What’s the Word? A Glossary of Taxidermy Terms

In previous blog posts we described our condition and inventory survey of mammalian taxidermy. In completing that survey, we created this working glossary of terms to ensure that each conservator who participated in the survey shared a common understanding of terminology for taxidermy materials and techniques. We share the glossary below for others who may need to describe taxidermy in the context of its conservation.

If you have experience working with taxidermy and you use terms differently or use different terms altogether, leave them in a comment so we can add to our glossary!


Mount – the taxidermy animal; the preserved skin of an animal that is secured/mounted over an internal form (manikin) and arranged in a life-like pose.


Taxidermy mount of a slow loris. ©AMNH /F. Ritchie

The skin is typically secured via stitching, although nails and tacks have been used (and staples), or a combination of stitching and nails. [Note that study skins and mummies are not technically taxidermy.]

Shoulder Mount – the head and neck of the animal, the body has been mounted at the shoulder of the animal (see image of moose at the end of the post).

Trophy Mount – a shoulder mount, usually of a game animal.

Full Body Mount – full body of the animal is articulated in a life-like pose.


Taxidermy full body mount of a guenon monkey. ©AMNH /J. Bloser

Manikin – the internal form of the animal that the preserved hide is attached to. Note the spelling: “manikin” or “mannikin” is used when referring to anatomically correct forms, like research manikins used for CPR training. The “mannequin” spelling refers to fashion and other non-anatomically correct forms.


“Alaskan Moose manikin in process, American Museum of Natural History,” Research Library | Digital Special Collections, accessed December 13, 2017, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/25169.


“Manikin of Alaskan moose, ready for skin, American Museum of Natural History,” Research Library | Digital Special Collections, accessed December 13, 2017, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/25302.

Stuffed animal – specimen produced using a method common in the 19th century and earlier in which the preserved animal skin was sewn and stuffed until full. This technique did not produce realistic-looking specimens. Once better techniques were developed (such as binding and the dermoplastic method), specimens were no longer stuffed in this manner. Today, museum-quality taxidermy is referred to as mounted, not stuffed (see “mount” above).

Binding method – technique in which wood wool or other loose materials are wrapped with string or thread to bind them in place and form musculature around an internal armature/frame to create the manikin for the specimen.

Dermoplastic method (or Akeley method) – a technique developed in the early 20th century for creating highly detailed, anatomically accurate, lightweight, hollow manikin. Its most famous proponent was American taxidermist Carl Akeley, who began working at the American Museum of Natural History in 1909. The form of the animal is sculpted, and a mold is made taken from the sculpture. The manikin is cast inside the mold using papiermâché or reinforced plaster (or a number of other materials). [For more explanation, see “Care and Conservation of Natural History Collections.”]


Manikin constructed using the dermoplastic technique. “Indian lion, complete manikin, 1930 ,” Research Library | Digital Special Collections, accessed December 13, 2017, http://lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/47932.

Polyurethane foam – material used to make contemporary mass-produced manikins in common use today by commercial taxidermists. Polyurethane foam manikin are used with varying degrees of custom modification to suit the specific needs of a particular mount. Commercial taxidermists also use dense polyurethane for reproduction skulls/beaks.

Internal armature – sturdy wood, wire, and/or metal frame that provides internal structural support and defines the position of the mount, especially the limbs. The internal armature extends through hands and feet to attach the specimen to the display base (see x-radiograph below).

taxi_rat before treatment

Taxidermy kangaroo rat before treatment. ©AMNH /L. Kramer

taxi_rat BT XRAY

X-radiograph of taxidermy kangaroo rat before treatment revealing internal armature. Note the dense, white area at the head (most likely bone and plaster) and the wires (also appearing as white lines) that extend throughout the body, down into the wooden display base. X-ray taken at the Conservation Center at the Institute for Fine Arts at New York University. ©AMNH /L. Kramer

Wood wool/Excelsior – thin slivers of wood (wood shavings) may be used as stuffing or padding inside the animal, forming part of all of the internal manikin

Straw – thick vegetal material may be used as stuffing or padding inside the animal, forming part of all of the internal manikin

Cotton batting – cotton fibers may be used as stuffing or padding inside the animal, forming part of all of the internal manikin.

Papier-mâché – technique using strips of paper (and/or textile) built up in layers with adhesive to create a manikin

Plaster – gypsum or plaster of Paris may be used to form part or all of the manikin/specimen.

Shellac – natural resin that may be used to seal papier-mâché or plaster manikins to provide strength and prevent water damage.

Wax/pigmented wax – transparent or pigmented wax may be used to recreate areas of supple hairless skin on the nose, lips, and around the eyes. In these areas, the original skin dries out and shrinks once the animal is preserved, losing its natural appearance.

Paint – oil or acrylic (or other) paint may be applied to compensate for the loss of color that occurs once the animal dies, especially to hairless skin (ex, beaks/legs/feet/waddle of birds, faces of primates, etc.).

Earliner – rigid material that is inserted between the layers of skin in the ears of many animals for support. Today they are commonly made out of plastic, although historically lead and papiermâché were also used.

Jawset – recreation of top and bottom of jaw, including teeth and tongue. Jaw sets manufactured today are commonly made out of plastic.

Mouthcup/mouthpiece – recreation of the mouth, including surrounding flesh (cheeks and lips). Mouthcups manufactured today are commonly made out of plastic.

Eyes – eyes were traditionally made out of glass, but many of those manufactured today they are made of plastic.

Teeth – often the original skull and teeth were cleaned and used in historic taxidermy mounts; however, because teeth are prone to cracking and breaking, many contemporary mounts use plastic jawsets.

Antlers and horns – usually the originals from the animal are used in taxidermy mounts, although there may be fills, paints, or varnish added by the taxidermist.

Display Base

Base – an external supportive structure that a specimen is attached to make it stable for display. The base could be a flat piece of wood, a branch, fake rock, etc.

taxi_display base

Taxidermy full body mount of an armadillo on a display base. ©AMNH /F. Ritchie

The base is also sometimes called the mount, but because taxidermy specimens themselves are often called mounts, we prefer to use the alternative term “base”. 

Habitat base – a base with additional components resembling the habitat of the living animal, for example, grass, moss, snow, fern, etc.

taxi_habitat base

Taxidermy full body mount of a star-nose mole on a habitat base. ©AMNH /F. Ritchie

Panel – a wooden backing board that attaches the animal to a wall for display, particularly for trophy/shoulder mounts.


Taxidermy shoulder mount of a moose, complete with wooden panel. ©AMNH /F. Ritchie


Case Study: Flying Squirrel Treatment

Another of the specimens treated as part of our preparation for our Care of Historic Mammalian Taxidermy workshop at the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) 2017 annual meeting was a taxidermy giant red flying squirrel. Project Intern Logan Kursh executed the treatment.


Conservation Intern Logan Kursh performing conservation treatment on a flying squirrel taxidermy mount. ©AMNH /F. Ritchie

There was little data available about the date or location where this specimen was collected, or about the taxidermist who prepared it. However, an examination of the specimen indicated that it was likely a nineteenth century mount, prepared using the binding method.

The specimen suffered from a number of structural and aesthetic issues. The treatment of many of these condition issues is detailed in a poster titled, “Strategies for the Conservation and Storage of Taxidermy:  Flying Squirrel Case Study” that was prepared for the SPNHC 2017 annual meeting in June 2017. Access the poster here:

SPNHC_2017_Squirrel Poster_Logan Kursh

The poster did not address the restoration of the squirrel’s snout, however, so that work is explained below.

Skin on the face and around the squirrel’s snout is thin and delicate. Like all skin in taxidermy, this hairless skin dried out and discolored after death. Taxidermists typically address this with the use of “finishing materials” such as wax and paint to add vitality. The finishing materials degrade over time, giving the specimen an unnatural appearance.

flying squirrel before treatment

Flying squirrel before treatment. Note the desiccated deformed nose. ©AMNH /L. Kursh

In the case of the squirrel, the nose appeared flat and desiccated. The skin had discolored, and there appeared to be some local fur loss. Examination of other giant red flying squirrels in our collection and reference images of squirrels in life confirmed that the specimen’s appearance was not an accurate reflection of the species in life. With the approval of the Mammalogy Department, we decided to craft a reversible overlay for the squirrel’s snout from reference images using well-understood conservation materials.

The nose and upper lips of the specimen were restored using an overlay made from Paraloid F-10 bulked with glass microballoons. Paraloid F-10 is a thermoplastic acrylic resin. It was chosen for this application because it adheres well to wax and has known ageing properties. The Paraloid F-10 mixture was spread onto a piece of silicone-release Mylar and toned slightly with dry pigment, then shaped with a microspatula based on reference images. The overlay was allowed to dry for several hours and reshaped as it slumped.

flying squirrel during treatment

Flying squirrel during treatment. The white fill material has been applied on top of the original surface and shaped to reconstruct the nose. ©AMNH /L. Kursh

To ensure complete reversibility, the overlay was attached to the specimen over a barrier layer of Paraloid B72 in acetone. Paraloid B72 is a stable thermoplastic acrylic resin and is a common art conservation adhesive in many different applications. Minor adjustments to the shape of the overlay were made, and the overlay was allowed to dry overnight. Once dry, further adjustments to the shape were made with a scalpel in consultation with expertise from the Mammalogy Department.

flying squirrel during treatment

Flying squirrel during treatment. The nose has been reconstructed and the white fill material toned brown with paint. The next step is to add hairs to integrate the fill with surrounding areas. ©AMNH /L. Kursh

flying squirrel during treatment

Flying squirrel during the final treatment step – the addition of hair on the toned fill of the nose. ©AMNH /L. Kursh

The overlay was toned with acrylic paint based on available references. Rabbit fur was flocked onto the overlay with Lascaux 498HV. Lascaux 498HV is a thermoplastic acrylic resin that dries flexible and is reversible with heat.

After treatment the squirrel’s nose appears more life-like and integrates with surrounding features.

flying squirrel after treatment

Flying squirrel after treatment. Note the reconstructed nose. ©AMNH /L. Kursh

For details about other aspects of the treatment of this specimen, be sure to check out the SPNHC poster. SPNHC_2017_Squirrel Poster_Logan Kursh

Case Study: Lemur Mount Treatment Part 2: Treatment

Before Treatment of lemur.

Before treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

In addition to thorough condition examination and photographic documentation, conservation treatment decisions should begin with a clear proposal to be approved by Collections Managers, Curators, or other stakeholders prior to beginning hands-on work. Caitlin submitted the following treatment proposal to the Mammalogy Department for the treatment of the lemur mount. 

Treatment Proposal

  1. Use a HEPA-filtered variable-suction vacuum fitted with micro-attachments to remove dust from the specimen.
  2. Use wet cleaning solution to remove or reduce other surface accretions, as needed after vacuuming.
  3. Attach the detached proper left (PL) ear using an appropriate adhesive system.
  4. Inpaint the repair to visually integrate it with the mount.
  5. Attach the detached PL hand using an adhesive system, with a pin if necessary.
  6. Create fills for the fur losses using compatible materials.
  7. Inpaint and/or fill losses and deformations on the nose and face.

Once the treatment proposal was approved, she carried out the conservation treatment and recorded each step (described below). The reports and photographs generated during conservation treatments are archived in the Museum for future reference for conservators, researchers, and department staff. 

Treatment Record

Treatment began with surface cleaning the specimen overall using a variable speed HEPA vacuum at a low setting with micro attachments and an eyebrow comb.

In the process, hairs around the seam matted with a dark brown/yellow accretion  were exposed. Solvent tests were conducted using cotton swabs dampened with three cleaning solutions: a 1:1 mixture of deionized (DI) water and ethanol; mineral spirits; and a 1% solution of Surfynol 61 dissolved into a 1:1 mixture of DI water and ethanol. Although each solvent removed some of the brown/yellow accretion, mineral spirits was most effective. The accretion removal process began by placing small triangles of cotton blotter paper under the hairs. We then brushed mineral spirits onto the accretion. The blotter paper served to absorb the solvent and the loosened accretion. The white blotter paper also acted as a visual guide to ensure that the hairs were sufficiently cleaned of the dark accretion before moving to the next section. Once the hair was cleaned and dry, the specimen was gently groomed using an eyebrow comb.

during treatment lemur

During treatment of the lemur taxidermy mount. Note the right side of the torso has been cleaned and groomed, while the left side has not. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

Next we humidified the proper left (PL) ear and the detached fragment because both of them were desiccated and curled inward. The humidification was done using a small vapor chamber created from in a layer of Gore-Tex (a semi-permeable membrane that allows vapor through, but not water), a piece of blotter paper dampened with DI water, and a thin polyethylene bag. The Gore-Tex barrier was laid over the skin and the dampened blotter was secured on top of the Gore-Tex using a hair clip. A polyethylene bag was then placed on top of both layers to seal them into a chamber. The skin was checked approximately every 15 minutes for the duration of one hour until it was relaxed and pliable enough to be re-formed. The humidified skin was re-shaped and allowed to dry in proper alignment with the help of a rigid piece of dry blotter paper.

during treatment lemur

During humidification of the broken proper left hand of a taxidermy lemur. The humidification allows the skin to realign for reattachment of the hand. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

during treatment lemur

During treatment of the taxidermy lemur. Detached proper left hand in a water vapor humidification chamber to align the edges for reattachment. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

To reattach the ear fragment we used BEVA 371 film. Small strips of film were tucked between the layers of the epidermis on both the fragment and attached ear. The film was then warmed using a variable heat spatula, which set the adhesive. To protect the skin from direct heat contact, silicone release Mylar was used as an interleave.

Reattachment of the PL hand required use of Japanese tissue paper lining impregnated with BEVA 371. A bamboo skewer bent at a 45° angle was used to help apply pressure to the tissue while applying the heat spatula to the opposite side.

Losses on the repaired hand were filled using a small piece of coyote hide with bleached and toned fur. Faber Castell Pitt artist pens were used for toning, and excess ink was removed with blotter paper. The fill was adhered with BEVA 371 film.

after treatment lemur

After treatment photos of lemur. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

To restore the damaged nose, we sculpted a reconstruction using Paraloid F-10 heavily bulked with glass microballoons. The bulked resin was cast out onto a sheet of silicone release Mylar into the desired shape and thickness. After two days the bulked resin was pliable, but not sticky, and could be shaped without slumping. The reconstruction was formed to fit on top of the existing damaged nose. Once hard, it was smoothed using micromesh and toned with Golden acrylic paint. It it held in position by friction, and can easily be lifted/removed with a microspatula or bamboo skewer.

after treatment lemur taxidermy mount

After treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

Finally, we constructed a new storage mount for the specimen. The specimen was previously stored in an upright position with an L-shaped storage base. This orientation was optimum for the the specimen, as it placed the least amount of stress on the specimen and posed the least risk to the disruption of the hair, but the limited space in collection storage required a different solution. After confirming that the habitat base could be altered in a non-visible way, we drilled two small holes into the display branch, inserted brass rods, and positioned the rods into a plywood base, elevating the specimen slightly above the board. An ethafoam block supports the proper right hand of the specimen and branch. The new storage solution allows the specimen to be stored horizontally, while protecting the fur from being crushed.


Case Study: Lemur Mount Treatment Part 1: Condition Examination

In addition to testing the stability of metal-complex dyes, we have been studying condition issues facing historic taxidermy collections (see our previous posts on the Mammalogy condition survey) and performing conservation treatments on selected specimens. These treatments stabilized important mounts and served as case studies for a workshop on the Care of Historic Mammalian Taxidermy at the 2017 Denver meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC).

Before Treatment of lemur.

Before treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

In one of these Case Studies, project intern Caitlin Richeson treated a damaged red-fronted brown lemur (Eulemur rufus) taxidermy mount. Its catalog number suggests that it was acquired soon after the Museum was formed in the late 19th century. This post and the next one will provide some of the details of that treatment.

All conservation treatments should begin with thorough documentation: an object description, condition examination, and photography. Caitlin’s project provides a good example of what that documentation may look like for a piece of taxidermy.

Object Identification: A full-body taxidermy mount of a female red-dronted lemur (Eulemur rufus) mounted on a habitat base constructed from a tree branch.


The specimen is constructed around a composite manikin that is visible in several locations due to previous damages. The manikin is composed of wood wool (thin wood shavings traditionally made of poplar, pine, or spruce) bound to recreate the musculature form of the specimen; cotton batting used to bulk appendages such as the hands; and a metal armature used to provide rigid structural support. Appendages such as the hands and feet still contain original skeletal materials. The nose, snout, and eyelids are shaped from a soft black material, likely a pigmented wax.

The specimen is attached to the base with ferrous metal wires at three points: the proper right palm, the proper right foot, and the proper left foot. The wires penetrate the palm and feet of the specimen as well as the habitat base where they have been secured to the base by bending at a 90-degree angle.  The specimen is mounted in a standing position gripping the habitat base with the proper right (PR) hand and both feet.

There is a paper specimen label tied to the proper right ankle, which contains taxonomic information in two separate campaigns of writing. There is also a metal plate attached to the habitat base located on the front of the branch.  The plate is inscribed with the catalogue number and attached to the branch with two tacks. There is another metal tag tied with a thin metal wire around the PR wrist of the specimen, also stamped with the catalog number.

The specimen is in fair condition. It is structurally stable; however, there are two detached elements, several areas of fur loss, tears and cracks/splits in the hide, which contribute to the overall instability of the specimen. In addition, the specimen is covered in a layer of light grey dust and grime.


  • A portion of the proper left (PL) hand is detached from the specimen. The detached hand consists of the hide and four digits, but excludes the thumb, which remains attached to the specimen. The detached hand has several cracks/splits in the hide and a large loss on the palm side, exposing the interior construction. The PL ear of the specimen is also detached and there are small areas of unrecovered loss.

Before Treatment of lemur detached proper left hand.

Before Treatment of lemur detached proper left hand.

Before treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. Proper left detached hand. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

  • On the lower back at both the PR and PL sides there several moderately large stable tears in the skin of the lower torso, which expose the wood wool manikin below. There is also a minor split located at the PR side of the vent. Although the skin is slightly out of plane, it remains somewhat pliable and can be pressed back into place with gentle pressure.
  • There is a small circular area of abrasion on the back of the PR hand.

Finishing Materials:

  • The material used to finish the nose of the specimen has sustained localized losses and a dent on the PL side. The eyelids, which are made from the same finishing material, have also been deformed.
    Before Treatment of lemur. Detail of nose with missing wax.

    Before treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. Note the loss of finishing material on the nose and the loss of skin on the ear. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

    Before Treatment of lemur. Detail of nose with missing wax.

    Before treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. Note the loss of finishing material on the nose. ©AMNH /C. Richeson


  • The fur of the specimen has discolored to a light yellow-brown color, having lost its natural variation in red, brown, and black colors that are representative of the species.
  • There are several areas of fur loss located on the mount. The first is a a substantial loss of fur on the chin and underside of the snout. This species is identifiable by its characteristic “beard”, and thus the fur loss in this area detracts from the accurate representation of the species. There are also small losses associated with the detached PL hand and at the coccyx.
  • There are also beige accretions on the fur, primarily located along the seam at the center of the torso, and an overall layer of moderate dust accumulation on the fur.

Display Base (branch):

  • The specimen is well-secured to the tree branch habitat base, which appears to be in good condition. When examined in ultraviolet light, the base fluoresced a milky yellow/green color, and appears to have been coated.

After completing this type of photographic and written documentation, the conservator then submits a proposed treatment to the Collections Manager and/or Curator for approval. Follow along with the progress of this treatment in the next post.



Surveying Historic Taxidermy Part 3: Results

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

649_3_detail of crack_split on tail

Split in the hide at the base of a specimen’s tail.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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.

Akeley elephants_dust slide_1

Dust accumulation on a glass slide that was placed in a museum public hall for one year.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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.

650_2_detail of broken foot

Detached toes that may have occurred during the de-installation of this specimen. Detached pieces are stored in the same location as the specimen until they can be repaired/conserved.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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.

fading example

Specimens of the same species – on the left, the taxidermy examples that were on display for a number of years and exhibit fading of the fur from light exposure. The unexposed unfaded (darker) study skins line the right side of the drawer.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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.


Squirrel specimen that has lost the nut previously displayed in its mouth. Note also the area of loss of foliage on the display base (yellow area).  AMNH/F. Ritchie

Future Work


Project Conservator treating loose hide on a moose mount.  AMNH/J. Sybalsky

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.




Surveying Historic Taxidermy Part 2: Fun Finds

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).

hutia mummy

Hutia “mummy” that appears to be in a lifelike pose, but further inspection reveals that there is no internal armature and no glass eyes. This specimen therefore was not considered taxidermy.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

rat drawer2_1

Rodent drawer of study skins that have glass eyes, but not articulated poses, and therefore are not considered taxidermy.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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.


Bat specimen mounted to an external thick glass plate. Note the glass eyes and articulated mouth.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

The glass plates provided a way to support the wings while on display.

810_3_detail of back of glass to show paint

The verso of a bat specimen mounted to an external glass plate.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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.

743_2_detail of split ear with earliner

Splitting skin around a rigid ear liner.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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.


Waxy green (most likely copper (II) stearate) corrosion on the pins that hold small fingers into place on a display branch. Red arrows indicate areas of corrosion.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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.

735_3_detail of crack in eye

A crack in the glass eye of a specimen.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

860_3_detail of cloudy eyes

White accretions covering the glass eyes of a specimen, possibly glass disease.  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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.


Image  AMNH/F. Ritchie

The largest mount was an elephant seal that is so large it must be stored in the Museum’s special large species room.


Image  AMNH/F. Ritchie

The smallest taxidermy specimen was a harvest mouse.


Image  AMNH/F. Ritchie

The most unexpected specimen (for a North American conservator) was a platypus.


Image  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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).


Image  AMNH/F. Ritchie

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?


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.


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

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

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.