His herd of eight
East African elephants, an exhibit in the hall that bears his name, is
considered by some the greatest feat of modern taxidermy. In shadow the huge
shapes seem to move as a moon through clouds. One young elephant guards the
herd with a flared trunk and menacing eye. The elephant seems to be keeping the
hunter, no doubt Akeley, from the herd. But the taxidermist mellowed with age,
as do many big-game hunters, writing, "There's no fun in shooting zebras
and wild asses. It makes one feel uncomfortable."
Akeley died in the
Belgian Congo stalking gorillas with a camera. His mountainside grave site is
depicted in the painted backdrop of the gorilla habitat in Akeley Hall, where
authenticity demanded that an African blackberry bush be reconstructed at the
cost of $2,000.
is the only taxidermist now at the museum. A quiet, reflective pipe smoker, he
works in a corner of one of the old buildings. Surrounded by mounted heads,
birds twisted into natural positions by clamps and hatpins and the more modern
materials of epoxy and polyester, he talks of his trade.
preparing specimens for the new Hall of Reptiles for several years," he
says. "We keep live animals up here for study, to get the poses right and
to check color and skin texture. A lot of animals die from diseases, of course,
and we sometimes kill a specimen for its skin or skeleton.
"Last year we
had a Burmese python. The scientist in charge wanted a model of him because
this species is one of the very few snakes known to incubate its eggs. Many
snakes just lay eggs, bury them and crawl off, but this one coils around its
nest of eggs and generates heat by flexing and rippling its muscles. The museum
is dedicated to authenticity, so we were going to kill the snake and mount its
skin. But first we decided to try another technique."
members of the herpetology department paid a visit to the Bronx Zoo, python in
tow. The snake was anesthetized, then arranged in the coil shape required and
coated with plaster of Paris to make a mold of its body.
perfect for this because they're flat on the bottom, no feet or toes that would
be difficult to cast," says Schwendeman. "The difficulty was that
because snakes are cold-blooded, the python couldn't stand the hot plaster. So
when it got to 100� after 17 minutes we took the snake out. We had a perfect
mold and the python emerged alive and well. The snake had eaten little or
nothing for six months before we molded it; afterward it was very
The next step was
to fill the plaster mold with fiber-glass-reinforced polyester resin. When that
hardened, the mold was broken away, leaving a perfect replica of the python.
This was painted, scale by scale. Arranged with plaster eggs, it now sits under
a piece of Saran Wrap, ready to take its place in the Reptile Hall.
techniques make taxidermy a less funereal art than it was in the 19th century,
still it is a dying art in the American Museum. As Schwendeman digs an epoxy
salamander from a mold he explains, "It used to be that the museum hired
apprentices, and you learned your trade here in the museum. That was true for
the tanners, the foreground men, background painters, all of us. But the museum
cannot afford large staff's anymore. There is a state training program now that
provides me with a helper, but there is no way to tell if he will be a