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Does pickling animals get your goat?

By Jack Ashby, on 2 September 2011

Part of my job is to be responsible for our visitors’ experience in the Museum, and this includes any labels, marketing or online content. In the interest of accuracy, avoiding typos, and indeed making sure that one person’s opinions (mine) don’t come across as fact or institutional positions, I always ask a colleague to read anything of importance before I publish.

That person is often Mark our Curator. Even though I’ve been doing it throughout my career, six years of which have been alongside Mark, he has started objecting to certain phrases that I use. I’m interested to know what you think.

Is this deer pickled or preserved in fluid?

Is this deer pickled or preserved in fluid?

He doesn’t like it when I say a specimen is “pickled” instead of “preserved in fluid”. Nor is he keen on “stuffed” instead of “taxidermy” or “mounted skin preparation”. The reason I use them is that they flow off the tongue a bit better, are shorter (which is crucial when writing labels) and people know what they mean. Certainly fewer people would know what I meant by a “wet specimen” or a “spirit specimen” – two other names for objects preserved in alcohol-filled jars.

The point he is making is that saying “stuffed” or “pickled” downplays the level of curatorial skill involved in preparing such specimens, which is certainly significant. It denigrates the whole sector and belittles the museums and their objects. In a field that is, thankfully, becoming ever-increasingly professionalised, are natural history museum staff disrespected by such candid terminology? Or, alternatively, is it just long-winded jargon, of the type that Mark himself campaigned against in a previous blog.

I really don’t know.

Is this a mounted taxidermy platypus, or is it stuffed?

Is this a mounted taxidermy platypus, or is it stuffed?

I do know, however, that visitors respond with a smile when I say “look at this pickled platypus” more than when I say “look at this platypus preserved in fluid”. I think that such phrases are useful in reducing the intellectual barriers that are inherent to museums – it makes them more accessible. In my mind, they don’t care I might have slighted the skills used in making it.

An important question is, though, do they consider it with less respect or reverence? And if so, is that a bad thing? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it’s lost the wow factor.

Since Mark started rolling his eyes at it I have almost dropped them from my vocabulary in case he is right that it really does make our profession look bad. But I’m not sure that he is.

Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.

11 Responses to “Does pickling animals get your goat?”

  • 1
    Sodiumjones wrote on 2 September 2011:

    I think it is important to have multiple levels on which museums and their staff engage with their audience. I think its a judgement call but some people (most i suspect) visit museums for entertainment. If they learn something along the way then thats all for the better. However, in my mind, everyones favourite teacher had a sense of humour and could judge when it was appropriate to be ‘off message’ and when it was not. ‘Pickled’ will inspire even the most disinterested mind (those that I know anyhoo!), ‘preserved in fluid’ very much will not. If one cant see the humour in a room full of floating fauna then its a dark day for public engagement.

  • 2
    Amanda wrote on 2 September 2011:

    As a taxidermist, I do get a little annoyed when people say I stuff animals, I think it’s due to the fact that it sounds like I have no respect for the animal, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Ideally when I read about specimens at museums, I do prefer to read the long winded terms, generally because it just makes the collection sound important, which it is, rather than just a random crazy hobby scientists have. The long winded terms do describe it well enough that anyone will get the idea of what it means, so I don’t see that as an ‘intellectual barrier’, people who come to these museums know what to expect, if you feel they don’t understand when you are talking to them, all it takes is a quick description, and they can go home and show off to their friends with the proper terms. If I visited a place to learn, I would much rather know this than simplistic and
    comical phrases!

  • 3
    SLDellar wrote on 2 September 2011:

    It all depends on your audience.
    You’ll turn young and non-expert minds off the subject with a load of jargon, but it is more appropriate to use the ‘correct’ terminology when dealing with other professionals.
    The specimens are there to excite people about the subject, not to justify the curators and other museum staff’s jobs.
    That being said, I’ve been on both sides of that argument and can understand the wish for everything to be correctly described, as well as the difficulties in doing it.

    That momentary glimmer of understanding and subsequent interest in the subject (and following-up on that interest) from your audience is the important thing to aim for, and in my opinion, if you can achieve it, the end justifies the means. You can always explain that it’s ‘not pickled like a pickled onion’ later on.

    Maybe Mark’s just getting a bit precious in his old age!

  • 4
    Mark Carnall wrote on 2 September 2011:

    I’d just like to add more context to why I feel we can leave “stuffed” and “pickled” off the labels and it is partly to do with natural history museums shaking the stereotype of being dusty places filled with pickled and stuffed specimens with curators who have a penchant for elbow patches and tweed. It doesn’t do justice to the work that museums do and as Amanda pointed out sounds disrespectful to the specimens. I’d argue that it also sounds amateurish and frivolous.

    Furthermore, these terms get used again and again in press coverage of natural history museums. A quick google of “Grant Museum” stuffed or “Grant Museum” pickled shows just how much stuffed and pickled things have become synonymous with our organisation and many of the search results are from this very blog or our own marketing.

    This doesn’t mean that museums can’t be fun or exciting but it really doesn’t help the image of natural history museums which also tend to be taken less seriously than other museums at all kinds of levels, socially and politically, which doesn’t help the cause during a time of cuts.

  • 5
    Angie wrote on 2 September 2011:

    I feel you can use it as a great opportunity to educate the public, and make them chuckle a bit at the same time. Talk about the difference between ‘pickling’ and fluid preservation using one specimen as an example, then keep using ‘fluid preservation’ or whatever term it best. Pickled is a one time joke, after that I think you can be safe using more formal terms. Fluid preserved specimen carries a level of sci-fi that pickled does not, there are lots of angles to work here.

  • 6
    Jo wrote on 2 September 2011:

    Hmm. What’s more “elbow patches and tweed”? Using common terms understood by most people to describe collection items, or frowning on such language as essentially “frivolous”? I think Mark is in danger of conforming to his own stereotype. And his concern that visitors might be disrespecting his specimens sounds distinctly old fogeyish. I concur with SLDellar’s analysis!

  • 7
    Ken wrote on 2 September 2011:

    Describing taxidermy as “stuffed animals” may be convenient and fun but it gives a misleading idea of how the process is done. If you “stuff” an animal skin you will probably end up with a shapeless lump (and I’m sure there are a lot of specimens that do fit that description). If you prepare an accurate mount and stretch the skin over the mount, as in a decent taxidermy job, you should end up with something that looks like the animal. I think a museum that respects its collection should make the distinction.

    As for pickling I associate it with food, which I suppose is part of the fun of using it to describe (e.g.) a jar of moles. But I don’t think it’s technically inaccurate.

  • 8
    UCL Museums & Collections Blog » Blog Archive » Happy Thylacine Day: we haven’t learned – just look at the badgers wrote on 7 September 2011:

    […] the recent experience I had of actually removing our thylacine dissection preserved in fluid (pickled?) from its jar was a highlight of my career. I’ve been to Tasmania a number of times on […]

  • 9
    Jack Ashby wrote on 20 September 2012:

    A colleague from another museum sent this response:

    “This is definitely a classic case of ‘dumming down’!

    Whilst I sympathise with those that say it downplays the level of technical skill involved in preparing such specimens, I don’t see that as the problem. I’m sure that those of us whose job it is to prepare such specimens are big enough to survive a slightly dented ego!

    The issue at stake here is surely the fundamental purpose of a museum collection – to interest, to educate and to enlighten an audience about an issue they may not be familiar with. We should therefore attempt to explain and describe clearly, concisely and above all accurately the items in our care.

    We have to assume the museum visitors are interested in seeing our collections and learning more about them. Otherwise they wouldn’t bother to come in the first place!

    It is one thing chatting to visitors and I am sure that we have all been guilty of using ‘slang’ terminology and enjoying the amused responses from our audience, but it is essential for the OBJECT LABEL to be technically accurate. It does not have to be as long-winded or full of jargon; but concise, professional and correct!!

    The word ‘stuffing’, for example, is neither accurate nor descriptive. It is plain wrong! I’m not aware of any taxidermy preparation method, historical or modern, that uses the method of ‘stuffing’ (the filling of prepared fish skins with dried sand is probably as close as one can get to a loose filling method).

    The use of the word ‘pickling’ is a similarly misguided term. Tissue Fixation and Preservation is an extremely complex subject, with some fixatives developing strong chemical bonds with cellular and inter-cellular structures. ‘Pickling’ on the other hand provides a limited preserve for a selection of food stuffs.

    Why do we seem to have such a problem with technical detail? In my experience visitors are fascinated by the complexity of our subject and want to know more, those that do not can surely just ignore the technicalities.”

    A concerned conservator!

  • 10
    Specimen of the Week: Week 104 | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 7 October 2013:

    […] brown thing above the pup is an egg case. Presumably the one it came out of moments before it was pickled. Actually this specimen is about 6 cm shy of the typical 23 cm hatchling length, so it is probable […]

  • 11
    Project Pickle – Conserving our Specimens Preserved in Fluid | UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 1 August 2016:

    […] *We appreciate that not everyone likes the term “Pickle” for specimens preserved in fluid, but that’s been discussed elsewhere on this blog. […]

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