Museum Menagerie: The Art Of Museum Taxidermy
I stood amid a herd of wildebeests around an African watering hole, and I was unafraid. Giraffes towered above me, nibbling on the highest branches of the Acacia trees, but I did not move from my spot. I gazed upon the majesty of a heard of African Elephants, looking the large bull in the face. Despite the fact that his tusks were as long or longer than I am tall, I felt no fear. Behind me on either side were more creatures of the savannah. Lions, Hippos, Greater Kudus (a type of very large antelope), hyenas, and one of the most dangerous creatures of the African Plains: the Cape Buffalo. I was still unafraid. Glancing up, I saw that a leopard was crouching menacingly on a tree branch directly above me, glaring down at me with it’s fangs bared. It’s latest kill, a small Thompson’s Gazelle, was draped unceremoniously over the branch in front of it. A branch that was not attached to a tree.
I was unafraid for the simple reason that I was in no danger from any of these magnificent creatures. Every animal I have named and more, stood placidly watching me from their meticulously created exhibits as I stood contemplating them among hundreds of other patrons of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, African Mammal Hall. Every one of them carefully ‘brought to life’ through the clever use of a rarely recognized art form: taxidermy.
Taxidermy, as defined by Dictionary.com, is: “the art of preparing and preserving the skins of animals and of stuffing and mounting them in lifelike form”. In other words, the beauty of the animals I was admiring was truly only skin deep. Beneath the carefully preserved hides lies the true art of taxidermy, the mount form. While the “stuffing” spoken of in the Dictionary.com definition has ‘gone out of style’, for want of a better term (it lead to notoriously lumpy and misrepresented mounts that were nothing more than gross caricatures of the live animal, and gave people the wrong impression of rare and exotic creatures for centuries), the other term for taxidermy (mounted animals) is still quite accurate.
The process begins by the museum obtaining the animal. These animals used to be collected in the field personally by a group of hunters that worked for the individual museum. However, due to the ecological state of the world and the numbers of animals becoming endangered or extinct, most museum specimens today are donated by zoos, licensed hunters, and various other sources. Some creatures, like the giant Blue Whale that hangs from the ceiling in the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall Of Ocean Life, have skin that is far too thin (in the whale’s case, due to a large thick layer of blubber just underneath the almost paper-thin skin) to allow skinning. For this reason, that magnificent Blue Whale is more sculpture than mount, as described in Museum Menagerie: Behind The Scenes At The Nature Museum, by Lynne Martin:
Both scientific accuracy and a high point in exhibition ingenuity were achieved in preparing the new exhibit (“The Whale”). The creature, which has a steel skeleton covered by polyurethane foam and fiberglass, cost $200,000. It took nearly two years to build, and was planned at the museum for seven years before that. (“Museum Menagerie” Criterion Books; 1979. pg 74-76)
In all other cases, once the museum has obtained the dead animal, (afterwards referred to as “the specimen”), the museum’s taxidermists then can go to work. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s head Taxidermist, Tim Bovard, had this to say about the collection of specimens for the modern museum:
“In the old days, before I got here, the standard way to get animals was to go out and collect them in the wild. Now, by and large, I work on things that are picked up as roadkill or sent by zoos or the Department of Fish and Game. They’re called “salvaged specimens.”” (“Fortune Magazine” 28 June. 2004.)
Now that the specimen is in the hands of the taxidermist, the real work can begin. Sometimes the animal’s own bones are used to begin creation of the mold that will eventually hold it’s tanned hide or skin. Other times casts of the bones, much like the mounted casts of dinosaur bones also housed in museums, are used as the basis. This allows the sculptors to retain the true dimensions of the animal. In some cases, such as deer or bears, there are ‘standard’ molds on the market for hunters, but these are mostly for shoulder mounts (where the ‘cape’, or head and shoulders, of the creature are the only parts mounted, and the rest of the skin and body is discarded). Some smaller museums favor shoulder mounts because it can allow them the maximum amount of display area in a small space. However, the large museums, such as NHMLA (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County), prefer full body mounts displayed in realistic settings as their method of exhibition.
There are ways of combining the two types of mounts. I grew up in Houston, Texas, and the museum I frequented (the Houston Museum Of Natural Science, or HMNH) had a respectable display of African wildlife, including the upper jaw and head of a Hippopotamus, mounted so that the rest of it’s body would appear to be underwater. In this way, what was basically a shoulder mount was integrated into a larger realistic display. Also, due to the Hippo’s size, it would not have been practical to have a full body mount of the animal in the exhibit. I have also seen a jaguar head (at a smaller “Science Center” belonging to the Cy-Fair school district, also in Houston) mounted within an exhibit and, on the wall which it was mounted, the rest of the body was painted as part of the background. I found this quite creative, and have yet to see any other museum take advantage of this unique display method for a shoulder mount.
Most of the mount ‘sculptures’ or bases in NHMLA are created with the first method, retaining the live animal’s original size and grandeur. Clay is then layered over the bones or bone casts, and carefully sculpted to reveal muscles, sinew, and bone where necessary, becoming a fleshless version of the animal made out of clay. The poses created are usually designed to be both realistic and fit within whatever the theme for the specific exhibit is. This requires there to have been much work done before the specimen was even earmarked for the museum. Painters and other artists, also working for the museum, planning and sketching what the finished exhibit will look like. By the time the animals have reached this stage in their preparation, their new permanent home is already well under construction. It may even already be finished.
After the sculpture is complete and allowed to harden, one of two things can happen. Which one usually depends on if the museum plans this animal to be on permanent display, or if this is a traveling exhibition. In the case of the former, the hide may simply be stretched over the form in its present state, resulting in a heavy, durable mount that will stand the test of time. (Some of the animals in NHMLA have been there since the 1950’s, or even earlier.) The second option is to use this cumbersome sculpture to create a second mold, allowing a lightweight version of the same sculpture to be created out of lighter clays and resins. This will be hollow, and therefore much lighter than it’s cousin the solid mold. This option is usually chosen for animals that are either a part of traveling exhibits, or animals that are being placed into an exhibit temporarily and will be moved many times during their life at the museum.
However, the beautiful creatures you see on display at museums such as MNHLA and HMNS, or even the American Museum of Natural History in New York, are only a small part of the collection housed within the museum’s walls. The employees of the museums see over 90% of the collection that may or may not ever be shown to the public. As stated in Discovery Magazine in regards to NHMLA:
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County dutifully adopts donated trophy heads and mounted animals and usually relegates the pieces to storage. Every so often the animals do a stint in temporary exhibits but, for the most part, Tim Bovard, museum taxidermist, is their only company. Aside from an annual dusting, he rarely gives his roommates a thought: “I walk right past them because I see them every day.” (“Discover Magazine” Oct. 1999)
In conclusion, the collections of animals housed in our nation’s museums, be they on display or hidden in some dusty corner of the stacks, are a window to another world. A world which most people may never be able to see otherwise. The mighty dinosaurs who’s bones are housed there give us a glimpse into the past, but the mounted animals, products of the incredible art of taxidermy, are a window to the world of now, and hopefully the world of the future as well. As NHMLA’s Head taxidermist, Tim Bovard said in Fortune Magazine:
“Occasionally I’ll get comments like, “I don’t like looking at dead animals.” But that’s the only way that anyone who doesn’t have a lot of money to travel is going to see that kind of animal.” (“Fortune Magazine” 28 June. 2004.)
Some day I hope to see animals like the ones I have described in this paper in person, and not in a zoo or museum. But I will always be thankful to the museums of the world for preserving their little three dimensional photographs of the present. And I look forward to the next time I am gifted with the time to visit another of these great museum menageries.
Martin, Lynne Museum Menagerie: Behind The Scenes At The Nature Museum New York: Criterion Books 1979: pg 74-76.
D’Agnese, Joseph “Closets of Curiosities – collections of Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and California Science Center – Brief Article.” Discover Magazine Oct. 1999.
Bovard, Tim & Schlosser, Julie. “Taxidermist Tim Bovard, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County” Fortune Magazine 28 June. 2004.
“taxidermy.” Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1). Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006. 21 Nov. 2006.