Can museum taxidermy help primate conservation? Monkey Business conveys a serious message

By Richard Moss | 27 October 2016

More than 50 new taxidermy specimens of monkeys, apes, lemurs, lorises and bush-babies are to be revealed in the most comprehensive museum exhibition on primates ever staged

a photo of a stuffed gorilla
Wester lowland gorilla© National Museum of Scotland
In the week that it was reported global wildlife populations have fallen by 58% since 1970 it may seem unsettling to be staring into the cold glass eyes of dead primates in a museum - however beautiful and beguiling they might be.

At National Museum Scotland they are mounting the biggest ever exhibition dedicated to primates - featuring more than 50 spectacular new taxidermy specimens of monkeys, apes, lemurs, lorises and bush-babies.

The taxidermy was specially commissioned for the exhibition, which, says the museum, is the first to show primates behaving as if they were in the wild with poses capturing the wide variety of behaviours of some of the world’s most endangered species.

a photo of a stuffed chimp staring at the camera
A chimpanzee© National Museum of Scotland
a full face photo of a stuffed mandrill baring its teeth
Mandrill © National Museum of Scotland
a photo of a small lemur holding onto the bark of a tree
Aye-aye lemur.© National Museum of Scotland
With atmospheric lighting and naturalistic displays, the museum is promising “an immersive jungle experience” with visitors coming face to face with specimens ranging from soulful orangutans to fearsome mandrills.

The exhibition also hopes to illuminate the way primates have evolved and adapted, how they communicate, and the tools they have developed to obtain food.

Displays explore communication, social groups and behaviours with visitors learning more about the visual signals, language and scent-marking used by primates.

a photo of a small stuffed monkey holding onto a stick
Bengal slow loris© National Museum of Scotland
a photo of a small black monkey eating fungus from a branch
Goeldi's marmoset© National Museum of Scotland
a photo of a small stuffed grey monkey with orange eyes
Grey legged douroucouli© National Museum of Scotland
a photo of a sumptuously grey haired stuffed monkey
Lion tailed macaque© National Museum of Scotland
Primates’ complex social systems are investigated; a tarsier is shown using ultrasonic communication whilst a vervet monkey reveals how its different calls warn about each different predator.

A social group of Sulawesi crested macaques have been grouped to display a range of different behaviours including grooming, playing, suckling young and even greeting another primate - the visitor.

According to Dr Andrew Kitchener, the Principal Curator of Vertebrate Biology, "visitors will enjoy an unrivalled opportunity to learn about the diversity of the primate family and to see them up close."

Perhaps more importantly, will be the insights into primates' relationship with humans today.

"They will also be able to learn about the impact our choices have on primate livelihood and what we can do to protect them,” adds Kitchener of the exhibition, which closes by looking at conservation as well as some of the challenges primates face including conflict, the spread of disease and the bush meat trade.

Endangered primates, including the Sumatran orangutan and the black-and-white ruffed lemur, make up part of the collection and the museum is hoping an important takeaway will be what we can do to help - whether that be through making better-informed consumer choices or lobbying. 

Perhaps visitors will be left pondering how museums could well become the last repository of our closest living relatives - some of the most beautiful and threatened creatures on earth.

a photo of a stuffed mandrill in open jaw pose
Mandrill© National Museum of Scotland
a photo of a small stuffed brown fur monkey on a branch
Potto © National Museum of Scotland
a photo of a lemur on its hind legs holding its tail
Ring tailed lemur© National Museum of Scotland
a photo of a leaping monkey
Senegal Galago© National Museum of Scotland
a photo of a stuffed orangutan
Sumatran orangutan© National Museum of Scotland
a photo of a small stuffed monkey with dark face and white tufts around its cheeks
White cheeked gibbon© National Museum of Scotland
Monkey Business, December 9 2016 to Sunday April 23 2017 at National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh. See for more information.
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