Creating a Taxidermy Mount from a 40 Year Old Liquid Preserved Cheetah Skin

Introduction.

The Royal Pavilion and Museums holds a diverse, designated collection of natural history specimens in a dedicated building – the Booth Museum. In the 1960s, a dedicated team, including a taxidermist, were based at the Booth. The museum acquired specimens from a range of sources, including from zoos, who donated rarer animals which had died under their care. these specimens were processed rapidly and entered the collections, usually as flat skins and osteology.

Barrels containing skins

The financial cuts of the 1980s began to see staffing levels fall, with the loss of admin staff and a curator. This reduced the capacity to work on taxidermy. To free up freezer space, large specimens were skinned, and the skins placed into barrels of liquid preservative. This was envisaged as a temporary measure which would enable them to be completed at a later date.

More recently, further cuts forced many museums to transfer their natural history collections to Brighton, as the Booth was one of the few regional museums with dedicated natural science curators. This again reduced the capacity to work on new specimens whilst staff cared for existing collections. The preserved skins were left until time or money could be found to process them.

STAGE 1: BIRTH OF AN IDEA

Image of the Big Draw life drawing event in partnership with the Drawing Circus © Brekespere 2015

In the autumn of 2015 the Booth Museum held a life drawing event with ‘The Drawing Circus’ as part of that year’s The Big Draw. This was aimed at diversifying the audience at the Booth, as well as host a drawing event for an adult audience. The event was a great success, and was recognised at the Big Draw awards, where it won first prize of £750 for Museums and Galleries. The money was awarded in the understanding it would go towards a future public event involving arts, craft and public engagement.

Additionally, the Booth was involved in the publicity for a Kate Mosse book, and at the launch event we reconnected with Jazmine Miles Long, a consultant to the author on taxidermy. Jazmine had originally volunteered at the Booth Museum and this reconnection lead to a number of collaborative events and workshops with her.

As the barrels had some specimens of considerable rarity, It was decided that the museum should move forward on a project with Jazmine to complete the skinning process and to create a mounted specimen for eventual display.

STAGE 2: SETTLING AND FUNDING THE PROJECT

The cheetah was chosen as the subject to focus on as it was felt it would be the most engaging to the public, and would support the work of other departments, such as the learning team.

The project would also have an element of community engagement, both in order to make the local audience feel more ownership for the specimen, as well as to generate income to fund the project.

Because of the age of the skin, the experimental nature, and the community engagement element of the project, it was also felt that this might be a suitable project to seek external funding for. Unfortunately, as the skin had spent so long in liquid preservative and the work was not guaranteed to be a success, the application was rejected as too much of a risk.

Thankfully, with the existing prize awarded from the Big Draw, along with projected sell-out income of £1250-1500 from a proposed ‘Late’ event to be held at the museum, we determined we could cover the cost. If successful, it would give the foundation for processing the other skins at a future date.

STAGE 3: BEGINNING THE PROCESS:

To begin this process, a survey of the skin was carried out. The cheetah was removed from the preservative and the fur, skin and features such as nose and claws were tested to see if they appeared firmly attached. As the skin appeared viable at this stage, the next step was to determine the chemical composition of the preservative. Studying a variety of publications on preserving specimens in liquid from the museum’s archives gave a variety of possible solutions, and these were presented to the now retired curator who had originally preserved the skins. He narrowed it down to a 40% Formalin solution.

Jazmine then garnered expert opinions on processing a large mammalian skin from a preservative. The advice received proved quite disheartening and suggested a very difficult if not impossible process. All consensus appeared to be that the skin would either shed its fur, be very faded in colour or be too stiff to work after removal from the preservative.

The preformed mannequin (A) and Jazmine working on the cheetah mount (B)

Undaunted by this information, Jazmine researched how to remove the formalin from the skin. No advice was found in the case of animal skins so she followed the procedure of removing formalin from human tissue. She proceeded to rinse the skin with water then soak it in 99% denatured alcohol. This was followed by multiple baths of water until the water was clean. After this, it was pared down in the same way a freshly prepared and pickled taxidermy skin would be. The skin was then washed with specialist detergent, and tanned. The skin came through the process successfully, though the fur was slightly coarser and duller than would be expected for a cheetah. This, however, may be due to the old age and illness of the cheetah in life rather than from the formalin solution.

Usually Jazmine would build the taxidermy form using the traditional bind-up method studying and copying the anatomy of the animal. However, in this case the body of the cheetah had been disposed of in the 1980s and measurements had not been recorded. Instead, a pre-formed body was purchased. This involved measuring the skin instead of the muscular anatomical structure of the animal and buying a pre made generic cheetah form that fits the skin. This is then carved to fit the skin. We also identified the cheetah’s skeleton in the collection, so glass eyes were purchased to fit using measurements from the skull.

STAGE 4: PUBLIC PARTICIPATION

A Late Stitch Up at the Booth Museum

One of our main aims was to make this project more of a community effort. We had previously held late events which had proved popular, and as we were keen for a more adult audience to attend, we thought this would be the most suitable event for promoting the project.

The main event – the cheetah taxidermy – would host 30 people at a time over 5 sessions throughout the evening, allowing all visitors to see the cheetah and hear about its creation, as well as get a chance to be involved. The idea was to allow those attending the event to put a few stitches into the mount in order for them to have hands on involvement in the production of the piece. All of those who attended the late would also have their names displayed alongside the finished piece to demonstrate it was only made possible by our visitors. However, this also relied on the gamble that not everyone would want to try stitching up the cheetah. Thankfully this was borne out with only a few people in each session opting to have a go, with most of the audience happy to ask questions and listen instead.

The main event was supported by smaller activities, including a series of small talks, a ‘Mr Booth puppet show’, mini writing workshops, and a magic lantern show of old glass plate slides. These were mostly delivered by staff or friends of the museum on a lieu time or voluntary basis. We also provided a bar (covered by a TEN notice) and behind the scenes tours at additional cost, in order to increase our income. In all, the evening proved to be a great success – All 150 tickets sold, mostly to non-members, bringing us close to the £1500 predicted income. Bar sales and tours also brought in a further income after all costs of almost £400. This income, along with the Big Draw money covered both Jazmine’s costs and the costs involved in putting on the late event.

Members of the public get a chance to sew up some of the cheetah mount during the museum late event © MilesLong 2017

FINAL STAGE: COMPLETION AND DISPLAY

Due to the nature of the event and the numbers involved, the cheetah only ended up having one leg stitched up, so Jazmine continued the creation of the mount in the weeks following the event. The skin was mounted and fitted to the form using hide glue and the seams were matched and sewn together. The face was sculpted with clay and the ears and feet were formed using two part epoxy resin. One problem was that the skin was more rigid than a fresh taxidermy skin would usually be, but with the use of pins it was held close to the form whilst it dried. Areas of the skin that were missing due to infection were patched using excess fur. Once the skin dried the nose, around the eyes and pads of the feet were built up using two part epoxy clay and then painted.

Following the completion of the mount, there are a few more aspects to complete prior to the specimen going on public display. The first part is to mount the cheetah onto a more attractive and relevant base. This base is perceived to resemble a patch of rocky savannah with the cheetah’s front legs perched upon a rock as if surveying the plains for prey. This pose is an unfortunate side effect of taking a shortcut of buying a preformed body, as the pose was predetermined.

Marwell Zoo, who originally donated the cheetah to us were contacted and provided us with the information they have on file for the animal. Though there is no recorded name, she was their F1 female (the first female cheetah they kept). She had been born in Poole Children’s Zoo in 1969, and had been given to Marwell Zoo in May 1970. She died on the 4th November 1980. The day prior to her euthanasia, she had been seen by the veterinary surgery and was determined to have the following age-related problems – ‘loss of condition and weight, an abscess in her mouth, several dental issues and some hair loss/patches of baldness’. There was also a large, fly-blown wound over the base of her spine, with some muscle and tissue damage. They have no record as to how this wound occurred. Her official reason for euthanasia is listed as ‘increasing signs of senility and wound on spine’.

This information, as well as how long she has taken to be processed and become part of the collections has been used in the interpretation of the specimen, alongside a panel listing all those involved in the creation of the specimen. The cheetah was revealed at a launch event in September.

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences and Jazmine Miles-Long