On Saturday, I did my first taxidermy workshop with Margot Magpie from A Field Guide at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. I received a home taxidermy kit for my birthday but didn’t have the confidence to give it a go myself so decided to attend the workshop beforehand. I’ve always had a weird fascination with taxidermy and fancied giving it a go – hence the birthday gift – so this was a perfect opportunity for me to see how it’s done properly by a professional.
Margot is a member of the UK Guild of Taxidermists and one of her aims is to “enlightening some and start a dialogue about the history and current status of the craft/art”. I was a bit concerned about the sourcing of the materials supplied but the website reassures that they are all ethically sourced and not killed specifically for these workshops. So I booked in a few months ago as I know places fill up quite quickly.
The workshop was held in the basement room of the Museum – a refreshingly cool room given the warm summer’s day outside. There were two tables, each with placings for eight people and laid with a newspaper placemat upon which a readily defrosting rodent laid quietly. Being all elbows, I sat at the head of the table in front of my little white mouse. We were told we could name them if we wanted. Usually this isn’t a problem with me as I have a habit of naming inanimate objects (Gareth the pot plant, Barbara the satnav) but I couldn’t think of a name. However, despite starting to bond with Mouse A, I was asked to move seats before I could name him. So, Mouse B just became known as Mousey.
We began with Margot introducing herself and what to expect for the lesson. Then it was time to put on the latex gloves and pick up the scalpel. The first steps was to slice up the torso of the mouse being careful to just cut through the skin rather than pierce the (perfect anatomical terminology coming up!) membrane holding all the gooey bits inside. Some people were a bit too eager and managed to pierce the membrane so we saw a few of the aforementioned gooey bits coming out. It wasn’t too much of a problem except for the poor guy next to me. He was a big guy – he’d already had issues with the gloves not fitting – and it was soon obvious that he needed a mouse replacement to start again.
As the whole process isn’t for the faint hearted, as warned on thew website, I won’t go into too much detail about the processes involved. So, after the initial cut we then went about separating the outer bits from the inner bits (perfect terminology again!). The guy next to me had more issues during this step and ended up having to be given mouse #3. Once we’d cleaned it the skin, it then had to be soaked in alcohol for a few minutes to clean it. While it was then laid out to dry, we had a break.
I was looking forward to the next part as I was interested to learn how exactly everything was pieced together to pad out and preserve the hide. I know there are different materials you can use to stuff an animal but we used simple cotton wool with a wire core. We were told we have to create a tampon-style wad which was then placed inside. I completely over-estimated how much of a wad was needed because when I tried it inside the first time, the skin edges wouldn’t come anywhere near each other. I removed some cotton wool and tried again. Same. Repeat four times before I got it right. Mousey was a lot more petite than I thought.
Once the wad was in place it was time to begin sewing and padding out the areas that needed padding such as thighs and arms. Yes, mice have arms. It was amazing to see it all coming together. I had problems getting the beads into where the eyes were as I was concentrating so hard that my hands were starting to shake a little. I had to ask for help from Margot at this point who was able to pop them right in.
Next came the anthropomorphic part of the workshop. As Mousey had wires in his body and limbs, he was now fully poseable. Some people had brought props along with them – armchairs, a motorbike, spectacles, newspapers, etc. I hadn’t thought ahead that much but luckily Margot had a good supply of top hats and high heels. Perfect. I fitted Mousey with a lovely top hat (at a jaunty angle of course!) and a rather fetching pair of black stilettos. The lady next to me (three-mouse-man’s lovely wife) had brought some balloons made of foam with a wire string but she hadn’t used them so she let me have one. So my Mousey was complete: top hat, high heels, pink balloon.
The whole process was quite fiddly given the size of the subject and it required a delicate steady hand but I was extremely pleased with the final outcome and some of the other productions in the class looked brilliant too. I think everyone enjoyed the workshop although I’m not sure everyone will repeat it in the future. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and it was really interesting to get a taster of what’s involved in taxidermy. Margot is obviously passionate about what she does and is enthusiastic to answer any questions that participants had.
I’ll definitely go back to another workshop and might upgrade to a rat next. Other subjects include moles, weasels, rabbits and crows but I think I’ll practice with the smaller ones first. I still don’t think I’m confident enough to try it at home (despite the ready supply of materials provided by my cat, Frank) but I will build up to it. Mousey is currently in a make-shift jar to protect him from bugs until I can get him a nice display case and he’s out of Frank’s reach.
Maybe, this time next year, my living room will have a full-size bear in the corner, a deer on the wall and a lovely furry doorstop of some description. I’ve already been offered some friends’ naughty pets to practice on so you never know!
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