Many find the sight of "stuffed" animals scary, appalling or simply unnecessary. But for natural history museums like the State Museum Nature and Man Oldenburg, the taxidermy of animals is a crucial part of heritage conservation and education. This short series of photographs shows the process of taxidermy, explains why it is essential for scientific research as well as for the task of museums as centers of education.
The base of any animal taxidermy is a model made out of polyurethane foam (PU foam). This specific model was shaped after a young wolf that was killed in a road accident in Lower Saxony, Germany, in 2017. The State Museum Nature and Man Oldenburg is responsible for the documentation of such cases.
Specialist companies produce standard animal models for taxidermy. But they often have to be altered to fit the original animal. In this case, the legs had to be shortened and the head repositioned.
In order to adapt the posture, it might be necessary to separate and re-position some parts of the model. Here it is important to remember that this is merely a PU foam model. The actual body of the wolf is archived in the museum depot with a unique identification code.
By creating a gap in between the head and the rest of the body with the help of an inset, the position of the head can be adapted in a way that the wolf's posture appears natural. The gap is later filled up with liquified PU foam.
Finding the right position of the head is not easy. The pose and body language of the animal has to be as natural as possible in order to effectively communicate with the audience.
The head is locked in position during the process of pouring the liquified PU foam into the gap with the help of nails. They will also ensure the position of the head while the foam dries. Again, what may look violent, is just work with artificial materials.
After the right position of the head and the limbs has been established and the liquified PU foam has cooled off and solidified, the model is ready for the affixing of the hide.
The wolf hide is carefully draped around the model and only when the coloring and shape of the fur is perfectly aligned with that of the original specimen, the hide is fixed in place with needle and thread.
The threaded rods seen at the bottom are both used to attach the finished model to its pedestal and to stabilize its legs since no actual bones are used in taxidermy. Bones are archived for research purposes like establishing a cause of death and the effect of environmental changes.
One of the central skills required in taxidermy is the placing of the stitches in such a way that a smooth and natural blending of the two hide parts is created. It requires a three year apprenticeship with an additional two years of specification training.
What may look like acupuncture, is a way of ensuring that the hide does not move while it dries. The drying process can take up to four weeks. It is estimated that the skin shrinks up to 10 percent during that time.
The facial expressions of an animal can be just as complex as those of a human. Finding the right position of the hide on this part of a model base can prove to be one of the most difficult tasks of a taxidermist.
The completed taxidermy model is used as an educational tool in a showcase which talks about wolves in the state of Lower Saxony and the struggle between biodiversity and the concerns of farmers. The needles were left in place in order to show visitors the process of taxidermy.
Text: State Museum Nature and Man Oldenburg
Concept/Editing: Frieda Russell
© State Museum Nature and Man Oldenburg
Photographs: Sandra Fünfstück