Facing Extinction

Animal Death Masks in the Post-Mortem Museum Representation of Gorillas





gorilla, museums, death masks, conservation, preservation, heritage, taxidermy


When we consider the preservation of the animal body in natural history displays, we primarily think of techniques such as taxidermy or the mounting of a skeletal anatomy. Animal death masks are, by contrast, almost completely unstudied. Although casting has been predominantly understood as a technique for preserving the human face, non-humans have also had their faces captured by the casting of a death mask, and the resultant plaster used for a variety of purposes, from the creation of an accurate taxidermy mount, to featuring as a display object in its own right. ‘Animal Death Masks’ examines three case studies in which death masks play an integral role, all of which feature male gorillas kept in city zoos who grew to be local celebrities and were preserved for display in their regional museum, and each of whom had a cast taken of their face after death. This article argues that animal death masks materialize the distorted boundaries present in museum primate narratives: between indexical representations and artistic portraits, endangered animals and celebrity, conservation and preservation.


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Author Biography

Verity Burke, The University of Stavanger; Trinity College Dublin

Verity Burke is an interdisciplinary scholar working at the intersections of literary analysis, the environmental humanities, and museum studies. The Irish Research Council funds her current project, Still Lives: Organic and Digital Animals in the Natural History Museum, which examines the dialogue between analogue and digital technologies of animal mediation in their museum context. She has worked as a postdoctoral associate on projects including Beyond Dodos and Dinosaurs: Exhibiting Extinction and Recovery in Museums (Research Council of Norway) and Narrativising Dinosaurs: Science and Popular Culture, 1850 to Present (AHRC).Her wider work examines the narratives and displays of human and nonhuman bodies; museum representations beyond organic remains; and storytelling in the natural history museum.




How to Cite

Burke, Verity. 2022. “Facing Extinction: Animal Death Masks in the Post-Mortem Museum Representation of Gorillas”. Humanimalia 13 (1):1–43. https://doi.org/10.52537/humanimalia.10933.