Surveying Historic Taxidermy Part 1: Goals and Parameters

Alongside the lightfastness testing described earlier in this blog, we are developing tools to support the efforts of other individuals and institutions seeking to preserve collections of historic mammalian taxidermy. To do this, we needed to deepen our understanding of the historic and modern materials and techniques used in creating these objects, the common condition issues affecting them, and methods of remediation, both historic and modern.

1194_2_detail face and mouth

Taxidermy viscacha specimen from the collection during condition surveying. (c) AMNH/F. Ritchie

Working toward these aims, we conducted an inventory and condition survey of taxidermy in storage in the Department of Mammalogy of the American Museum of Natural History. This survey was intended to accomplish the goals set out above with the added benefit of providing the department with a searchable, data driven inventory of the entire mammalian taxidermy collection. This kind of inventory can serve as a basis for planning and decisions related to collection management and storage, loans, exhibits, and associated conservation needs.

The Department of Mammalogy is one of four departments in the Museum’s Division of Vertebrate Zoology Division. The department’s collection comprises more than 420,000 specimens from around the world, although only a tiny fraction of those in storage are taxidermy mounts. This fraction still represents about half of the mammal taxidermy at the Museum, with the other half on permanent display. These numbers should not be surprising: museum-quality taxidermy is costly to produce and limited in its scientific uses compared to materials such as study skins or skeletons. Instead, taxidermy is valued primarily for display, so it has been produced in relatively small numbers for specific exhibits over the years. Thus, the percentage of specimens on display versus in storage is much higher for taxidermy than it is for other materials that are more often used in scientific research. Among the Museum’s mammal taxidermy holdings are numerous examples from the founding collections that were acquired in 1869 and are now approaching 150 years old. How are these specimens holding up after so many years?

Caitlin_bats

Project intern Caitlin Richeson examining taxidermy fruit bats in collection storage. (c) AMNH/F. Ritchie

Over a period of four months we spent an average of two to three days per week surveying. We worked around visiting researchers and staff using temporary photography and examination stations in each room. Each specimen took five to 10 minutes to assess, depending on its complexity and accessibility. After opening every storage cabinet and pulling out every drawer to ensure that no specimen was overlooked, we assessed approximately 635 individual mounts in 30 mammalogy-collection storage spaces.

Fran_bat

Project conservator Fran Ritchie examining a specimen at a temporary surveying station in collection storage. (c) AMNH/K. McCauley

Using a custom-built database, we tailored our survey parameters to record identifying information for each specimen, an assessment of its condition, and recommendations for treatment. If desired, the data collected can be exported in CSV and PDF file formats and then imported or attached to records in other existing databases, such as the EMu database system used by the Museum’s Division of Vertebrate Zoology.

Data gathered for each specimen included ‘identifying information’ such as:

  • Specimen Description – Basic taxonomic and locality information, as well as notes about special historical, scientific, or ecological significance
  • Current Storage Location – Building, floor, room, cabinet number(s), and cabinet label(s)
  • Transcriptions – Data from all labels and inscriptions, including taxonomy, catalog and other numbers, and other scientific or historical details
  • Digital Photograph(s) – An overall identifying photograph as well as details of specific condition or preparation issues, when appropriate
database_mock

Survey database example entry (not actual specimen in the collection).

We evaluated the condition of each specimen, looking closely at the following elements:

  • Internal armature
  • Skin/hide
  • Fur/hair
  • Antlers/horns/hooves/nails/claws/teeth
  • Eyes
  • Finishing materials (for sculpting lips, nose, etc.)
  • Base
  • Specimen label
Kelly_workspace

Summer intern Kelly McCauley using the survey database to examine a specimen in collection storage. Note the grey photography paper used to photograph each specimen. (c) AMNH/F. Ritchie

Each specimen was given an overall condition summary, identifying it as Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor, and further noting whether it is Stable or Unstable, based on the likelihood of existing damage worsening if left untreated.

In the final section of our survey, we recorded the nature and extent of any conservation treatment that would be required to make the specimen stable or suitable for exhibit, such as skin repairs, reconstruction, general grooming, dry cleaning, etc.

Together, all of this documentation will be used to guide decisions about how best to manage, store, and exhibit historic mammal taxidermy at the Museum, while offering supporting resources for the preservation of similar collections at other museums or sites.

Our next post will reveal some of the unique examples that we discovered during the survey.

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2 thoughts on “Surveying Historic Taxidermy Part 1: Goals and Parameters

  1. Pingback: Surveying Historic Taxidermy Part 2: Fun Finds | In Their True Colors
  2. Pingback: Surveying Historic Taxidermy Part 3: Results | In Their True Colors

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