After the Bison diorama was finished and the barrier removed, I started working on the Musk Ox diorama. The big pieces of glass on front of most of our dioramas are hinged at the top and it is possible for me to open them by myself with just a screwdriver. I remove the screws and swing the glass up onto stanchions to hold it so I can slip into the diorama. It’s a good design except we have had one diorama where the hinges rusted over time and the glass cracked as we tried to pull it open. In the Musk Ox we didn’t have this problem.
The musk ox, like the bison mounts are historic. They were taken off display and decommissioned by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in the mid 1940’s, which is when the Peabody brought them to New Haven. The musk ox mounts were done by John Rowley, an apprentice of Jenness Richardson, the taxidermist of the Peabody’s bison. Rowley was a full-blown student of diorama construction. In 1898, he wrote about newly innovated sculptural techniques in taxidermy and some early descriptions of how to fabricate lifelike foliage with wax and paper. Rowley had much to do with the development of museum dioramas just as those ideas were starting to coalesce in others like Carl Akeley and James L. Clark.
By repairing both the bison and the musk ox mounts, I have noticed there was a difference between Rowley’s tanning methods vs his teacher’s. The Richardson 1889 bison mounts were cracked on the midline both on top and underneath. There were transverse cracks on the flanks and every leg had large splits in the skin. In contrast, the Rowley musk ox were only cracked underneath and two out of four legs were open on the female and the male. Clearly, Rowley had used a different tanning recipe that, I believe didn’t include sulfuric acid, which continues to degrade the composition of the skin over the years.
Therefore, the repair process on the musk ox wasn’t as extensive as the bison and since the cracks were not visible, I didn’t have to “felt” fur into the cracks as I did with the bison. The biggest problem was keeping the long hair out of my face while working underneath them! Once the repairs were made, I mixed the Orasol dyes to a couple of dark brown blends and recolored all three mounts.
The final task was to replace all of the old “snow” (ground limestone and shredded theatrical plastic) with finely ground up white conservator’s foam called ethafoam. This new innovation came from the conservators at the American Museum of Natural History during the renovation of the North American Mammal Hall. As with other Peabody dioramas, I consulted Julia Sybalski, AMNH conservator. She also told me about a white ceramic batting they used as an under-layer in place of the cotton. Both the ceramic batting and the ethafoam have a much longer life and won’t turn yellow. I removed all the old cotton and “snow”, I put down a layer of ceramic batting on top of the plaster base, and sprinkled the ground ethafoam over that to finish up this diorama. The before and after differences due to the renovation in this diorama are not that dramatic, but it makes me happy to know that the mounts are stable, the darker color of the fur won’t fade, and that the foreground snow should stay white for many years to come.