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Head to Toe: Mammal Makeovers

Head to Toe: Mammal Makeovers by Smithsonian Taxidermists

Taxidermy Lab
Click here for the full size of the above image.

Two years sculpting foam and clay. Weeks casting heads and hands, toes and tongues. Thousands upon thousands of tiny stitches. These tasks and many more transformed 274 mammal specimens into the inspiring display now on view in the new mammal hall on the first floor of the Museum.

Led by John Matthews, the award-winning taxidermy team renovated historic specimens and mounted specimens donated by zoos and research facilities from around the world. Each animal reflects the collaboration of museum curators, exhibit designers, and taxidermists to determine an accurate and aesthetic pose.

The taxidermy team (left to right): Paul Rhymer, John Matthews, Ken Walker, Walter Sorrell, and Glenn Rankin.

Photo by Carl Hansen

Orangutan body form

Each body part is carved from foam based on measurements taken from the carcass. The parts are fitted together and then packed with clay and plastic to create a lifelike body shape that fits the skin.

Photo by Paul Rhymer

Wrangling the Orangutan

Because primates are rarely mounted and commercially available forms did not suit the required pose, the team needed to build the entire supporting forms themselves—a huge collaborative effort that resulted in one of the most striking specimens in the hall.

Orangutan tanned skin

The tanned skin is tested several times on the form to be sure it fits perfectly.

Photo by Paul Rhymer

Plaster death mask of orangutan

A plaster death mask recorded the distinctive facial features of the orangutan.

Photo by Heather Rostker

Clay maquette

Sculpting this clay maquette helped the team envision the pose in 3-D and plan the life-size model.

Photo by Heather Rostker

Taxidermist sculpting orangutan face

To capture the unique face of this orangutan, taxidermists built the facial structure with clay, using the death mask and other measurements as references.

Photo by Paul Rhymer

Finished orangutan

After days of prepping the hair, the orangutan is finally finished. Look for it in the “Primates” case, towards the back of the hall.

Photo by Paul Rhymer

Glass and plastic eyes, ears and tongues

Photo by Heather Rostker

The Supporting Cast

The secret to a lifelike mount is in finding just the right supporting structure and parts—from the perfect eyeball to an accurate head shape. This selection of commercially available glass and plastic eyes, ears, and tongues and plaster death casts of mammal features represent some of the products and processes that the taxidermists used to create the mounts.

See more mammals in the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals.

To learn more about Science and Collections visit the following websites:
NMNH Division of Mammals
Mammals Species of the World Database
NMNH North American Mammals

Past Science News exhibits


"Science in the News" features Natural History issues in the news media and interesting objects from the Museum's collections. We will frequently introduce new issues that come from our research, collections, exhibits, and projects.