Have you heard of a flatypus? How about a platysausage or a fattypus? These are all terms coined by Jack Ashby to describe badly-stuffed taxidermy platypuses.
“I think they’re the most amazing animals that ever evolved, and they are very popular in museums,” he said.
Dr Ashby, a Museum of Zoology assistant director at Cambridge University, says he has seen a lot of dodgy taxidermy in museums around the world during the course of his work.
“Most of them are the wrong shape,” he told ABC Radio Hobart’s Kylie Baxter.
“We often find flatypuses that are pancake flat. We find fattypuses that are overstuffed, or sometimes the platysausage, which is long and thin and sausage-shaped.”
But it is not just platypuses that can look a little worse for wear in museums.
“Australian mammals are less accurately depicted in museums than any other group of animals I’ve come across,” Dr Ashby said.
He says the platypus’ closest relative, the echidna, wins the prize for the “most often incorrect” taxidermy species.
But while a “platysausage” or a brick-shaped echidna may be amusing and uncanny to see, Dr Ashby worries that the scourge of badly-stuffed Australian animals has had real consequences for the species.
How did they get it so wrong?
Many of the Australian animals found in international museums were collected in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Native animals would be collected and skinned, then shipped off to bewildered taxidermists, often in England, who had never seen an Australian animal in the flesh.
“The taxidermist had to imagine what the animal looked like when they were rebuilding it, which has led to a lot of mistakes,” Dr Ashby said.
What’s wrong with a ‘platysausage’?
Dr Ashby says people are most likely to come across Australian species in museums, so accuracy is crucial if the animals are to be understood.
“I think it’s part of a bigger story of the way that the world represents Australian mammals,” he said.
“They’re not often on TV documentaries, and cartoons are inaccurate.”
For over 200 years many European scientists described Australian animals as “weird, odd, bizarre, even primitive”.
“Primitive doesn’t make any scientific sense. Australia’s mammals are not primitive,” Dr Ashby said.
“When it comes to the taxidermy, it’s another part of the story where we’re often communicating the wrong things in museums.
Dr Ashby believes it undermines the animals.
“It says perhaps that they’re not worth living, [that] they’re just kind of weird little evolutionary oddities,” he said.
Sometimes it was political
Dr Ashby says Tasmanian sheep farmers in the 19th and early 20th century had it in for the thylacine — also known as the Tasmanian tiger — a prejudice that would lead to their extinction.
The last known thylacine died in captivity during 1936.
“It is common to find thylacines in museums with teeth bared and lips curled into an improbably gruesome snarling expression,” Dr Ashby said.
“They have this in common with museum wolves, foxes and hyenas.
“All four species have been mercilessly persecuted by humans, and when taxidermists portray them with vicious grimaces, they are communicating the idea that these animals are our enemies.”
Dr Ashby says it reminds “us that taxidermy isn’t all that it seems”.
“It can convey a political message,” he said.
“In this case, it is suggesting to the viewer that the animal is a rampant sheep-killer that needs to be culled.
“We now know this to be untrue. It was a deceit perpetuated by the powerful farming lobby.”
Professor of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Deakin University Gaye Sculthorpe is a Palawa woman from Tasmania.
“When the British and colonists described certain Australian animals as dangerous or primitive, it seems little different to what they were saying about us as Indigenous people until well into the 20th century,” she said.
Professor Sculthorpe, who recently returned to Australia after working at the British Museum, says she has witnessed a change in how international museums are displaying animals.
“Museums with natural history collections in the UK are increasingly aware of the need to give attention to other ways of seeing the world, rather than only through Western systems of classification,” she said.
“To this end, many institutions are seeking ways to engage with Indigenous peoples in various parts of the world to do that.
“Museums can play an important role in helping public understanding of Indigenous knowledge systems and concepts of classification that allow us to see the world in different ways than has been done historically by scientific institutions.”
Should crap taxidermy be thrown out?
Deciding how to display the poor specimens was a “tricky question,” according to Dr Ashby.
“Those specimens have historic value for cultural value,” he said.
Most museums did not kill animals for display anymore, but Dr Ashby suggested that international museums could supplement their historical taxidermy with modern, accurate taxidermy made with roadkill.
“Unfortunately, a lot of [Tasmanian] devils are killed on the road every year, and we could, with the right permits, get those specimens into museums and be able to talk about devils to further an important conservation story,” he said.
He said the way museums told “the story” of the specimens could also be changed, and the animals could be displayed in a way that made it clear they did not reflect what the species actually looked like.