Second skins: Semiotic readings in taxidermic reconstruction

Pauline Wakeham
Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta
July, 2005


If 'taxidermy' denotes a material practice---the hollowing-out and re-stuffing of a corpse---it also connotes a more general problematic regarding the display of human mastery over nature and the preservation of death in the guise of life. This dissertation theorizes taxidermy not only as the literal practice of stuffing skins but also as a semiotic system that is translated across a variety of cultural texts. In particular, the project analyzes how historically specific practices of museum exhibition, ethnographic cinema, and media reportage deploy the semiotics of taxidermy to reinforce narratives of colonial conquest. Conflating the signs of 'nature' and 'natives,' the semiotics of taxidermy encode ecological and racial discourses integral to the neocolonial imbalance of power in North America from 1900 to the present. By tracking the translation of taxidermy's semiotics in a constellation of inter-related case studies, this dissertation both historicizes colonialist ideology and interrogates its reinscriptions in our so-called postcolonial era. Chapter one investigates taxidermy in its most familiar form---that of museological animal specimens---via a critique of the Banff Park Museum National Historic Site. Presenting itself as a time capsule that preserves the installation as it stood circa 1914, the museum articulates a discourse of nostalgia for the era of colonial control over both animal and aboriginal populations. The second and third chapters work in conjunction to analyze how the taxidermic strategy of representing death in the semblance of life may be translated into early ethnographic cinema in troubling ways. Engaging in close readings of Edward S. Curtis' In the Land of the Headhunters (1914) and Marius Barbeau's Nass River Indians (1927) respectively, these chapters also problematize the recent archival reconstruction of both films and their current recirculation as once lost, now recovered celluloid fragments of 'prehistory.' Questions of recovery also inspire chapter four, which studies repatriation debates and the taxidermic fetishization of aboriginal remains via analysis of the recent Kwäday Dän Ts'ínchi discovery in British Columbia. Investigating scientific attempts to reconstruct the genetic 'profile' of pre-contact indigeneity, this chapter considers how taxidermy's semiotics are reinvented with the rise of genomics and biocolonialism today.