Taxidermy has evolved from the days when animal skins were filled with straw and has a long history of experimentation and innovation

Chapter 12, The Exhibits, from ‘Rare and Curious’ describes the fascinating and occasionally grisly evolution of exhibit design. The chapter, authored by K Gregg, presents a 1970s perspective on taxidermy which has evolved to encompass less destructive conservation practices today.

Taxidermy has always been a necessary part of a collector’s skills to preserve animals in the field.

The Australian Museum first used the techniques of ‘sculpture taxidermy’ in 1938 for exhibits featuring mammals where a practical understanding of anatomy and movement helped to replicate the dynamic grace of living animals.

A rough model was made in wire and mesh incorporating the skull and other limbs. A mould was made of the body in fibreglass, and the skin added, along with real nails, teeth and glass eyes.

Taxidermists used some highly toxic compounds such arsenic soap and mercury compounds in the preparation to deter insect infestations. In the past fifty years this has been replaced with the safer borax powder.

Thousands of specimens in the Museum are stored in a solution of alcohol and water. These are important for scientific study as they preserve all of the animal in a sterile solution. They were known as ‘wet specimens’ and were commonly put on display. However, nowadays few wet specimens are displayed due to the risk of fire. They are also more sensitive to light than dry specimens and can quickly become bleached of colour.

The skills of taxidermy evolved to that of ‘preparator’, someone who understood how to use plastic, plaster and latex to make a lifelike copy of the original specimen. From the 1970s, audio-visual and interactive displays were increasingly used to augment static models.

Find out how the Museum uses contemporary techniques to maintain the historic taxidermy collection.