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Unsolicited Donations: How Taxidermy Finds Museums

  • White-tailed deer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. MUST CREDIT: Donald Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution

The Washington Post
Published: 12/30/2016 10:00:03 PM
Modified: 12/30/2016 11:57:45 PM

David Skelly returned to his desk one day to find a two-headed snapping turtle in a mayonnaise jar. “I still don’t know where that came from,” says Skelly, director of Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.

For years, Skelly brought the turtle to elementary schools as a teaching tool, but then a colleague borrowed it — and lost it.

“There is nothing like a two-headed turtle to get everyone’s attention,” he says. “It is a great conversation starter.”

Walking through taxidermy mount halls at natural history museums, visitors are likely to hear a lot of inquiring conversations. Incredulous children often ask parents or teachers, “Is it real?” But one aspect of the stuffed animals that isn’t much discussed is how they arrive and end up so pristinely preserved.

Some mounts have labels that explain how they came to be standing there, apparently for all time. Theodore Roosevelt shot the northern white rhinoceros installed in the Kenneth Behring Family Hall of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The iconic display of two fighting African elephants at Chicago’s Field Museum was created by the museum’s chief taxidermist from 1896 to 1909, Carl Akeley, the “father of modern taxidermy,” per the Field Museum website.

But most taxidermy mounts were brought in through the front door, often in shoeboxes. Most of the animals that pour in on a “regular stream” are unsolicited donations.

“I don’t know if it is every day, but I bet it is close,” Skelly says. “We get lots of dead birds and mammals that have fallen into pools or hit windows.”

Visitors bring taxidermied mounts they no longer want, archaeological or ethnographic artifacts and other undesired collections after the passing of a relative or a family’s downsizing.

“In many cases, these are not objects that the museum will want, but often there are significant objects in the care of people who may not realize the importance of what they have,” Skelly says.

In Pittsburgh, that’s also been the experience of Sue McLaren, the Carnegie’s mammals collection manager. “In the old days, that fox squirrel got mowed over, and people would say, ‘I’ll just take it to the museum.’ They wouldn’t even question it,” she says. “Security would call to say someone brought us a squirrel.”

If the bloodied roadkill was something museum mammalogists wanted and needed, taxidermists would work their magic, and the animals would emerge, transformed, as inhabitants for dioramas or other scientific displays.

The scope of taxidermy work at museums is difficult to pin down. Neither the American Alliance of Museums nor the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections tracks its members who work with taxidermy, although 123 members of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) say they work with “natural science objects,” according to Eryl Wentworth, AIC’s executive director. A query shared on SPNHC’s listserv yielded a list of about a dozen conservators at U.S. museums who work with taxidermy.

“Mostly museums don’t employ full-time taxidermists any more, or conservators, who work specifically on taxidermy. Mostly, they are contracted from the outside,” says Tom Gnoske, the Field Museum’s assistant collection manager and chief preparator in birds. “But there is a growing need for that expertise in museums, since taxidermy is now getting older and has been degrading over time.”

Most taxidermied species can’t be replaced, and many are rare or endangered, or sometimes even extinct, Gnoske says. The number of taxidermy mounts at U.S. museums is also tough to pin down. At Yale, the Peabody has 1,601 mounted vertebrate zoology specimens, Skelly says.

John Janelli, a taxidermist in Union City, N.J., and a past National Taxidermists Association president, estimates that hundreds of taxidermy consultants work with thousands of mounts at U.S. museums.

“As far as I know, museums today that are having any taxidermy being done hire vendors,” says Janelli, who knows of just one paid taxidermist on staff at a museum. “There are no more laboratories on (museum) premises, where taxidermists come in, punch a clock and go to work mounting animals.”

At the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where Timothy Matson has worked since 1974, the staff is kept busy by members of the community who bring lots of dead animals to the museum, mostly birds, but also mammals and a few amphibians and reptiles. The amateur collectors often bring roadkill or animals that their cats killed, says Matson, the museum’s curator of and head of vertebrate zoology.

“Some hope to have them taxidermied (mounted), and others really don’t care how they are used, but they do hope we can use them,” Matson says. Often, the specimens are skeletonized, and in some cases just the skulls are prepared and used for research or teaching collections.

“During some seasons, especially during migrations, multiple species come in on many days,” Matson says. The museum’s security office has a freezer that can accommodate small- and medium-size animals until a curator or collections manager is able to retrieve it, he said.

Those who live in or near high-rises often find birds that flew into the buildings at night, and two birds — a peregrine falcon and a common gallinule — were among the most noteworthy donations.

But although animals that make a curator’s cuts serve a variety of teaching and scientific purposes, not everyone is convinced that the scientific ends necessarily justify the collecting means. The Carnegie discourages people from picking up animals that might be rabid, McLaren says. And at Yale, Skelly and his staff do the same.

“You certainly discourage people, but people still show up with all kinds of stuff,” he says. When the museum lets people down, it has to be thoughtful and careful about how it rejects donations of would-be taxidermies.

“You don’t want to treat these encounters in any kind of way that’s going to discourage someone, because this is someone who is interested enough to make an effort,” Skelly says. “There are not too many of those people on this planet.”

The Peabody has enough interest that it hosts an annual ID day, during which it encourages people to bring in things that they found or own. “It is amazing what comes in the door,” Skelly says.

At the Smithsonian, staff members turn down nearly 99 percent of submissions, says Pam Henson, director of the institutional history division. “The only reason we’d be interested in roadkill is if that specimen had never been seen in that area before,” she says.

Still, curators field submissions from all over. “People still think of us as the nation’s attic, not that we encourage it,” she says. “We built our collection with amateur collectors.”

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