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“Taxidermy involves sculpture and anatomy and realism. And when you add a background painting in the dioramas, it’s the whole package. It’s as complete as you can get.”
- Steve Rogers, Collection Manager, Birds, Reptiles, and Amphibians, Carnegie Museum of Natural History






When George the gorilla died of natural causes at the Pittsburgh Zoo, a “death mask” (or facial mold) helped the museum recreate his powerful facial features.







“Dioramas can really provide an accurate depiction of biological diversity. Even in a zoo, there’s no way to get as close to animals as you can get to a diorama. And in a zoo, you’re looking at them in a habitat that is not their own.”
- Bill DeWalt, Director,
Carnegie Museum of Natural History


































In 1904, 10-year-old Rush Davis was so excited about the albino squirrel he’d found and mounted that he desperately wanted the museum to have it. He received $7.50 for his handiwork, which will be displayed in Stuffed Animals. Davis was one of many who learned the art of taxidermy through mail-order courses that were popular at the time.



As Real As It Gets

A new exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Natural History pulls out all the stops to show us just how far we’ve come in the art of taxidermy—including a famous white rhino, an albino squirrel, and the “death mask” of George the gorilla.

The Denmon girls are little sisters from the city. The buffalo’s a beefy guy from the plains. At their first encounter at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, all three stood stock-still.
What drew Noa, age 10, and Drue, age 8, to the buffalo’s side on a Sunday visit was the stuffed creature’s inviting plush pelt. As they circled the specimen, plunging their fists into its fur, Drue tilted back her head and looked up admiringly at the animal’s gentle dark eyes, trying to explain the attraction.

“ It feels like it could get...alive,” she said intently.

That first-person experience, closer than any zoo would allow, is the peculiar fascination celebrated in Stuffed Animals: The Art and Science of Taxidermy, which opened in the Hall of Sculpture May 21. With its examples of the ultra-realistic specimens and dioramas created to give city dwellers a glimpse of the natural world, the exhibit examines the flip side of Carnegie Museum of Art’s current exhibition Fierce Friends.

Designed by Carnegie Museum of Natural History staff, Stuffed Animals is the first American examination of the evolution of taxidermy, the heart of most American natural history collections, in at least three decades. The museum’s 110-year-old collection is anchored by some of the finest re-creations of animals and animal groups in the world.

Almost the Real Thing
Generations of Pittsburgh children have been thrilled by Jules Verreaux’s bloodthirsty “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions,” in which a camel rider fights off a pair of Barbary lions with scimitar and rifle. One of those enthralled kids still visits the diorama regularly: Darnell Warren, who grew up to become an artist and instructor at Carnegie Museum of Art himself.

“ It’s got such dramatic appeal, and the extinct lions have historic significance,” Warren professes. “And there’s a wonderful narrative behind what’s going on. As a kid, it started my thought process: Would the man survive? Who would win?”

Warren now brings his drawing students here to learn from the skills on display inside the large glass case: artistic composition on a grand scale.

“ Taxidermy involves sculpture and anatomy and realism,” says Steve Rogers, the museum’s long-time collection head for birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and a taxidermist himself. “And when you add a background painting in the dioramas, it’s the whole package. It’s as complete as you can get.”

The summer exhibit won’t include the Denmon sisters’ new best friend, or the Verreaux display, both of which are on permanent exhibit upstairs. But it will include other rare and dramatic mounted specimens—from a pair of rhinos to massive big-game heads to a famous local gorilla selected from thousands in the Museum of Natural History’s scientific collections.

Today’s museum visitors, accustomed to finding video images of wild animals with a few clicks on Google, might not realize the leaps of imagination taken by early taxidermists.

“ A hundred years ago, you’d get a package with a dried hide, folded and salted, and a few leg bones. Then, you’d have to figure out what it looked like,” explains Rogers. Needless to say, that led to some inaccuracies. “With no muscle definition, the results in minor museums might look like a stuffed animal on a kid’s bed. They didn’t look real, because the creators weren’t sculptors.”

Through luck and circumstance, the Museum of Natural History created its first taxidermy collections with the help of some early masters of the craft. Rogers, who has traced the history of American taxidermy, points to three masters—Frederic Webster and Remi and Joseph Santens—who set world-class artistic standards at the museum at the turn of the 20th century.

Filling an Empty Museum
When he joined the museum in 1897, two years after its founding by Andrew Carnegie, Frederic Webster was one of the country’s leading taxidermists. His closest friends and colleagues, who were collection heads of the new National and American Museums of Natural History, would become his rivals in procuring the most sensational specimens for America’s empty museums.

It was a seller’s market, and prices were steep. And Andrew Carnegie, who purchased some of Webster’s first acquisitions, understood that the principle of supply and demand applied to stuffed animals, too. “Crocodiles are snapped up as offered, while dugongs bring large prices,” he quipped in an 1884 book. “What is pig metal to this?”

The museum seized the chance to acquire the “Arab Courier” in about 1898 for $25. In the same era, it received hundreds of rare specimens from the Good family, a missionary family in Gabon and Cameroun with connections to then Carnegie Museum Director William Holland, a Presbyterian minister. (A Good family descendant, anthropology section head Dave Watters, now works at the museum.) One of those mounts, a gorilla, will be displayed in Stuffed Animals.

Return of the White Rhino
Another major early purchase was a white rhinoceros, then nearly extinct. When the museum bought the beast in 1901, it was an international coup, the stuff of blockbuster exhibits: one of only four such mounts in the world and the only one on display in North America.

A decade later, the white rhino was still rare enough to make Teddy Roosevelt drop his monocle. “Holland, where did you get that specimen?” he demanded in a 1912 visit. “I am astonished at seeing it.”

Stuffed Animals pairs the white rhino with a later museum re-creation: a black rhino bagged by Pittsburgher Childs Frick on safari in 1909. The comparison illustrates how Carnegie Museum experts vastly improved the realism of their mounts. The white rhino’s creators, the British firm of Gerrard and Son, had likely never seen a live one. They relied on a rickety wooden frame and wood shavings to approximate its shape. The later mount, created in 1920 by Remi Santens, used a meticulously molded plaster form to simulate muscles under a thinner hide.

The pair was exhibited together for seven decades and will be reunited in Stuffed Animals. Two other magnificent Santens creations, the jaguar family diorama and the 12-foot giraffe, still command attention in the museum’s second-floor Hall of African Mammals exhibit of spectacular dioramas.

Always popular with hunters (even early Native Americans mounted animals), taxidermy became enormously popular with adults and youngsters during the beginning of the 20th century. One mail-order course enrolled over 35,000 amateurs. The museum’s new exhibit includes the work of one of them, an ambitious 10-year-old named Rush Davis.

Davis was convinced that the rare creature he’d found and mounted—an albino grey squirrel—was worthy of a spot in Carnegie Museum’s collection. In his first correspondence with the museum in 1904, he boldly named his price—$25—which museum Director Holland briskly deemed “excessive.” After bombarding Holland with several more letters, Davis finally received $7.50 for his work.

Hunter and Conservationist
Another student in the museum’s mail-order course was Teddy Roosevelt, whose enthusiasm for wildlife led him to found the Boone & Crockett Club (B&P) in 1887. (He also presented the museum with a black rhino, shot shortly before his visit here. A fiberglass copy of it stands in the Hall of African Wildlife.)

The B&C Club preached “fair chase” hunting ethics, as well as keeping records on the biggest trophies shot and mounted by its members. Carnegie Museums stored some of those prize winners until the early 1990s. A massive moose head from the club, its rack measuring 68 inches from tip to tip, crowns the Stuffed Animals exhibit and commemorates the big-game era. Now headquartered in Montana, the Boone & Crockett club still exists, supporting sustainability and conservation.

Conservationists of the 21st century are far less likely to be the wealthy big-game hunters of the past, or the hunter-gatherers of the African savannah. But they recognize that recreational hunters also care for the environment.

“ People who hunt for recreation often feel strongly about the conservation of species. Through revenue they provide from licenses and their interest in the preservation of habitats, they may be contributing to the overall well-being of animals,” notes museum Director Bill DeWalt.

But not all of the animals mounted for the museum’s collection were hunted; some died of natural causes.

Carnegie Museum Director William Holland (seated at left) observes as his staff works its magic.

The museum has accepted specimens from the Pittsburgh Zoo since its founding in 1898. When George the gorilla, a longtime resident, died in 1979, the museum modeled his facial features through essentially the same kind of death mask sculptors use to capture human bone structure, muscles and wrinkles. The mask helped museum staffers re-create the fleshy contours in the final mount, used later in a diorama.

In Stuffed Animals, George’s mask is included to illuminate one of the museum’s earlier efforts: the 1899 mount of an African gorilla from the Good missionary family. Comparison of the two make glaringly clear how early taxidermists wrestled with the issue of reproducing the indentations and curves of their subjects’ faces. (Visitors touring Fierce Friends this summer at the Museum of Art will find the 1899 gorilla’s skeleton on display there, accenting the connection between science and art.)

The buffalo, the Denmon sisters’ please-touch favorite in the Hall of American Indians, came to the museum after a long life, with the blessing of Native Americans. After a full religious ceremony performed by Rosalie Little Thunder, complete with burning sagebrush and prayers, the animal was put down in 1998 and went on display shortly thereafter.

Interest in conservation and animal habitats began to broaden to city dwellers as the 20th century progressed. The museum complemented its large-scale dioramas with smaller animals to introduce Pittsburghers to local residents.

“ The settings perfectly replicated real habitats, and the emphasis shifted from single creatures to natural family groups,” explains Rogers. He adds that Frederic Webster, a perfectionist, insisted on high fidelity. He re-created the habitat of golden-winged warblers by locating a sheltered nest, then removed two surrounding square feet of natural materials intact so he could replicate its details.

Sometimes the insistence on minute detail demanded armies of volunteers to work alongside taxidermists and muralists. For the Alaskan moose diorama, mounted in 1970, a committee of women volunteers donated 1,100 hours to create perfect faux leaves for its alders (2,000 leaves), willow (1,800), and cranberry (3,200 for one bush). The fox, possum, and owl families displayed in Stuffed Animals match that level of realism.

“ Dioramas can really provide an accurate depiction of biological diversity,” says Bill DeWalt. “Even in a zoo, there’s no way to get as close to animals as you can get to a diorama. And in a zoo, you’re looking at them in a habitat that is not their own.

“ There was a time in which dioramas fell out of favor in museums because they were static,” admits DeWalt, “but major museums have invested substantially in conserving and improving spectacular dioramas.

“ Our perspective here is to make the dioramas come alive by adding touchables and touch screens, making them a more interactive exhibit,” he adds. “A computer screen that tells you what animals ate, or how many existed, helps the animal come wonderfully to life. They have so much more to tell us.”

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