The Art and Science of Taxidermy

Video | Updated 8 months ago

Kirsten Tullis, Senior Preparator, WA Museum
Presented as part of the In the Wild West Lecture Series in 2012.

What happens in a taxidermist’s workroom? Kirsten shares her techniques and processes for the mounting of bird and mammal skins as well as the preparation of moulds, casts, and models to recreate animals from reptiles to jellyfish.

Transcript

Well welcome to the WA Museum and my talk. I’m so pleased to see so many people here. I’d like to start off with a little bit of a joke, so a little cartoon. So what today I’ll be talking about is mainly bird taxidermy and a little bit of mammal taxidermy and the moulding and casting of animals, and also plants as well, and fungi.

I’ve been at the museum for a bit over 30 years now and as Jessica said, I began as a volunteer. There are other people in the museum who do some of the similar sorts of work that I do, including one taxidermist who works in the research area. So those people prepare specimens for the scientific collection, whereas my work is mainly to prepare the specimens for exhibitions.

As you can see here, it’s a wide range of things from traditional taxidermy through to reptiles and even jellyfish which is this one up there that you can see, which wasn’t prepared by me, but it just shows you the range of things that we do. I’m the only  Preparator in our department, the Exhibition and Design department, but occasionally, we do have people come along and work alongside us.

So the museum taxidermist has a really interesting job and I’ll just explain the difference between a taxidermist and a preparator. ‘Preparator’ is a more encompassing term because ‘taxidermy’ basically is for animals that have skins and fur and feathers, whereas preparator encompasses all of the range of tasks that we do. So we do taxidermy. We do moulding, casting and biological model making and then I do other installation work, helping to put exhibitions up and take them down.

Now what is taxidermy? Well, it’s the art and science of mounting an animal skin along with its fur, feathers and scales, and mounting it so that it looks lifelike. The history of taxidermy – probably the earliest known taxidermy would be around the mid 1500s, around about that time when people used to prepare bird specimens so artists could paint them, and before then some animals were prepared and to go out as decoys for when people went hunting to trick the real birds.

Around about 150 years ago as we know modern taxidermy began. The techniques back then were not terribly good and I’ll show you. I’ll give you some examples of that. Then towards the end of the 1800s a man called Carl Akeley from America developed some modelling techniques. So he actually sculpted the animal, a model of the animal that the skin was fitted over, and again I’ll be talking a little bit about that.

Big Bill is our bison who’s up in the mammal gallery. He arrived in 1899 and he’s one of the museum icons. He’s an absolutely superb specimen and done in the traditional modern technique. Even though he’s over 100 years ago, it was that long ago that really good taxidermy was being done. He came to us along with a whole lot of other animals and we paid 30 pounds for the whole lot - it was probably a lot back then – and he was also a lot bigger than we’d ordered. It was too much hassle to send him back, so we were able to keep him.

Now, you can see there’s some old specimens that we have. There’s a bird up there, a King Parrot and this little animal here which is an Ermine, and the picture shows some of the very old specimens that the museum has. These ones used to be upstairs in the Land and People exhibit, but they’ve been taken out to the proper storage areas in Welshpool, and you can see they’re a little bit faded, but you can still tell what they are. So why have they lasted so long?

Well they were carefully prepared in the first place, treated with arsenic and kept under museum conditions, and despite the dangers of arsenic, taxidermists can live a long time. Otto Lipfert was the museum’s first taxidermist and he was here for 48 years and he died at the age of 78. There’s a lot of his work in the museum which you’ll be able to see. Unfortunately we haven’t put his name to it, but it’s quite possible that he – well he didn’t do that because that came from England, but he may have prepared that faded red bird over there. He was also a collector. He used to go out into the field and collect specimens to bring back to the museum.

Now I’m going to talk a little bit about some recent taxidermy, mainly focusing on bird taxidermy, and I’m going to show you with images how we start off with a dead bird and make it into a museum quality mount. So this is a Tawny Frogmouth and on the right, the bird is up in the Discovery Centre. So I’d like to acknowledge Kathy High for taking the photographs and Lisa Brumby and Isa Loo who helped me prepare these birds.

So the first thing you do is you take your animal out of the freezer - because most of ours are kept in the freezer - and you defrost it. But you need to get to know your bird first and work out what sort of pose you’re going to have it in. So I gather together a lot of photographs. Google Images is wonderful and I keep a file of those. Knowing the bird in the wild is very useful so that you can get to know their behaviour, how they move and how they look. Taking a few notes before you start, a few line drawings is very important and then you can refer to those later.

So the first thing to do is start with an incision. So most of the time you’d start at the top of the – or near the neck and right down to the vent and you separate the skin and keep working it back until you can remove the body. It will mean having to use scalpels. Sometimes we use gloves like if the bird is quite smelly. Seabirds can be like that. You can see that the skin has been – that’s the body in there and the skin’s been separated. The tail’s been cut off. So have the legs at the knees, and now the next stage is to work that back. The neck there’s been skinned out. The head’s tucked away inside the skin which has been pulled inside out, and the body is there. Now it’s ready to cut away from the neck which is there, and you can see there, that’s where the wing bones were attached to the body.

We also have to remove the eyes because obviously they’re not going to last. So you have to replace them with glass eyes. So it’s mainly just hooking behind and cutting it out. It sounds very gruesome, but it has to be done, and also the brains have to be cleaned out.

You can see here that we’re washing the skull, making sure all the tissues are out. There’s a lot of tissue that’s very firmly attached to around the head and that’s quite difficult to remove, but it’s important to get rid of all of that meat, or as much as you can, but most importantly, to get rid of all the fat that’s on the inside of the skin. Some birds can be quite fatty. If you don’t do that, the fat will go rancid and migrate to the outside of the bird and spoil the feathers. So this is just being washed in water.

What we like to do is wash our bird skins just with a little bit of detergent in water, thoroughly wash it out and thoroughly rinse it so that there’s no detergent left. We need to dry it next and you can sort of drip dry them a bit and then used compressed air, but that takes a long time to dry. So we put it into a bath of acetone which is a solvent and that displaces the water, making it much easier to dry and much quicker, and it also removes any of the excess fat that might be in the feathers.

In the meantime you’re making an artificial body. You can see here’s one for a Tawny Frogmouth and that’s made from plumber’s hemp. So you just tease it apart so that it’s nice and fluffy and then according to the proportions that you need, you wrap it with cotton and just keep building it up and adding more and more bits until you get the right size and shape. If you have a very large specimen you can use the wood wool. So damp that in water and squash it down and that provides a core over which you build the plumber’s hemp.

Now, to a Frogmouth. This skin’s been thoroughly cleaned out. You can see that’s the leg bone there and that’s the other leg and that’s the inside of the skin there which is all cleaned. There’s an example here of one that was cleaned out long ago. You can actually see where the fat has gone rancid and it’s changed the colour of the bones. So this is the leg turned inside out. That’s the wing bone. So it’s just showing all the meat’s been cleaned out. All the meat’s been cleaned away from the bones, and there is some white powder on there which is borax powder. We use that in the skinning process and also as a mild preservative. It is a hazardous product. So sometimes we use corn grit when we’re skinning that and that soaks up some of the fluids.

You can see here that’s the inside of the skull and because you’ve taken some meat away, you’ve got to replace that, otherwise the outside of the bird is going to all look shrunken. So we use a paper mache which is pulverised newspaper with dextrin glue and whiting powder, and it makes a lovely mache that you can fill holes with and also the eye sockets. You can see here that that’s the leg wire going on the inside of the bird’s leg because you need to be able to put it up onto a perch.

For birds that have got big heads relative to their necks, you can’t peel the head inside out because the head is too big. So in this case, like with the Tawny Frogmouth, you have to make an incision down the back of the head and peel back the skin so that you can get to the inside of the skull, and of course that needs sewing up. So that’s just showing the sewing up of the skin.

This is showing the bird having its - leg muscles replaced. So, the leg wire has been put up inside the leg and tied to the bone. So this is basically this part of the leg – sorry, this part of the leg. So again we’re using plumber’s hemp to replace that muscle that you took away.

Now what we’re doing here is marking where those leg wires are poked into the bird body. As a general rule, it’s basically in the middle of the bird there. That’s where the knee is. So that’s the thigh there and the knee comes down like that. You can see again that the leg wires are in place and those muscles have been replaced with the plumber’s hemp. So now we’re just about ready to put the body inside the bird and I unfortunately don’t have any photos of that.

So the body’s just put inside, the wire from the neck comes out, is poked through the inside of the head, and it comes out the top of the skull. That wire and the neck supports the head and the neck.

We also do a little bit of final air drying to fluff up all the feathers. Now, the next thing is to find yourself a perch and there’s a nice one there, and refer to your photographs and your memory as to how that bird is going to look on the perch. So the bird has got its artificial body in place, it’s been sewn up, the leg wires are there ready to go into the holes that you’re about to drill, and they’ve got to be parallel as well.

So here Isa is arranging the bird on the perch and you can see it doesn’t have any eyes yet. So that’s just cotton wool, and we like to keep the skin nice and damp so that it doesn’t dry out as you’re working. This is the most challenging part,  arranging it so that it looks life like.

So there’s a bit more wing positioning. We use pins to pin everything into place and on the right there you can see that the eye socket’s being filled up with mache, and the eyes are being put in. Now we use glass eyes from America. Sometimes we don’t have the right colour, but we do have some blank eyes which are clear and you paint a piece of paper with acrylic paint and glue the eye onto that paper with silicone rubber, and that’s what’s happened to these eyes, and they last very well. So you just pop them inside.

It’s very important not to get any mache on the feathers around the eyes because it messes them up, and we use a pin just to very carefully arrange the eyelid in the correct position.

A bit more final finishing off, making sure that the wings are evenly placed. You can see that there are some wires holding everything into place, and also a thread’s been very gently wrapped around the bird, and that holds the feathers down, because if you don’t do that, in the drying process which might take a week or so, those feathers, if they lift up, they’re going to stay in that position. So you have to be neat at all times. You can see that this tail has also been held together with some paper and pins.

This just shows all the different components. You can see the bird’s just there. It shows where the neck wire’s coming out and supporting the head and the neck. The bill – we tie the beak together as well. It’s got pins to hold the toes in place. Before we do that, we inject the legs with formaldehyde and arsenic. So we do use a little bit of arsenic. The formaldehyde pumps up the tissues and fixes them in position, otherwise they look shrivelled, and the arsenic is just there as a precaution against insects that tend to like eating the feet. Otherwise, the museum does have good pest management too. So it’s very important that that’s always maintained so that we don’t have insects because they do come into a museum.

You can see there are wires that pin the wings and there’s a bit of cotton wool under there to hold the tail up, the feathers up, and there some cards there on the feathers of the tail to hold that together as well.

Now, I’m going to talk briefly about mammal taxidermy. I haven’t done a lot of mammal taxidermy - my speciality is in doing birds - and I certainly haven’t done any large mammal taxidermy.

So, how it used to be done. We’re talking maybe 150 years ago. They’d just skin the animal, stuff it with straw or sawdust, sew it up and then sometimes they’d upholster it with big, long needles and thread and they’d pull it in to tweak everything into place, trying to get those muscles right, and they even used to beat them with planks of wood to get them into shape.

This is a wonderful example of a really old specimen, 300 years old, and it’s possibly the oldest mounted mammal known. It’s in a Denmark museum and it was owned and killed by King Frederick IV. It’s a stag and you can tell it’s a stag, but it doesn’t quite look right, does it? It looks like a sausage with a head on it. They have done an X-Ray of it and you can see how it was supported inside with the steel – well I presume that’s steel – and there’s lots of pins holding everything into place. So compare that to a modern day, a beautiful mount, and this is in the Museum of Natural History in New York which is a fantastic museum. They’ve got the most wonderful specimens and dioramas on display. This one was mounted in 1943 using the techniques that I’m about to describe now.

Now we’ve got to thank Carl Akeley for this work. Carl was a magnificent taxidermist and he’s known as the father of modern taxidermy, and he became a taxidermist at 13. He worked in the Milwaukee Public Museum learning taxidermy and he thought “There must be a better way.” Some people had already started modelling the bodies to make sure that the muscles were correct, so he developed those techniques and he also created the first museum habitat diorama which I think were some – I’ve forgotten what they were – some small animals. (these were muskrats)

So he led a really exciting life. He used to go to Africa with the teams of museum people where they would go and they’d sit and set up an easel and they’d paint the scenery that they were going to use back at the museum. They’d go and collect animals which meant having to shoot them and skin them and prepare them. They’d collect all the foliage, and Carl nearly died twice. Once from a rampaging elephant. So you can see here he’s recuperating in his tent in Africa, and you can see he got quite badly mauled. That photo there shows just after he was attacked by a cheetah (it was actually a leopard) that he killed by forcing his left hand down it’s throat until it suffocated. I can’t claim to have any exciting things other than being bitten on the hand by one of the boa constrictors that we used to keep in the workshop some years ago.

So, the Akeley Method is recreating the body of an animal so that it’s got all its right muscles and proportions. The best way to do that, to start that, is to use the real skeleton because it’s got all the correct proportions. So the skeleton would be cleaned off and it would be supported by pieces of steel, and then over the top of that, maybe some chicken wire would be put over the skeleton and then built up with clay, just normal modelling clay.

So you can see here that the muscles have been built up so that it’s scientifically accurate. Mammals are a lot more difficult to do than birds because their muscles do tend to show through from the inside to the outside whereas a bird, it’s got long feathers that cover everything up. But it’s very important with mammals to have that accuracy. The head too, also a very useful thing to do is to make a death mask of an animal so that you’ve got a three dimensional reference of the animal to work from when you're finishing it off, and this is a cat.

So, the skull too is replaced by something soft that you can push pins into, because you need to arrange all the facial features, the eyes, by pushing pins through the skin and holding it all in place. If you don’t do that, then the skin shrinks back.

I forgot to mention that behind there is the mould. So you don’t use that actual animal and fit the skin over it. You have to make a hollow cast of that. So the first thing you need to do is make a mould of that and then make a copy of that body in something hollow that you can fit the skin over. What they do now is they use polyurethane foam. So you can buy polyurethane foam forms for all sorts of animals, from America.

So this shows the copy of that original model with all its correct muscles. The head’s been prepared as well, you can see the eye sockets there, and it’s ready to receive the tanned skin. So here this guy is fitting the skin over, and that will all be sewn up. All the features will be rearranged and there would be modelling clay put inside the skin to fill all those features.

I’ll leave large mammal taxidermy. I won't talk much about small mammal taxidermy, other than to say that basically we use the same sort of technique here by using plumber’s hemp and wrapping a bird body. You can see here that they have – this is a balsa wood copy of the head because you need to push those pins in. You can see some glass eyes in place.

So now I’m going to talk about moulding, casting and model making which is the job that I enjoy doing most of all. We use an enormous range of products from silicone rubber, latex rubber, polyester resins, epoxies, a whole lot of different things and we’re always on the lookout for new products on the market to make our jobs better and make the results better.

So, on the left here, this is a very old latex mould of a fossil, a fossil shell. Latex is quite useful, but it will deteriorate over time, whereas if you have silicone rubber – that’s that product here – you can make many, many copies for a few years from one mould. So it’s a very useful product.

There you can see that we’re making a mould of a beaked whale that was washed up on the beach a few years ago. So that’s quite a big specimen, and that’s been laid in a bed of sand over which we’re pouring plaster, and you can see there that one side’s been done, ready to do the other side. Once both sides are moulded, then you separate the two halves, take the animal away and put the mould back and leave it aside for it to dry so that later you can make a copy of that.

We need to work with the scientists and the curators at the museum too, to make sure that our work is accurate and that’s especially important when you’re doing recreations of fossils. Like this is a Gogo Fish which lived 360 million years ago. It’s actually a lungfish and this funny little thing here is a sea squirt. You can see it’s just over there and that’s made from wax.

So, with fish and reptiles for instance, you’ve got the specimen there. Fish and reptiles you can do taxidermy on, but the results are not terribly good. So it’s much better to make a copy of that and the aim is to have a long-lasting specimen, and this is a fibreglass specimen here. So that will last years and years whereas if you tried to do the skin, then you’re going to get deterioration over time and shrinkage.

So what we need to do is make a mould and plaster is a very good product for fish, and here’s an example of a snapper that I completed for the Geraldton Museum because we do work for Geraldton. We have regional museums in Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Albany and Fremantle. So I do work across the whole museum.

This was done by using plaster, and I won't go through the whole process, but it’s basically a matter of putting your fish down into a bed of damp sand with just the top half exposed, cleaning it and pouring the first layer of plaster. When that’s set you turn it over, clean off all the sand, put turpentine around the edge as a separator for the next layer of plaster. When that’s set, you break the mould apart, take the fish out and put the mould back together. So you end up with a hollow mould that you leave to dry and then later fibreglass it. You can see that this snapper which was in the previous photograph, that’s the fibreglass copy of the fish and that’s the plaster being broken away. So we can only use those moulds once whereas silicone rubber you can use them multiple times.

We have to make moulds of the fins separately as well and they’re glued into place. The fish is cleaned up, given an undercoat and then painted with automotive paints and an airbrush.

This is an example of a turtle that I had to refurbish a few years ago. Again, that’s a fibreglass copy, probably made from a latex mould and it’s fun putting the finishing touches on and using – this is just cotton wool that’s been died with fabric dies and then just gluing that over the top.

If you’ve got soft-bodied animals like squid or jellyfish, it’s not easy to make a mould and a cast of that. So you need to make a model first. So plasticine is a very useful product and also wax.

This is an example of a polychaete worm and to make that one, I had to get some advice and alcohol specimens from the scientist to help me make an accurate model, and also refer to the photograph in this book, on the front of this book. So, you can’t make a model and then cast it unless you separate all the components. So you can see here that’s the main body of the animal with its little bristles and each of those bristles I had to take off and make a mould separately, and again I used silicone rubber. This is just showing part of the process on how I made the body. Those eyes, they’re just there for keys so that when you bring the two halves of the mould together, then they match. The pink is dental alginate which is the material that dentists use to make impressions of your teeth, and that’s quite useful in helping get a good surface over which you pour the silicone rubber because you can’t use the same process with fish where you use sand.

This is a nice example of a jellyfish which was made by Nikki King-Smith in 1982 and that used to be up in the Marine Gallery on the fifth floor in the Francis Street building which has since been dismantled. She probably made this one out of plasticine first and then made a silicone rubber mould, and again, each of the components were done separately. That’s made out of clear casting resin and it’s been painted with an airbrush and automotive paints.

On the left is a giant Eurypterid or scorpion and there’s a copy of one of those in Diamonds to Dinosaurs and there’s another one in the Geraldton Museum. When I made that, I basically copied it from a scientific paper. On the right there is a lungfish which you saw earlier, and again, referring to scientific papers and liaising with the scientists is essential when you’re making this recreations.

You’ve probably seen the dinosaur upstairs. That’s the biggest thing we’ve ever made. His name is Carnotaurus, or her name, and used to be upstairs in the Land and People exhibit with an environment that we’ve recreated. So my job was to be in charge of the diorama and I helped a little bit with the dinosaur. We had a big team of people working for about two years to make this and it’s something that we’re really proud of. Unfortunately we had to take it down last year, but we’ve put the dinosaur back upstairs and hopefully in the new museum we’ll be able to recreate an even better habitat for the dinosaur. To talk about how we made that would be another entire talk, but it was a lot of fun and very, very challenging.

This is when we made artificial plants for that diorama too because we were able to buy some, but we had to make a whole lot as well. So this is just showing a few photographs from that time, and the cycad. I made the cycad and each of those leaves took two hours to cut out and they were done by vacuum forming PVC plastic, clear plastic at a factory using the moulds of real plants. Then they were painted and assembled.

It’s lots of fun when you get to make artificial food. You can see some over there and tricking your work mates. That’s good fun. My latest project is making fungi, mushrooms that grow in the bush. So this winter I’ve been collecting a lot of fungi and bringing them back here and making moulds and casts of them, and really enjoying that as well. You’re welcome to come up afterwards and come and look more closely at what we’ve been doing and ask me any questions. It’s probably best not to touch anything because some things are fragile and like this old specimen here has got arsenic in it. So, you don’t want to be touching that.

Right. Does anyone have any questions?

This video recording was made possible with the support of Chevron Australia.