Taxidermy has evolved from the days when animal skins were filled with straw and black spiders were unintentionally bleached white.
Chapter 12, The Exhibits, from ‘Rare and Curious’ describes the fascinating and occasionally grisly evolution of exhibit design.
Taxidermy has always been a necessary part of a collector’s skills to preserve animals in the field. Early mounts were lifeless and arranged in taxonomic order. With changes in display philosophies and audience expectations, exhibits became more life-like and presentation was adapted to the changing needs of visitors.
The Australian Museum first used the techniques of ‘sculpture taxidermy’ in 1938 for exhibits featuring mammals where a practical understanding of anatomy and movement helped to replicate the dynamic grace of living animals.
A rough model was made in wire and mesh incorporating the skull and other limbs. A mould was made of the body in fibreglass, and the skin added, along with real nails, teeth and glass eyes.
Insect infestations were removed with borax powder which replaced the early poisonous arsenic soaps used by taxidermists.
Up until the 1950s specimens of fish, amphibians and reptiles were routinely pickled in alcohol and exhibited in bottles. They were known as ‘wet specimens’. The preserving fluids often contained alcohol which would remove any distinctive colouring. For example, a black funnel web spider would gradually become bleached white over time.
The unintended result of this form of preservation meant that specimens would have to be replaced often.
The skills of taxidermy evolved to that of ‘preparator’, someone who understood how to use plastic, plaster and latex to make a lifelike copy of the original specimen. From the 1970s, audio-visual and interactive displays were increasingly used to augment static models.
Find out how the Museum uses contemporary techniques to maintain the historic taxidermy collection.