Our condition survey of historic mammalian taxidermy in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Mammalogy (see previous post), supplied an understanding of the most common condition issues affecting them, and clearly displayed their probable causes.
Cracks, Splits, and Dust: Responses to Environment
It is not unusual to find cracks and splits in historic taxidermy mounts. The organic materials comprising taxidermy (hide, skin, horn, teeth, manikin materials, etc.) will expand and contract as a response to changes in relative humidity and temperature in the environment. This is similar to the way one’s hair increases in volume during more humid days, but is flat on dry ones. If there are small tears or cracks in the hide, they may open up during these fluctuations and become bigger. Much of the historic taxidermy in the Museum is more than 100 years old, meaning it was acquired well before the invention of modern environmental control systems in use today. We were not surprised to discover cracks and splits in hides, teeth, and other organic components.
Dust may seem innocuous, but it is a serious concern for taxidermy. “Dust” can be anything from lint or dried skin cells to coal dust or other sources of air pollution. These small particles can be abrasive, oily, and/or hygroscopic, meaning that they attract moisture that creates localized varying microenvironments on the surface. Furthermore, accumulated dust detracts from the perceived vitality of a specimen and alters its apparent color; even when the dust itself presents only a minor risk, the aesthetic considerations of display may require investing resources in cleaning methods that could introduce more significant risks like hair breakage, slippage, staining, or disruption of previous recoloring treatments. Most of the specimens surveyed were stored in enclosed storage cabinets or covered by protective plastic sheeting. Mounts in open storage, however, are particularly vulnerable to dust accumulation.
Breaks and Loss: Responses to Handling
As mounted skins age, they often become brittle and more sensitive to damage by handling. During the survey the conservators noted broken limbs, detached pieces, and other signs of damage that may have occurred as these objects were handled for various purposes over their long lives. Some taxidermy may have suffered these damages even before entering into the collections. Taxidermy is also vulnerable to damages due to handling during the exhibit installation and de-installation processes, during movement of the collections, and during research. For these reasons, our collections staff follows detailed guidelines that are specifically intended to mitigate these risks.
Fading: Responses to Light Exposure
Discoloration and fading in fur is minimized by dark storage. Some taxidermy specimens surveyed were previously on display at the Museum and now exhibit light-induced discoloration and fading, not unlike that seen in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals before its recent renovation. Comparing these discolored examples to the unfaded study skins in adjacent storage can be very useful in determining the degree of fade or discoloration. Where they can be used appropriately, re-coloring techniques have the potential to restore the naturalistic appearance of faded specimens and extend the possibilities for their use in dioramas or other exhibits.
Other Condition Issues
Several other types of damage were reflected in our survey. These include loss of hair due to old, (currently inactive) pest activity; chemical deterioration of materials used in manikin construction or finishing work, such as rusting metal ear-liners or flaking paint; and structural issues in the base, such as loose attachment of the taxidermy mount and cracks in wood or plaster.
As the project continues, we will be working to stabilize and restore some of the specimens evaluated in our survey. Examples and case studies derived from these treatments will be shared in the various informational and training resources under development.