Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

SI Research Notes: Taxidermy

Best Taxidermy EVER! by woodenmask.

Lifelike taxidermied animals in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Courtesy of Flickr user Woodenmask

The secret to a lifelike taxidermy mount is finding just the right supporting structure and parts—from the perfect eyeball to an accurate head shape. A selection of commercially available glass and plastic eyes, ears, and tongues, represent just a few of the products that taxidermists use to create mounts. However, some needed items just are not commercially available. Exhibiting taxidermy mounts can involve sculpting foam and clay, casting heads and hands, toes and tongues, tanning hides, shampooing and dyeing hair, sewing thousands of tiny stitches, painting feet and beaks, and many more transformational tasks.

For example, primates are rarely mounted, so when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History wanted to exhibit an orangutan in its Hall of Mammals, the taxidermy team members needed to build all the supporting forms themselves—a huge collaborative effort that resulted in one of the most striking specimens in the Hall. Each body part was carved from foam based on measurements taken from the animal carcass.

The parts were glued together and then altered with foam to create a lifelike body shape that fit the skin. The skin was tanned and then tested several times on the form to be sure it fit perfectly. A death mask of auto body filler was made, recording the distinctive facial features of the specific orangutan in question. From that, SI taxidermists built the facial structure of clay, using the death mask and other measurements as references. A small, preliminary model, or maquette, was sculpted of clay to help the team envision the pose in three dimensions and plan the life-size model. Days were devoted to sculpting the body and head, the hair was prepared, and the finished mount was placed on display along with a white rhino donated by former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 in addition to 272 other mammal specimens.

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