Sculpture with skin

Jo Bain, South Australian Museum’s resident taxidermist at work. Photo: Cathy Brooks.

Mike Ladd, Sculpture with skin: inside the taxidermist’s workshop, Radio National website, 29 June 2015

From installation art to fashionable bar decorations, taxidermy is experiencing a revival. Mike Ladd visits Jo Bain, the South Australian Museum’s resident taxidermist, who explains his passion for preserving dead creatures in a way that shows their natural power and beauty. For Bain, taxidermy isn’t just stuffing dead animals; it’s an art form.

When I first walk into Jo Bain’s basement workshop, he apologises for the rank smell coming from his fridge. ‘Everyone thinks dolphins are lovely’ he says, ‘but I hate them. If one goes into the freezer, the freezer forever smells like dolphins.’

Later on, we visit the freezer itself, if only briefly. It’s minus 25 in there and we’re wearing T-shirts. On the way in he tells me not to lick anything—I hadn’t been planning on it.

When the door opens I come face to face with a whole cassowary, its frozen dinosaur claws thrusting out from a great pile of glossy black feathers. High on another shelf, carefully wrapped up, is a very famous bird—Adelaide Zoo’s Alexander the flamingo. Up until a year ago he was the oldest flamingo in the world at 83 (at the very least).

Bain is a bit nervous about preserving Alexander. He was a much-loved and singular bird, with his wrinkled face, needle-thin legs and arthritic ankles. Bain wants to get him exactly right; he’s waiting for a dead ibis to come in so he can practise the advanced techniques he wants to apply to Alexander. As Bain says, with a unique and famous bird like that ‘you don’t want to mess it up, because there are no makeovers’.

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