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.

taxi_mount

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.

taxi_mount1

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.”]

manikin

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

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.

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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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Renovation of the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, Part I: What is a habitat diorama?

In 2011-12, the American Museum of Natural History undertook an ambitious program of renovation to the 45 habitat dioramas in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals.  It was important that the unique features of each diorama be preserved throughout the renovation project, which played a role in deciding what kind of materials could be used for recoloring the faded taxidermy. This post summarizes how the dioramas were constructed – full details on the creation and significance of the Museum’s dioramas are beautifully illustrated in Stephen Quinn’s, Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History.

Some of the earliest collections at the Museum were taxidermy, and the evolution of the diorama was a natural development in the tradition of using art to teach science. Within the museum, dioramas were created to promote the awareness of wildlife and so-called ‘primitive cultures’ as finite. They were also used to stir concern for the populations and habitats that were threatened by unregulated development and hunting. Fusing art and science, these habitat dioramas depict specific locations and exhibit anatomically correct mounted specimens in their natural habitat.

The wolf diorama in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals ©AMNH/D.Finnin

The original creation of the dioramas was a group effort, combining the skills of artists and scientists to illustrate the complex relationships between animals and their environment. Along with the Museum’s curators, they conducted extensive research, visiting each site to draw reference sketches, take photographs, and collect specimens for exhibit. Once back at the museum, every detail of the scene was painstakingly recreated. Careful positioning of specific lighting combinations illuminated the background paintings to create a particular season and time of day in the depicted location, with naturally posed taxidermy among site-specific plants and foreground materials.

 Fred Scherer and James Perry Wilson painting the background of the bison and pronghorn diorama, while George Mason installs grass in the foreground. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature) ©AMNH/Library 296655


Fred Scherer and James Perry Wilson paint the background of the bison and pronghorn diorama, while George Mason installs grass in the foreground. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature)
©AMNH/Library 296655

The dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History are the ultimate mixed-media artifact.  They are made of three main elements: a background painting, foreground materials, and mounted taxidermy specimens. The partial dome-shaped enclosure is created using vertical angle-iron beams and heavy wire mesh. This framework supports layers of plaster, onto which the canvas background painting is attached using a white lead and oil mixture as adhesive. Access to the dioramas is difficult and can only be achieved by removing the front panes of glass or, in some cases, is attained by narrow ladders on the interior extending from the light box to the diorama floor.

The background paintings in the habitat dioramas were examples of the highest form of wildlife artistry in their day, and many consider those in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals to be the most accomplished of their kind. The curved background painting is essential to the overall illusion of space, distance and environment.  It draws on Renaissance techniques such as under-painting, plotting perspective and transferring images with grids. Painters of note included James Perry Wilson, Frances Lee Jaques and Charles S. Chapman. Wilson described his diorama work as “art to conceal art’, in other words, art intended to imitate nature so closely that the artist’s role is not visible (Quinn, 2006).

 James Perry Wilson field sketching at Devil's Tower, Wyoming (1942) ©AMNH/Library


James Perry Wilson field sketching at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming (1942)
©AMNH/Library

The floor of the diorama was built up to the needed height with an underlying structure of wooden beams, over which wire screening was formed to create the desired topography. Features of the landscape were constructed over the wire screening with a mixture composed of plaster, dextrin, whiting, and asbestos fibers.  Plant materials were generally made from painted cotton or paper, sometimes flocked or modeled with wax.

 George Mason laying down wire mesh over the wood structure to create the ground terrain in the bison and pronghorn antelope diorama, 1942. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature) ©AMNH/Library


George Mason laying down wire mesh over the wood structure to create the ground terrain in the bison and pronghorn antelope diorama, 1942. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature)
©AMNH/Library

Broad leaves were made from vacu-formed acetate sheet. Snow was created using combinations of plaster, sand, cotton batting and plastics.  A limited number of real botanical specimens, such as grasses, evergreen branches, mosses, and leaves for ground litter, were collected, sometimes chemically treated with preservatives, and then installed. The mammal specimens were mounted in the museum following procedures developed by Carl Akeley in earlier decades, details of which are also discussed in Windows on Nature (Quinn, 2006). The larger taxidermy specimens are mounted into the diorama floors, and thus cannot be removed for treatment.  Many of the smaller specimens, however, are able to be removed.

 The plant-making process for dogwood flower production, 1933. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature) ©AMNH/Library


The plant-making process for dogwood flower production, 1933. (S.Quinn, Windows on Nature)
©AMNH/Library

A large glass panel serves as the front face of the diorama, and is angled slightly to prevent reflection.  A separated light box with fixtures for interior illumination is located above the enclosure. The original lighting scheme from the early 1940’s is known to have included large theatrical lights.  Lighting revisions shortly thereafter, in the 1950s, resulted in a combination of fluorescent and incandescent fixtures.  This scenario caused a number of unsurprising problems.  Temperature inside the dioramas was elevated, often reaching the high 80’s °F.  The relative humidity was low, with daily and seasonal fluctuations.  Light levels were far higher than is recommended for museum collections and, until recently, lamps were not screened for ultraviolet emissions.  These conditions resulted in deterioration, desiccation, and fading of most exhibit materials.

 Lighting technician Arthur Scharf adjust lights in the Timberline group diorama in the Hall of North American Forests, 1954. ©AMNH/Library 323121


Lighting technician Arthur Scharf adjust lights in the Timberline group diorama in the Hall of North American Forests, 1954.
©AMNH/Library 323121

Informed by a 2003 conservation survey of the dioramas in the Museum’s Akeley Hall of African Mammals undertaken at the museum, testing had demonstrated that it was possible to reduce heat and light levels inside the dioramas while maintaining the desired visual appearance through the use of energy-efficient lamps.

In 2010, as a result of the American Museum’s participation in a citywide effort to decrease energy consumption, funding was provided to replace the diorama lights with more energy-efficient fixtures. The goal of the re-lamping project was to achieve a 50% reduction in electric power consumption. Retrofit fixtures were researched and chosen by an outside lighting design firm to reproduce the visual appearance of the original design, using a combination of energy efficient fluorescent bulbs for indirect lighting and LED flood lights and metal halide spot fixtures as accent lights.  All new lighting fixtures are filtered for UV emissions.

The re-lamping project provided the impetus for a broader renovation of the Hall of North American Mammals.  The renovation team began to explore possible methods of restoring naturalistic color to specimens that had become faded and desiccated in the previous damaging lighting environment in hopes of extending their exhibit life.

Just as the dioramas’ fabrication was necessarily achieved through collaboration, this conservation effort also involved a diverse team of participants, including curators, objects and paintings conservators, exhibition department staff, outside scientists, and a master taxidermist.

The next post will examine the many factors that influenced how we decided what recoloring materials to research and test.

 

Introducing the Recoloring Taxidermy Research Project

In 2013, the American Museum of Natural History and Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage and the Peabody Museum of Natural History were awarded an Institute for Museum and Library Services‘ (IMLS) National Leadership Grant to fund a three-year project devoted to the development of best practices for recoloring faded mammal taxidermy mounts, especially those in habitat dioramas: Recoloring Faded Taxidermy: Research into the Properties and Applicability of Dye Materials for Conservation Treatment.

After years of display under bright lights, and harsh temperatures and humidity, many taxidermy mounts have become discolored and faded. Techniques for restoring the lost colors of damaged natural history collections are limited and under-researched. This knowledge gap puts at risk collections of great educational value, especially as some historical specimens represent species that are endangered, if not already extinct.

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The project conservators are interested in developing re-coloring methods that would minimally alter the texture or sheen of hair and fur, and could be as reversible or re-treatable as possible.

This research will foster cross-disciplinary partnerships between conservators and scientists with varying forms of expertise, helping to bridge the institutional gap between natural history, art, and history museums and collections.

The IMLS-funded project will build upon promising results from a pilot study conducted by the Museum into the use of certain dyes, such as those used in certain specialized printing inks, to recolor taxidermy hair and fur. The next few posts will present the results of the restoration project that resulted in the dramatic restoration of the faded specimens in the habitat dioramas in the Museum’s Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals.

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The findings from the study, which the Museum conservators presented at 2012 annual meetings of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) and the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and published in the October 2012 International Committee of Museum, Natural History Collections Working Group Newsletter, were received with immense interest by practitioners and researchers alike. Together with results from a national survey among conservation professionals, it was evident that there was a strong need for comprehensive research to explore additional materials and discover an appropriate method for recoloring faded taxidermy in museum collections.