There are few things that are so certain in life. Sooner or later we’re all going to die. Fortunately for anyone reading this, it is highly unlikely that you will end up stuffed and hanging on the wall of someone’s den. Although, just as surely as you and I will kick the bucket one day, as a contents professional you are eventually bound to make the acquaintance of some creature that has met exactly that fate.
An Informal History
Mankind’s development and use of taxidermy appears to date back to our ancient ancestors. Arguably, its roots are found amongst the prehistoric tribes who utilized animal horns and hides to fashion the tools and clothing on which their very survival depended. The Egyptians mummified cats to accompany them into the afterlife. Native American peoples have reverently preserved the likeness of wolves and buffalo as part of their spiritual and cultural life. As our civilizations moved into the scientific age, taxidermy became an integral part of scientists and naturalists’ study of natural history specimens. Commonly, taxidermy is thought of as being the sporting trophy of explorers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts, but people may overlook how closely the history and development of taxidermy mirrors our own.
To the proud owners of these immortal beasts, the importance and value of taxidermy is far greater than that of a mere trophy. To some outdoor enthusiasts a mount can represent a passionate connection to the spirit and splendor of a world still wild and untamed. To others, a specific animal or mount might bring back memories of time spent with family and friends on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. No matter what the personal connection may be, it should be understood by the contents industry that the value of taxidermy is well worth preserving.
Contents professionals should familiarize themselves with an understanding of how taxidermy is created in order to understand how cleaning processes may affect the materials present in commonly found taxidermy items. As recently as the 19th and 20th centuries, taxidermy was a fairly risky business of using highly toxic chemicals in the tanning process. Arsenic and arsenic soaps were used to preserve and protect mounts, their carved wood supports, and cloth stuffed forms from pests and decay. Be aware that arsenic and other chemicals can cause serious health problems if not treated or handled correctly. Because of these risks, it is advisable that antique taxidermy be treated by a professional. Today’s taxidermy is produced using non-toxic methods. Mounted deer, elk and other medium to large specimens contain more lightweight and synthetic material as compared to older mounts. Skins are removed and tanned, before being stretched over polyurethane and resin forms. Horns and antlers are securely attached to the mount and high quality glass eyes provide a lifelike spark. Similar forms are also used for smaller game and fowl. The complexity of a mount can range from a simple shoulder mount displaying the animal’s neck and head, to full body presentations including dioramas featuring large game such as bear and lions. The price range for taxidermy mounts can easily extend into thousands of dollars per mount. Because of the expense of production, basic taxidermy cleanings are extremely cost effective and can be instrumental in continuing the preservation of a prized trophy.
The Effects of Disaster
Disasters can wreak havoc on taxidermy collections very quickly. Modern taxidermy can be seriously affected by acidic soot residue, debris, and dirty water. Antique taxidermy is already more sensitive to these byproducts of disaster and may be subject to rapid deterioration with minor fluctuations in temperature and humidity. A basic surface cleaning of mounts with minor damage can often be done on-site using supplies and equipment you already have.
What You Will Need
Disposable nitrile gloves
Variable suction HEPA vacuum
Soft bristle brush attachments including micro attachments
Vulcanized rubber sponge (“smoke sponge”)
Plastic or fabric mesh screen
Ammonia-free glass cleaner
Handling & Cleaning Taxidermy Properly
Always wear gloves! For lightweight mounts, lift and handle via their support or base. For larger mounts, including shoulder mounts, lift using the stable base where the antlers or horns are attached. If an item is too large to handle alone, ask for help. One misstep can turn a minor incident into a major mishap. Where possible, avoid handling feathers. When cleaning items on site, use caution while on step stools and ladders. Do not support yourself by leaning against the mount.
Use a HEPA vacuum with a soft brush attachment to carefully suction away fine, loose debris and soot. Micro attachments are helpful in accessing hard to reach areas such as the inner area of ears and mouths. Using a white microfiber cloth, gently wipe the surfaces of cleaned areas to determine if all deposits have been removed. If fine soot particles remain after vacuuming, use a small piece of “smoke sponge” to gently wipe the mount in the natural direction of the fur. The sponge can also be used carefully on horns and antlers. For delicate areas or feathers, gently place a small piece of mesh screen over the mount to protect it while vacuuming. For glass eyes, you may use a Q-tip dipped in ammonia free glass cleaner. Be advised that the feet and beaks of game fowl may be artificially colored or color enhanced and may not react well to degreasers or cleaning products. Deodorization can be successfully achieved using exposure to hydroxyl radicals. Ozone is not recommended for taxidermy. Do not apply odor-masking products to taxidermy. This does not remove the odor and is not an appropriate professional strategy.
A common misconception is that fur and antlers should be cleaned and wiped down with furniture polish. According to one YouTuber, this helps “give it that real nice shine”. No matter what you see on YouTube, do not use furniture polish. Although you will get a little “shine”, furniture polish will cause a buildup of waxes and resins that dull taxidermy overtime and will eventually require removal to prevent permanent damage. As you can imagine, these techniques can be applied with success to other animal products that are not taxidermy mounts. Tanned hides and rugs may be cleaned in the above basic manner when not suffering from heavy to severe damage. If you are unsure about how the cleaning process will affect the items you are responsible for, reach out to a specialist for help.
Do not attempt to make repairs yourself. If antlers appear to be cracking or elements of the mount have sustained damage severe enough to require restoration, seek a qualified taxidermist or objects conservator with experience in taxidermy. In all other cases, a working knowledge of the history and practice of taxidermy and some hands-on experience will enable you to help preserve your clients’ valuable and important collection items ensuring that your success is just as certain as death and taxidermy.
For resources or assistance in dealing with disaster affected specialty contents please contact Carolina Conservation.