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!


Specimen

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”]

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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).

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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
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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
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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.