Should we be ‘commodifying’ Dolly’s body in a museum?


Hi I’m Lizzie and I’ll be your Commodity Consultant for this afternoon,

This is such a live and important debate, thank you so much for your awesome question!

If there’s anything that I’ve discovered about taxidermy, it’s that people have very extreme emotions when it comes to animals, and taxidermy gets into ongoing debates surrounding animal rights. The first thing that I want to say is that I think, for the most part, and in most circumstances, you mustn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed about your position in this debate but rather the focus instead should be on stimulating conversation and opening ourselves to different points of view.

I wont lie taxidermy usually makes me squeamish (perhaps it’s because I’m a vegetarian, although I always had an abnormal fear of modelled people as a child after a very bizarre encounter with them in a children’s play area on a caravan holiday in Belgium as a kid, but that’s a story for another day…). Yet,
lots of natural history museums (the Smithsonian, the National History Museum, The Royal Albert Memorial Museum) devote a lot of floor space to dead animals, stuffed and posed so the issue is a bit more complex than the squeem (?) factor.

In one sentence I think the issues at sake here stem down to what purpose Dolly’s body is being used for in the museum and whether you agree with that. Although, of course there are many more nuances in the use of Dolly’s body that should be unpacked e.g. whether Dolly could consent to this, or would she have consented? What does Dolly represent? Even how do we value life and death?
If you want a more detailed response, I think it’s right that we start with a very brief history of taxidermy….

The essence of taxidermy isn’t anything new – the ancient Egyptians embalmed and preserved humans after death. However, it was in the 19th century that the beginnings of taxidermy really took form. Back in the 1800s, when scientists used taxidermy to study exotic animals. Today, the practice is gradually ‘dying out’, thanks to advances in photography, field research and preservation (a whole animal suspended in alcohol is often much more useful than a dried out husk of one). The idea of taxidermy has long been linked to trophy hunting, killing ‘rare’, often large, predators as ‘trophies’. For many years these taxidermy animals were often used as mascots for museums and decorated seasonally, or posed in rather compromising positions. I think such commodification of animals is wrong – however, over time, museums have, on large, taken a more respectful tone, often with a message of conservation and often reject new taxidermy offerings. Although, perhaps anti ivory trade messages are a little mixed next to a white rhino… Source:

Now back to Dolly…

As a little bit of background, Dolly the sheep was the first adult mammal to be successfully cloned and died in February 2003. When taxidermists finished their work, the body of the preserved Dolly was put on display at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

According to a report by Reuters, a spokeswoman for the Royal Museum said that Dolly's “looking great. She’s on all fours and her head is slightly tilted to one side. She used to get a lot of human visitors, and that’s the expression she always used to great them’ – is this an example of Dolly being posed in a humorous position for entertainment purposes, or is this an attempt to respect her individuality and personality?

This can be answered from a variety of perspectives surrounding the question ‘why display Dolly?’

Those arguing that it is wrong to display Dolly’s ‘body’ might disagree with the message she presents…

Researchers Astounded... Fiction Becomes True" and "Dreaded Possibilities Are Raised" was the quaint way that one newspaper, the New York Times, greeted Dolly. But it was not the only one to sound the alarm: other headlines included "Cloning Discovery Has Unleashed a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing", "Cloned Sheep in Nazi Storm", "Dolly Opens Door for Life After Death", "The Clone Rangers Need to be Stopped" and "Golly, Dolly! It's the Abolition of Man".

A scientist described that when they created her, ‘we had not been thinking about rooms full of clones, or creating hillock upon hillock of identical sheep to guarantee a good night's sleep. We were not thinking about helping lesbians to reproduce without the help of a sperm bank or about multiplying movie stars. We were certainly not thinking of duplicating dictators. We were spurred on mostly by pure curiosity, though we did have in mind practical applications in research and agriculture’. – does Dolly stand for the excess of Man?

However, others were convinced that Dolly was something special, and there was talk of her creation being biology's equivalent of the splitting of the atom.

Nevertheless, Newspapers asked whether it would be possible to clone the dead. Some deluded souls saw Dolly as a harbinger of a form of genetic immortality; many more were fired up by the talk of a looming ethical and political nightmare. Inevitably, Dr Frankenstein's creation provided a cultural reference point for the discussion.

Those supporting Dolly’s taxidermy might argue that it was what Dolly wanted! That Dolly’s taxidermy form just shows a Diva sheep living out her glory days – as any diva would want – immortalised and worshiped

Unfortunately for her peers, Dolly apparently behaved as if she were already aware of her celebrity status. As one scientist responsible for looking Dolly stated ‘ She was greedy and would often grab more than her fair share of the "cake" - made of barley and molasses - that we fed them. And she would assert her authority by upending her trough as soon as she finished eating. This display of dominance would culminate with her placing her forefeet on the trough, puffing out her chest, and preening.
She seemed to know that she was the alpha sheep of the flock. Whereas most sheep are shy and huddle at the back of their pen when visitors arrive, Dolly would trot to the front of her stall and bask in their attention. Then she would bleat excitedly and jump up, front feet on the railing, to pose for the cameras. It was distinctly odd ovine behaviour: sheep do not normally stand on their rear legs.
Certainly, Dolly was as interested in and curious about the world around her as a sheep can be. Bill Ritchie, who selected the cell we used to create her, would shout her name as he approached - and get a deep answering bleat from the shed.’

Displaying Dolly, for me, is perhaps to hammer the point about our commonalities with mammals.

So, at the crux of all of this is the question is taxidermy ethical?
Often the fact that the animal died of ‘old age’ (Dolly was euthanized in 2003 when se developed a progressive lung disease) and was not shot makes a lot of people more comfortable about the idea of taxidermy –, Dolly died of old age, would your opinion change if she was shot, what do you think?

Her death seemed to be treated with respect by those who knew her, with one scientist describing ‘The Monday after Dolly's death, I held a wake at the Roslin, where we toasted her with Champagne. Her demise was particularly sad for those who had been present when she began life in a Petri dish and had often visited her in her stall. Even today, when I pass the barn where Dolly lived, I am reminded of her.’

However, many others argue that cloning was to blame for her death. Typically, sheep can live for 11 or 12 years, yet Dolly had managed only six.

The scientists who worked with Dolly respond to these claims by arguing that her progressive lung disease probably said more about being kept in a barn than about being cloned. The post-mortem revealed a specimen that was unremarkable for a middle-aged sheep with a weight problem.

Ultimately I’ve only managed to discuss certain points and much more could be said about Dolly, lets discuss it in the comments! However, it is just my opinion that while they still creep me out, taxidermy clearly can spark an appreciation and a sense of wonder about the natural world.

Hope this helps!


Quotes used come from an edited extract from 'After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning' (Little Brown), by Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield. 

by LizzieH on August 27th at 3:04pm
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