The ins and outs of taxidermy

18 June 2013

The shredded ears of the Macleay Museum's Tasmanian tiger were restored as part of this project.
The shredded ears of the Macleay Museum's Tasmanian tiger were restored as part of this project.

One of the Macleay Museum's most famous residents has undergone a facelift as part of a project which has implications for natural history collections around the world.

The latest in a line of beneficiaries from the museum's taxidermy project, the museum's iconic Tasmanian tiger has had its previously shredded and downtrodden ears restored to their original perky selves.

The specimen of the now extinct thylacine species is among 40 from the museum's natural history collection to receive a makeover in the last year as part of its Victorian-era taxidermy project. Aside from helping to scrutinise and conserve the museum's unique and globally significant natural history collection, the project has allowed the museum to seek out ancient recipes for products used in taxidermy, and explore the commerce and practice of taxidermy in the 19th century.

Museum senior curator Jude Philp will talk about the project in a free public address at the museum tomorrow evening.

"The problem faced by museums internationally," she says, "is that museums, with their limited humidity and a constant temperature can cause the hides of their taxidermic specimens to become brittle - much like leather left in the sun."

"Some of the pieces in our collection are of species extinct or close to extinction. This project helps us understand their composition better in order to preserve them for the sake of future research - and for the benefit of many people who can't get to a remote desert location to see a bilby or to an off-shore island of Aotearoa/New Zealand to see the last living kakapo."

Part of the project, currently in its third year, involved walking 50 or so specimens from the museum - deemed in need of repair and curatorially significant - to the University's Faculty of Veterinary Science Hospital where they were X-rayed and some surprising results revealed.

"Stuffed animals are generally comprised of skin over a simple wire structure, with looped wire legs and a backbone structure. In some cases we still don't know what is there. Bright white blobs on the radiograph could be lead shot, old pins or just plain rubbish left behind, but over the life of the project we are slowly piecing together the purposes of this material. Just how much bone was retained is one of the puzzles this work is uncovering," says Philp. "The thylacine acquired in 1876, was conserved by a taxidermist in the 1980s, but few notes of what happened were retained. Under the X-ray we can see how careful that work was to replicate a thylacine body."

Visiting museum conservator Sasha Stollman spent three months sprucing up the thylacine and 17 other pieces from the Macleay, including fish and birds. Using materials including humidifiers, epoxy glues and Japanese tissue paper she has conserved a kakapo, reattached an arm and a leg to a bitong, and reset the ears of a racoon.

"Time is the enemy in any taxidermy, followed by insects and pestilence," says Dr Philp. "We hope the findings from this project, due to be completed in 2014, will help preserve natural history collections around the world."

Event details

What: The Ins and Outs of Victorian Taxidermy

When: 6pm, Wednesday 19 June

Where: Macleay Museum, Gosper Lane (off Science Road), Camperdown Campus 

Cost: Free, registration not required

Contact: 02 9036 5253 or

An X-ray of the museum's kakapo specimen revealed its wire innards.
An X-ray of the museum's kakapo specimen revealed its wire innards.


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