mounting nature


By the time Carl Akeley joined the taxidermy department of the American Museum of Natural History in 1909, he was producing exquisite mounts. The dull, listless unreality of his earlier work had given way to extraordinarily lifelike specimens, an effect he was able to achieve through pioneering methods of articulating the skeleton to characterize the animal’s mobility, behavior, and attitude. Where previously the skeleton had been discarded and the skin stuffed with straw, cotton, or wood shavings, it was now braced to an iron-and-wood armature to create an anatomical frame. This was cast in an underlayer of clay, which was worked up with a scalpel to express the internal biography of the animal, whose organic substance, including its lifeblood, had long since been lost. Muscles, veins, connective tissue, even wrinkles, were sculpted in meticulous detail (as an apprentice, Akeley had been taught simply to beat the detail into the stuffed mount with a plank of wood), at which point the animal was ready to receive its skin. Last to be added were the eyes (glass), tongue, and nose (resin or wax, varnished to suggest wetness). And there it stood—or leaped or prowled—more alive than dead, the perfect illusion of absolute reality.

more from Frances Stonor Saunders at Lapham’s Review here.