An Irishwoman's Diary

 

Stuffing a turkey is one thing; but stuffing a giraffe? No, not some grotesquely new-fangled seasonal delicacy, but a rare New Year delight awaiting visitors to the Natural History Museum. So roll up, ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages, this is your chance to see a real live taxidermist in action, and a real dead giraffe being stuffed.

Yes, even at this venerable institution, the end of the year means it is "out with the old, and in with the new". The museum's stuffed giraffe, on display since 1899, was showing its age, and so was "retired" early in December to make way for a younger, fresher specimen.

The new giraffe - or to be precise, the skin of the new giraffe - will arrive on January 6th, accompanied by the Dutch taxidermist Leon Bouten and his team. Over the next five days, and in front of visitors' very own eyes, the new giraffe will take shape and by Saturday January 11th it should be ready for display in the exhibition hall.

Exotic creatures

Taxidermy (from the Greek meaning "to arrange skin"), is an art form that developed in the 1600s as a way of preserving the strange and exotic creatures being brought back to Europe from far-flung corners of the globe by explorers on "voyages of discovery".

Before then, most animals were preserved by pickling them in alcohol. This technique is still used for soft-bodied creatures, which are otherwise difficult to preserve, and the Dublin museum has a veritable pantry of shelves stocked with specimen jars containing pickled creatures of various kinds.

But this approach does not work well on birds, because feathers quickly lose their colour, so the dry technique of taxidermy was developed. This changed the way birds and other animals were preserved, and also how specimens were kept, displayed and viewed at museums.

Now, the first thing to realise about taxidermy is that stuffed animals contain no bones. At all. They have, to put it bluntly, been thoroughly filleted. (Although often, in an inside-out reversal of the normal order of things, you can see the animal's skeleton displayed alongside the stuffed skin, as is the case for many of the animals on show at Dublin's NHM.) When stuffing an animal, just the skin is used, stretched around an appropriately shaped scaffold or form, and then stitched in place. But first, the skin must be carefully prepared: any remaining fat or tissue, which would otherwise quickly rot, is scraped off the inside, and then the skin (or at this stage it could probably be called leather) is cured with preservatives.

To make their animal-shaped scaffolds, Victorian taxidermists used a metal or wooden frame, which was then filled with wood shavings and plaster of Paris. Over the years, however, the wood and plaster absorbed water and expanded, eventually stretching and damaging the skin (as happened to the museum's old giraffe. In place of wood and plaster, modern taxidermists use foam, so the same fate should not befall the new giraffe.

Correct size

The first thing the Dutch taxidermists will do in January is to take a generic giraffe foam shape, bought off-the-shelf, so to speak, and sculpt it to the correct size for the new skin, paying special attention to the animals's face. Then the skin will be glued and stitched in place, ready for display.

The stuffing is not the only thing that is different nowadays; museums have also changed the way they get their animals. Many of the animals acquired by the Natural History Museum, which opened in 1857, were shot by trophy hunters. (And here's a game to play next time you visit: Spot the bullet-hole. For instance, the polar bear, donated by Irish Arctic explorer Capt McClintock, has a particularly neat hole in its head.) Not only is such trophy hunting now frowned on; with endangered species it is also illegal, and museums must ensure that the specimens they accept have been legally acquired.

Skinned on the spot

Dublin's old giraffe was shot in Africa in 1898 by one Col Plunkett, who had it skinned on the spot and later presented the skin and skull to the museum. The noted London taxidermy firm of Rowland Ward mounted the skin for exhibition for the then princely sum of £30, and it arrived in Dublin on May 25th, 1899. In contrast, the new giraffe skin came from a Dutch wildlife park where the animal died of natural causes 30 years ago.

Dublin's wonderful Natural History Museum, begun by the Royal Dublin Society in 1792, is one of the old-style cabinet museums so beloved of Victorians, and with none of the irritating gee-whizzery found in so many modern centres. (As you may have guessed, I'm a fan.) A cross between a taxidermist's workshop and a hunter's trophy room, it is affectionately known to generations of Dubliners as "the dead zoo".

If you would like to see the new giraffe take shape, drop in any time from January 7th to 11th. Groups should book in advance with Damien Walshe, the museum's education officer (01-648 6362). It looks set to be one of those rare encounters between art and science.