Learning to Look: Taxidermy in Museums


Hyena specimen – MSU Museum Collection

The MSU Museum has many animal specimens in exhibits and housed in collections. Visitors often asked about what these specimens are and how they were made. Most of the animals in the exhibits were once alive but are now examples of taxidermy.

What is taxidermy?

Taxidermy is a way to preserve an animal for display or study. There are many different ways to do taxidermy, but they usually involve “mounting” an animal’s skin on a fake body. The word taxidermy comes from the Greek words taxis (which means “arrangement”) and derma (which means “skin”). So taxidermy is all about arranging skin, to make animals look alive again.

Why would we taxidermy an animal?

When an animal dies, it starts to decompose – and eventually, there’s nothing left. Taxidermy preserves an animal – which allows museum visitors, scientists, and anyone else in the future see what an animal looked like when it was alive. Because body parts like skin are preserved when an animal is taxidermied, future scientists can get all sorts of useful information from taxidermied animals, like size, color and texture. Sometimes, DNA can even be extracted from taxidermied animals.

Orange starburst shape with text "Fun fact!"Taxidermy helps scientific discovery! When European explorers first went to Australia in the 1700s, they sent back illustrations and taxidermy mounts of the animals they saw – including the platypus. When the illustrations arrived in Europe, many scientists thought the platypus was fake – that someone had sewn a duck’s bill to a mole or beaver skin as a joke! But looking at the taxidermy mount showed scientists that platypuses were real animals.

How does an animal get taxidermied?

Two squirrel specimens, showing skin wrapped around a taxidermy form

Image by: Jllm06 (CC 4.0)

After an animal dies, it gets taken to a professional taxidermist.

Step 1: The taxidermist skins the animal and preserves the skin with chemicals.

Step 2: The skin is mounted over a “form” – a fake body. Most modern forms are made of a hard, plastic-like foam – but in the past, forms could be made out of clay, wood, cotton, twine, metal, straw, and lots of other materials. They sometimes even included the original animal’s bones.

Step 3: Once the skin is on the form, a taxidermist adds clay and other materials to the form to make the shape just right. Glass eyes make the animal look alive.

Three different types of taxidermy mounts

Image by: Jllm06 (CC 4.0)

Step 4: The skin is then pinned in place and left to dry.

Step 5: After the skin dries, the taxidermist removes the pins and adds final touch-ups. These might include paint, brushing and blow drying the animal’s fur, and adding wet spots to the nose or eyes to make it look even more alive.

Are there other types of taxidermy?

Fiberglass rhinoceros head hanging on a wall

Fiberglass rhinoceros head. Image by: Downtime (Public domain)

Yes! Some taxidermists use “freeze-drying”, where the whole animal is preserved instead of just the skin. The body is positioned in a chosen pose and placed in a vacuum chamber, which removes all of the moisture from the body. This method is expensive and can take a long time (sometimes up to 6 months), but it is increasing in popularity.

Some taxidermy doesn’t include animals at all. Endangered animals like rhinos are highly protected, and some animals like fish are hard to preserve – so taxidermists make these mounts out of materials like fiberglass and plastic resin.

Is every animal in a museum taxidermied?

Alcohol-preserved specimen of a chameleon

Image by: Naturalis Biodiversity Center/Wikimedia Commons (CC 1.0)

No! You might see a lot of taxidermied animals on display in a museum, but most objects are kept behind the scenes in a museum’s collections. Animals in a museum collection can be preserved either as skeletons, alcohol specimens (where the animal is preserved in alcohol) or as “study skins.”

Four squirrel study skins lying stretched out in a box

Image by: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons (CC 1.0)

A study skin is like simple taxidermy – after skinning, the skin will be stuffed with cotton and allowed to dry.

A study skin isn’t supposed to make an animal look alive – it’s used to help scientists compare colors and patterns on animals. Study skins also take up less room than a whole taxidermied animal – which means museums can store more specimens in their collections.

Learn More

Coloring and craft activities about museum taxidermy:

Watch: Emily Graslie from the Chicago Field Museum teach how to taxidermy a squirrel. Note: this video is light hearted and educational, but does include skinning a dead animal, visible organs, and some blood. To avoid seeing these, watch the video until 1:30, then skip ahead to 7:43.

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