Life of a taxidermist – three generations of total dedication
In Affendi’s workshop the pervading scent of preserving chemicals is quickly eclipsed by the 12-foot crocodile that dominates the space, jaws gaping...
FREEZE, SLICE, GUT, SKIN, STUFF, POSE – this is the language of serial killers. But it is also the stock in trade of the taxidermist and this may be the most common (mis)conception of the life of the taxidermist – a life steeped in death. The Sarawak Museum’s resident taxidermist admits that reactions to his job description are equally divided between macabre curiosity and ‘geli’, the magnificent Malay word for that shiver which lies anywhere between ticklish and downright repulsed. But Affendi bin Muhidden is clear on his purpose – his work is the study of life and its recreation as a means to preserve it for future generations. A matter of death and life.
This is work to which three generations of his family have dedicated their lives. Affendi and his brother Mahmud are bin Muhidden who in turn is bin Shabuddin, the taxidermist in service to the Museum under Tom Harrisson. This family are the last four in a venerable line that dates back to a Mr Barlett as far back as 1892 who headed the in-house taxidermy at the Sarawak Museum for those specimens which were not sent away to England or Singapore for preservation when taxidermy was the standard for museums around the globe. But in a world where the fashion for mounted heads in the home has gone the way of the Dodo as conservation awareness takes a firm foothold in the public psyche, the future of taxidermy teeters on the brink of extinction. Even the Smithsonian has reduced its number of full-time taxidermists to just one.
Louise Macul, Executive Director of Friends of Sarawak Museum tells a story of her granddaughter’s first visit to the Sarawak Museum and her incisive, 21st Century exclamation: “Nana, everything in here is dead!” But as Louise explains: “In the 1800s, when museums started to be popular with members of the public, taxidermy was the way to bring the Borneo jungle to life for people who would never get to go there.” Arguably, this is where the current passion for the preservation of the planet’s diverse species was born, with this first, face-to-face interaction with the animals in the flesh, so to speak. But this is also where the problem for the art of taxidermy in the modern world lies. With a profession so closely linked to the flip-side idea of 19th Century trophy hunting, this conservation work of Museums is being tarred with the same brush.
The first thing that hits you in Affendi’s workshop is the pervading scent of preserving chemicals quickly eclipsed by the 12-foot crocodile that dominates the space, jaws gaping. A civet cat arches, a sun bear bristles, twin parrots cock their crested heads and a fish hangs motionless in air. This imagined charnel house is in fact a riot of colour and texture, a flight of fancy. One corner houses a humming freezer, hiding inside it plastic bags full of brightly-coloured birds and other assorted animals, spilling out while they wait patiently for resurrection. On Affendi’s neat workspace, surrounded by various tweezers, pliers, glues and other tools, perches a hornbill on a branch, head cocked to one side. But this is no trophy. Killing is strictly not allowed – accidental death, natural causes, hit and run, these are the only sources of material. Affendi even refuses private commissions, as he doesn’t want to encourage hunting. This bird, as befits a protected species, died of natural causes at its home in Kubah National Park and now, here it is, brought back to eternal life.
Affendi Bin Muhidden is clear on his purpose – his work is the study of life and its recreation as a means to preserve it for future generations. a matter of death and life.
In fact, it was a love of birds that drew Affendi into the profession, encouraged by Dr Charles Leh who is now the Museum’s Curator of Natural History. At first, his father didn’t want him to do it, with himself and Mahmud already in the department. But faced with his imminent retirement, he trained his own son on the job. The process is indeed bloodthirsty. First the specimens are frozen, then skinned, the flesh removed and finally preserved in chemicals. In his father’s day, the taxidermists would actually take to the jungle, doing the process on the spot. Modern technology has given the taxidermist time.
However, that is the easy part – Affendi even has an assistant for this. Stripped down to its bare essentials – skin, skull, wing bones – the real work of reconstruction begins, the arranging of the skin as taxidermy translates, to breathe life back into the carcass. And life must be his guide. Affendi studies the animal in detail; its movements, its poses, its attitudes. “Unless you work with it everyday, unless you feel it, you cannot do it,” he says. Is it an art or a science? At first, the question bemuses him, but ultimately, as he talks himself through his own work, he becomes certain. Art, without doubt.
Specimens are kept in preserving chemicals for "reference".
Whether this art will survive is up for debate. Affendi’s response to the question of whether the Museum will replace him when the time comes is infinitely practical: “If they want a new taxidermist, then they have to start learning from me now.” His daughter, still in school, is a bit squeamish about his work but he has shown her a few videos on YouTube, one of his own avenues for professional improvement, and her interest has been piqued. In fact, the profession is seeing a renaissance internationally and apparently many of the new entrants, according to a 2015 article in the Smithsonian magazine, are young women. It seems last year’s attendance at the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships (yes, there is such a thing!) was bigger than ever before with about 20 percent of them women. There is even a new reality show on American television called Immortalized that pits taxidermists against each other in exciting taxidermy challenges!
This hornbill, as befits a protected species, died of natural causes at its home in Kubah National Park and now, here it is, brought back to eternal life.
When it comes to the Museum world, where many institutions have been replacing taxidermy with technological substitutes like holograms or digitized images, Louise believes taxidermy will still have its place. “It’s not real,” she says of the digital world. “Taxidermy engages more of my senses. It’s tactile to me. You’ll never get a sense of the softness of the fur or the sharpness of the teeth from a digital image.” In fact, while society’s notions of conservation have pushed it out, so may conservation bring it back in. Despite mankind’s growing awareness, ever-increasing numbers of species are on the brink of extinction. The Bornean rhino was declared extinct in the wild in 2015 until a lone female was found in Kalimantan early this year.
The orangutan may disappear within 25 years, claim some conservationists. Every avenue to get people to connect with these creatures must be exploited, whether technological or ‘taxidermied’.
Failing this, these specimens may prove to be the last remaining physical evidence of their existence. After all, the Sarawak Museum is host to a pair of cows, now locally extinct, and even a decidedly gruesome smoked rhino head, an early experiment in preservation, dating back to 1887.
If nothing else, the existing collection must survive. It is well-documented that Alfred Russel Wallace, world- renowned naturalist and pioneer in the theory of evolution inspired the museum with a plea to the Rajah on the need for one. But Wallace left more of a mark than this. The display itself flows from his idea that museums should do away with the shelves of specimens – disconnected and emotionless – in favour of family groups shown in their natural habitat. Any visitor to the museum can see this concept in action in the original display cases – the direct link to the mind of Borneo’s most famous visitor is clear. The museum pieces have become museum pieces in themselves.
Perhaps it is up to the public to change their minds instead. After all, no matter how much he deals with death, Affendi’s thoughts are of life – the lives of his charges and of the generations to come and this is why he believes in his work. His attitude is not unusual. In 1878, Sarawak actually received a visit from the rock star of taxidermy in his day, William Hornaday, a pioneer in the early conservation movement in the US and a great advocate for the American Bison. In his words: “The wild things of this earth are not ours to do with as we please. They have been given to us in trust and we must account for them to the generation which will come after us and audit our accounts.”
Karen is definitely on the squeamish side when it comes to blood and guts but thanks Affendi for his love of life and Louise for her wealth of knowledge.