated, it’s the art of arranging skin.

The History of Taxidermy: Biology & Ancient Burial Rituals

Though it may seem like a modern concept, the history of taxidermy is evidenced in cultures ranging from mummified cats in ancient Egyptian tombs to the head of a crocodile in a medieval Italian cathedral. The art form reached the height of popularity in the Victorian era when whimsical curiosities and grand mounts from hunting adventures were in vogue. A wave of exotic game hunters were eager to immortalize their prizes, while civic-minded zoologists had their eye on the same species for slightly different purposes.

At a time when international travel was reserved only for the wealthy, and photography was still uncommon, taxidermy specimens in natural history museums offered escape and education to crowds of curious visitors. Taxidermy dioramas offered a glimpse into the places they may never visit - fascinating, lifelike escape. Today, they are as close as we might get to rare and extinct species like the dodo.

“[Taxidermy dioramas] were the virtual reality machines of their age, the pre-television era.”
- David Skelly, Peabody Museum of Natural History -

Using Every Part: Bone Carving and Taxidermy Art

Taxidermy and other animal art forms like scrimshaw and bone carving most likely evolved as a way to create beauty from leftover resources. Like a homesick sailor etching a scene on a whale tooth, or an artist decorating a cow’s skull after utilizing its meat and hide, taxidermy takes unwanted parts of the animal and brings them back to life. Known as a mount, the head of a deer is often saved by the hunter to commemorate the adventure, while anthropomorphic mice and rabbits dressed in doll clothes amuse and delight in a cabinet of curiosities.  

Carved antlers, mammoth tusks, and even human bones have been found in archeological sites dating back to the late Ice Age, indicating the importance of ritual and resourcefulness to early man. Today, island-dwelling artisans like the Maori of New Zealand, the Indonesian Pribumi, and the Celtic tribes of the North Atlantic incorporate animal bones into items like jewelry, fish hooks, and decorative art.

A woman is holding a carved white skull with black horns.
A carved brown skull with dark brown horns is laying on stones.
A carved grey skull placed on a white pillow on a chair.

How to Learn Taxidermy

If you’ve been wondering how to learn taxidermy, it’s important to note that there are several paths one can take to gain the necessary skills. While you can sign up for taxidermy classes, you probably won’t find them in the course catalog at your local university or community college. Learning how to be a taxidermist takes specialized equipment and a dedicated workspace. It’s not a hobby most roommates would enjoy, to say the least. Taking a taxidermy workshop will enable you to get hands-on experience under the supervision of a seasoned pro and give you access to the tools and space to do it right.

Like any craft, taxidermy art takes endless hours of practice to perfect. If you’re a self-starter, you may be interested in teaching yourself how to become a taxidermist on your own. In this case, the internet is definitely your friend. Many taxidermy experts offer online tutorials, ebooks, and advice, so you can take a stab at your first project (pun intended) at your own pace. Some taxidermy students opt for an apprenticeship working under a more established artist. Akin to assisting a tattooist, a taxidermist’s shop helper might work for their education – trading instruction time for menial (and possibly pretty gross) cleanup tasks.

Making a Career out of Taxidermy

So you’ve learned the ropes as a taxidermist practicing on mice and squirrels, taking classes, and assisting the pros. How to turn taxidermy into a career, you wonder? Unless there’s an opening at an independently owned shop (perhaps where you worked as an apprentice), you’ll most likely be going it alone. Many taxidermy artists run their own businesses, taking commissions and selling online or in curiosity shops. It’s certainly not an easy path, but those with a head for business and a passion for the craft can make a decent career out of selling their art.

Keep in mind, no matter how you learn to become a taxidermist, you’ll need to get a license from your state or federal government to make the business official. Many countries have clubs and guilds for taxidermy pros, so you’ll be in good company when you officially join their ranks. They’re a great place to showcase your work and continue learning from a network of peers.

Whether you’re on your way to becoming a taxidermist, or simply intrigued by animal skull art, wildlife, and rustic home decor, we hope you enjoyed our quick primer on taxidermy, past and present.