Animal Instincts

In the Smithsonian's new Hall of Mammals, taxidermists have given the specimens everything but the breath of life.

November 28, 2003|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Beauty may only be skin deep, but don't tell that to John Matthews and Paul Rhymer.

As scrupulous as they are about external appearances - making sure that glass eyes have the right tint, that tongues are long and slimy enough, that fangs are correctly aligned - they also know that what's inside counts, whether it's foam, clay, old newspapers or auto body filler.

"A coat can hide a lot" may be good fashion advice, but it's not good taxidermy; and taxidermists are what they are: Matthews and Rhymer have close to 50 years experience between them, the last several spent assembling the 274 wildlife specimens on display at the Smithsonian's new mammal hall.

The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals - named after the wealthy California land developer, avid hunter and one-time pro football team owner who footed most of its bill - opened Nov. 15 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

While Behring may have stuffed the Smithsonian's coffers, Smithsonian taxidermists Matthews and Rhymer brought the hall to life, using assorted tricks of the trade to create the twinkle in the eye of the lynx, the taut muscles in the legs of the okapi and the fluffy coat of the brown bear - the latter achieved with Pert shampoo and a blow dryer.

Work began about five years ago, with the last two spent working under the high ceiling of a warehouse in northern Virginia - there were two giraffes, after all - where they created new mounts and refurbished old ones.

Taxidermists don't use the term "stuffed" animal, and the craft has evolved since the days hunters first took their most-prized prey to upholsterers. Now it's a meticulous combination of science and art, the goal of which might be most simply described as what a tailor does, in reverse: Instead of making a coat to perfectly fit a body, taxidermists make a body to perfectly fit a coat.

Working on the exhibit was a taxidermist's wildest fantasy, Matthews and Rhymer said. In an occupation that, at least domestically, consists mostly of mounting deer heads on plaques, they had a chance to work on oryx and okapi, giraffe and jaguar, the tiny pink fairy armadillo and the extinct thylacine.

"These are things most taxidermists only dream about," said Matthews, a commercial taxidermist in Cape Cod before joining the Smithsonian. "Like the okapi, that was a once-in-a-lifetime animal."

The Smithsonian taxidermists, along with three others hired to create the new hall's exhibits, began work not long after Behring, then owner of the Seattle Seahawks, donated $20 million to the Smithsonian to renovate the natural history museum's rotunda, west wing and mammal exhibits.

The finished product is 22,500 square feet - three times as large as the old mammal exhibit - complete with interactive displays, television screens set underneath clear sections of floor, a simulated rainstorm and, at almost every turn, lifeless but lifelike wildlife.

With nearly 300 specimens and fossils, the exhibit focuses on evolution and features mammals from Africa, Australia, South America and North America.

In addition to two mounted giraffes, there is an exhibit on their predecessor, samotherium africanum, a short-necked creature that existed 14 million years ago. As vegetation grew taller, so did the animal.

Another exhibit shows a bronze replica of the Morganucodon - a 4-inch-long, rodent-like creature with a long snout that lived alongside dinosaurs 210 million years ago. "Morgie," as he's known for short, has become the mascot of the mammal hall, with plush toy replicas of him available in the gift shop.

The mounted animals, though, are the meat of the exhibit, and unlike most wildlife art of its type, the animals are not encased in glass dioramas, walking through sand.

Instead, two lionesses are shown in mid-pounce, taking down a water buffalo. A leopard rests in a tree, eyeing his quarry - an impala whose body is draped lifelessly over a branch.

"The decision was made not to do standard dioramas," said Sally H. Love, exhibit developer. "In the past, they've always been very passive, showing the animal at his most boring."

So, in the section devoted to Australian mammals, a koala bear climbs a clear plastic tube, showing how its paws work; in the South American section, an anteater, previously standing alongside her baby, now carries the baby on her back.

Behring's $20 million donation, in 1997, was followed by controversy. Critics said it was part of a ploy to get the carcass of an endangered sheep he killed in Kazakhstan imported to this country. The Smithsonian, which had planned to display the sheep's pelt, later dropped the plan.

In 2000, he donated $80 million to the National Museum of American History, the largest gift in its history, for an overhaul of its exhibits. The donations made him the Smithsonian's largest donor ever.

About 25 animals from Behring's personal collection - the endangered sheep not included - are displayed in the new mammal hall.

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