At its outset, execution of our inventory and condition survey of taxidermy mounts in storage in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Mammalogy (see previous post) required clarification of what exactly can and cannot be considered “taxidermy.”
What exactly is taxidermy?
The word taxidermy is derived from the Greek words “taxis” meaning arrangement, and “derma” meaning skin. Strictly speaking, a specimen must have preserved skin that is arranged in a lifelike form to be considered taxidermy. Taxidermists achieve this using different materials and methods, but in our survey we considered a specimen to be “taxidermy” if it had an articulated pose and glass eyes (indicating that it was meant to be exhibited). This criteria discounted study skins (preserved specimens with stuffing, but without an articulated pose or eyes), skin rugs (preserved hides with glass eyes and reconstructed head, but without an articulated pose), and mummies (specimens that may appear articulated, but lack internal armature or glass eyes).
The bat collection proved to be the trickiest to classify because a majority of specimens were mounted onto external glass panels. They were not fully articulated internally to form an accurate lifelike pose. It is difficult to pose the thin skin of bat wings, especially of smaller specimens, because, having qualities similar to parchment, it deforms and tears easily.
The glass plates provided a way to support the wings while on display.
Many of the bats encountered in the survey had glass eyes and an articulated mouth, a metal wire armature in their wings, and were previously exhibited. For these reasons, we decided they were akin to other mammal mounts and included them in our survey. Half-mounts (also known as shoulder or trophy mounts) were also considered taxidermy, even though the whole animal isn’t represented because the preserved hide is still arranged to mimic a living pose.
Taxidermy Materials and Methods
In order to accurately identify the technology and materials used to create the mounts and to appropriately describe the damages we observed, we researched historical taxidermy practices. The choices the taxidermist makes can have an important impact on the condition of the object.
If the internal manikin is made of excelsior or “wood wool” (slivers of wood, a common material from the late 19th and early 20th century), it will move in response to fluctuations in environmental conditions just as the mounted hide around it does. This movement can eventually cause tension or tears, and loosen the hide from the manikin. Conversely, if the manikin is too rigid, the hide may shrink over time and split open around the internal support.
Small copper-alloy pins added to hold fingers in place can react with the skin to form a waxy-green corrosion product called copper stearate. The corrosion can stain surrounding skin and hair, and can be difficult to remove.
Some glass eyes can also exhibit an inherent deterioration known as “glass disease.” The cloudy appearance or even crizzling (fine cracking) occurs because of a breakdown of the chemical composition of the glass, often exacerbated by contact with skin. Once the disease begins it can only be slowed, not stopped.
A future blog post will discuss taxidermy methods in more detail. In the meantime, check out the book Windows on Nature, written by longtime Museum exhibition project manager Stephen Quinn.
Here is a selection of some of the most interesting taxidermy specimens that we came across during our survey.
One of the oldest specimens that we assessed was an agouti that was collected in 1843, before the Museum was founded.
The largest mount was an elephant seal that is so large it must be stored in the Museum’s special large species room.
The smallest taxidermy specimen was a harvest mouse.
The most unexpected specimen (for a North American conservator) was a platypus.
The exceptionally skilled execution of historical taxidermy techniques is exemplified by some of the small mammals, like squirrels, that were mounted in dynamic positions. This specimen was acquired through one of the founding collections (Verreaux).