Advancements in Taxidermy
Though people generally think of old, dusty museum specimens when they think of taxidermy, the art of mounting animal hides has undergone a tremendous amount of advancement. To understand exactly how far it has come, however, it’s necessary to look back at its origins, first.
Taxidermy has existed since man began hunting. Archeological evidence of very early taxidermy shows the remains of animals draped over rocks and blocks of wood, which experts speculate may have served either a totemic purpose, or simply served as target practice for novice hunters. Taxidermy that would be recognizable to modern eyes, however, didn’t really begin until the 18th century.
During the 1700s, taxidermy served a dual purpose- it preserved a hunter’s kills, and it saved unusual biological specimens. Explorers like Darwin and Cook needed taxidermy to preserve the new species they found in their travels, since the only way to do so prior to that was to paint or draw the animal, a practice which was fraught with inaccuracy. Unfortunately, most actual taxidermy was done by upholsterers, who simply sewed up the skin and stuffed it with whatever material was available- cotton, wool, rags, sand, sawdust, or something similar. Since stuffing has a tendency to settle, time and gravity made these “stuffed animals” turn out very badly, which is why modern taxidermists prefer the term “mounting” over “stuffing” today. Coupled with the lack of mounting skill back then was the fact that replacing items like eyes, tongues, or noses wasn’t yet common practice. Since these parts don’t react to tanning the same way leather does, they would continue to break down long after the hide was stuffed, making taxidermy a rather poor means of preservation.
In the Victorian era, taxidermists began to take an interest in creating more lifelike mounts. Wooden models were used, which the skin could be stretched over. Though many specimens still required some degree of stuffing, these end products were far more anatomically accurate than the previous “stuffed” animals. Eyes and other soft tissue parts began to be replaced with wood and glass at this point, which meant that some of the best examples of Victorian taxidermy still survive today.
In the mid-1970s, once plastics began becoming more and more abundant, polyurethane foam models began to be used instead of the older, wooden Victorian ones. These had the advantage of being lightweight, and their shape and ability to be sculpted meant that stuffing was no longer required. As a result, modern taxidermy pieces have a much more anatomically correct, natural look than older specimens, and do not shift or decay. Well-done modern taxidermy is rightly considered sculptural wildlife art, and is invaluable for preserving and demonstrating animals in museums, though other artists choose to take their work in a more surrealist or horror direction.
The art of taxidermy has advanced greatly from the first lumpy, stuffed hides from the 18th century. Modern pieces are not only visually stunning, but lifelike and long-lasting, as well.
Learning Taxidermy Fish
It’s easy to think that the larger an animal is, the more challenging it’s going to be to mount. However, with taxidermy, it’s often the smallest animals that pose the biggest challenge. For example, taxidermy fish require much more skill, patience, and expertise than they seem like they would at first glance.
The hide of each preserved animal has its own considerations that need to be taken into account. Most mammal hides are relatively easy to preserve, however the different structure and constitution of fish, lizard, and bird skins requires different solutions to treat and preserve properly. For this, this generally consists of borax, or a paste available in fish taxidermy kits. After the fish is opened up and the bones, meat, and organs are removed, the skin must be treated with this solution or paste to keep it from decaying. Since the skin is cut away from the flesh in such a way that the head and tail remain intact, the eyes and brain will also have to be removed.
After that, some taxidermists use special preservation solutions to treat the head and tail, while others soak the whole skin in a borax solution, or rub the inside with a borax paste. Treating and drying the skin will cause some loss of color in the scales, so having references available for what the fish looked like in life will be an enormous help after the process is complete.
After the skin is treated, the inside is powdered with extra borax. At this point, most taxidermists either begin packing the fish with sawdust, or stretch the skin over a polyurethane mannequin. Either method is a matter of personal preference. Once the fish is properly mounted, it must be allowed to air-dry in an area where it will receive adequate air circulation, and no moldy spots will be able to develop. The combination of treating the skin and allowing it to dry will cause the color to fade at this point, but, once the mount is thoroughly dry, oil paints or special airbrushing kits can be used to go back and add lifelike color to the scales. This is why having a good reference (either a guidebook to that species of fish, or photos or video taken of the fish during life, or very shortly after death) is crucial, since sloppy paint application will ruin the natural look and aesthetic effect of an otherwise well-done mounted animal.
Though fish taxidermy can take a bit more time and care than other forms of the art, the results are well worth it. Taxidermy fish make stunning décor pieces, particularly when in the hands of a patient, skillful painter that can accurately render all of the details of a living fish.
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