A Very Quiet Menagerie: Taxidermy At The Carnegie Museum Of Natural History

Oct 30, 2015

 It would be easy to breeze past the mountain goats on their sliver of vertical cliff in the Hall of North American Wildlife or to step around the black rhino milling about in the hallway. But these are not just any animals: they’re animals remade by humans.

Stephen Rogers is collections manager for amphibians, reptiles and birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. At 7:45 a.m. on a recent morning he sat on a bench on the second floor and explained how he prepares a specimen for taxidermy or to make a study skin (in which the animal isn't mounted). He estimated he’s taken apart at least 15,000 birds.

“Most of the time you make one cut from the middle of the breast down to the vent. And you start peeling the skin back, like turning a sock backwards,” he said. “Then in taxidermy you have to reconstruct that.” 

The idea of scooping out an animal just to rebuild it in plaster and burlap or today, latex and apoxie, might seem odd. But taxidermy hit its stride long before Google images made the curiosities of the animal kingdom widely available, said Rogers.

“A hundred years ago there wasn’t television. It wasn’t easy to hop on a plane and fly to Africa and see things. The diorama put you in a place and you essentially see everything,” he said.  

The diorama is the world in which a taxidermy mount exists. Mounts can stand alone, but placing them in habitats was the trend in the 1970s, when Pat Martin started working at the museum as chief preparator. To build accurate habitats, Martin traveled all over the world to study different ecosystems. He collected rocks and leaves, made molds of trees and took photographs in order to recreate them for Pittsburgh in exacting detail. He remembered walking toward a watering hole on his first trip to Africa. 

“You walk out there and you feel very vulnerable. You don’t know what the heck’s behind this bush or this tree or something, cause you’re new to Africa, you know."

He wanted to recreate that feeling of suspense and vulnerability, he said.

“I wanted you to feel like you were in there. So you walk into the middle of it,” he said.  

“It” is a diorama in the museum’s Hall of African Wildlife. Zebra, wildebeest and a warthog gather at a watering hole. The mud around it is dry and cracked, the water opaque. A fly irritates the nose of a creature that hasn’t felt anything since the late 1800s.

“When you’re making a diorama like this, you put those little details in there. That’s what makes the whole thing realistic,” Martin said.

Taxidermists have gone to great lengths to achieve the perfect imitation of life. For some it was an extension of hunting, with an eye toward better understanding the natural world. Martin said it’s a job that requires a nimble creativity.

“You have to be an artist. You have to know form. You observe this animal live and what he looks like and how he acts and how he moves,” he said.  

It was common in the early to mid-1900s for museums to keep teams of taxidermists, background painters and plant makers on staff. But by 2012, not a single major U.S. museum had a staff taxidermist. Martin saw the change coming and left in 2000.

Taxidermy is a surreal quest. Its practicioners strive to immortalize the dead so efficiently that some dioramas outlive any evidence of the artists who made them. In his basement, Martin keeps work from other preparators the museum discarded.

"A lot of the dioramas I feel have served their purpose. But they’re great pieces of artwork and they deserve to be preserved. I hope [they] last another hundred years.”

 

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