Selecting Taxidermy Specimens for Exhibit

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Choice of a taxidermy preparation technique for an exhibit prop is guided by the specimen type and how it is used in the exhibit.

What issues should be considered in the decision to use taxidermy specimens?

When taxidermy specimens are used in exhibits containing other organic objects the potential for insect infestation is of primary concern. It is critical that the correct preparation method be employed; that the specimens be inspected routinely, and; that any specimens showing signs of infestation be treated or dispose of it in an appropriate manner.
In addition, it is important that freeze-dried specimens not come in contact with collection objects. Fats and oils from the specimens may migrate, and contamination from deteriorating specimens can stain other materials. Isolate specimens with a layer of polyester or other impermeable sheet- ing. A freeze-dried specimen must be disposed of at the first sign of decomposition.
Discuss the intended use of the specimen with the taxidermist; raise concerns about infestation and human contact. Materials used should be reviewed; arsenic and corn meal should not be used. The taxidermist’s report for each preparation should include the materials used, a brief description of the process and extent of evisceration, and identification of the pest control measures incorporated into the specimen preparation.

Additional suggestions for specimens preserved through freeze-drying are:

  • request evisceration whenever possible;
  • request addition of approved insect deterrent;
  • include the final dry weight of the specimen in the report so rehydration can be monitored.

What are the major advantages and disadvantages of available preparation methods?

Exhibit planners should select the method of taxidermy preparation most suited to the particular specimen required and the exhibit circumstances. In general, conventional taxidermy—in which a skin is stretched over a form—is more expensive and last longer than does freeze-dried preparations. Freeze-dried preparations are often more fragile and more likely to deteriorate. A combination of conventional and freeze-dry procedures is often the most practical approach.
Selection of a taxidermy specimen intended solely for exhibit purposes may differ from the method preferred for long-term preservation of a natural history specimen in a museum collection. The following chart outlines advantages and disadvantages of both techniques.
Are there specific situations in which one preparation technique is preferable? The type of specimen to be preserved and the display conditions often dictate the choice between conventional taxidermy and freeze-drying. Conventional taxidermy is preferred in most situations.

CONVENTIONAL TAXIDERMY FREEZE-DRY PROCESS
ADVANTAGES ADVANTAGES
Reduced insect vulnerability
Reduced humidity sensitivity
Can be used wIthout a case
Inexpensive labor costs
Prevents shrinkage upon drying
Realistic appearance on small, delicate specimens
DISADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
Less realistic appearance on small, delicate items
More labor intensive
Slightly more expensive
Few taxidermists still use arsenic in the preparation
Potential for incomplete drying
Specimen size is limited
Health hazards (process does not kill mold spores)
Rehydration/rotting can occur
High potential for insect attack
Requires well-sealed cases
Requires re-color ing of certain tissue
  1. Use conventional preparation when any of the following conditions exist:
    • specimens are large (i.e., larger than a squirrel);
    • specimens have high fat content (e.g., ducks, fish, otters, beaver, etc.);
    • open displays are to be used (no exhibit cases);
    • ambient humidity levels are likely to be high (above 55% RH);
    • exhibit is long-term.
  2. Use freeze-dry preparation only when all of the following conditions are met:
    • specimens are small (i.e., squirrel and smaller; small reptiles, amphibians, song birds, etc.):
    • specimens have low fat content;
    • sealed exhibit cases will be used;
    • ambient humidity levels are likely to be moderate to low (below 55% RH);
    • visitor contact will not occur.