Musk Ox Diorama Renovation

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.

Musk OX 2018

Musk Ox with new darker coloration

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.

Musk OX 1900 II

This is a photograph of our male Musk Ox in the 1901 AMNH annual report. It is identified as the Peary Musk Ox collected on one of the early Robert E. Peary arctic expeditions

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.

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Wrapping It Up

IMG_0904We put the glass on the Bison diorama last week after I walked through the diorama one last time. It felt good to see all the new grass and the new flowers, the restored cowbirds, and to know that the bison mounts are stable and colored accurately. In fact, I feel confident that the repairs made these past months will last for 50 years, probably more like 100 years. The fact that the animals were collected in the 1880’s will just get more impressive as time passes.

For me personally, I got to acquire proficiency repairing old, cracking taxidermy mounts under the supervision of the conservators, Julia Sybalski and Fran Ritchie, who developed the techniques at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I made new noses! for two of the bison, repaired eyelids, and recolored a total of eight taxidermy mounts in three dioramas. The Alaskan Brown Bears can no longer be confused as having albino coloration! I supervised Collin Moret as he scanned and 3d printed the Great Plains Skink in the Mule Deer diorama. I prepared and installed new grass collected from Wyoming. The work on these dioramas over the past six months has been one of the true highlights of my thirty year career working at the Peabody.

As I walked out of the diorama, I swept away the pattern the soles of my shoe left in the foreground dirt. And while the glass is on now, it will be removed again before the construction on the new museum interior begins. The dioramas will all have plywood coverings with a door and window for protection.  It’s hard to believe, but they are the only displays that will remain as is, in the new museum. And when they open, they will be clean, restored, and in peak condition.


Walter breaking it all down

A final huge thanks to Avangrid for funding this project.Devices

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Installing grass


I am in up to my neck in Bison grass! The glycerine treatment is over and the grass is dry. I have made little tufts of grass by gluing grass into pieces of wire mesh. I have sprayed a highly keyed pastel acrylic paint onto the grass to match the color that we notated when the grass arrived fresh from Wyoming.


Hard to believe that color is accurate, but it matches the color swatches!

I use plaster to install them permanently into the foreground. I was worried I might have to break into the surface of the foreground to get the grass placed naturally, but I shaved the protruding grass under the mesh to about 1/2″ or less and the plaster blends it nicely into the existing foreground. As a final step, I will glue single blades of grass between the tufts to help blend them together.


The plaster will be painted to blend in with the color of the foreground and extra dirt will be spread over that to make the new grass blend in with the old surface. I will be using the Wyoming grass in the most prominent spots since I don’t have enough to extend back into the less visible area behind the bison.

DSCN0659In areas not easily seen, I have re-installed the old Connecticut grass clumps from when the diorama was first built. So we now have a composite collection of grasses-some from Connecticut and some from Wyoming. The authenticity moves from back to front with the grass.


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Scarlet Globemallow Flowers Installed


Three of five new Scarlet Globemallow flowers in the Bison diorama. Note the crumpled brown paper “model” from the 1950’s on the left.

The flowers are lifesize, only about 6cm or 2.5″ tall. The work was quite fussy at that small size. The leaves were multi lobed. I sandwiched a green light gel in the mold with hot melt glue. I clamped the mold to make a very thin cast and then used a scalpel to cut them out. Insect pins were pushed into the base of the leaves. Medical tubing was used to cover the pins and then flocking was blown over a glue coating on the leaves to make them fuzzy.  The pins of each leaf were pushed into the shrink tubing covering the wire stem. It sounds complicated, but it produced the plants fairly quickly.


The procedure for casting the petals of the flowers was similar to that of the leaves, but with an orange light gel and using 5 minute epoxy rather than hot melt glue. Hot melt glue was used to adhere the petals at their base. This was nice because I was able to draw up the stamen in the middle of the flower with an insect pin before the glue cooled. The color of the orange light gel was too intense for the pastel color of the petals so I sprayed a lighter orange color on the surface of the petals. That cut down the color saturation and made the petals less translucent-both good things.


Last two flowers installed.




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Grass Production

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Cutting the grass. Adhering it to the wire mesh.

I started the grass work using the “authentic” Wyoming grass. It has now been soaked in glycerine and hung to dry, which keeps the grass from curling as it dries.


Once the grass is cut away from the sod, I push it into the wire mesh slathered with Lascaux 498HV, a thickened adhesive. The recycled drinking cup, hot glued to the mesh, holds the grass upright.

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First batch started-hundreds to go!

The plan is that the grass will be adhered to the mesh, the cup will be removed, the grass will be painted to look like it is alive, and the mesh will be adhered onto the floor of the diorama, most likely with a mache/plaster mix. The mache will also be painted to look like a ground surface. I have told our development office that I should be done sometime between mid-October and the end of October.


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Success with Glycerine

Grass w Glycerine

Glycerine treated grass

Grycerine treated grass straightened out beautifully! The treatment perfectly solved the problem of drying grass curling. I ordered an expanded metal mesh in stainless steel to create the grass “plugs”. I plan to cut the mesh into 2″X 3″ rectangles. I will remove the grass from the sod, and then hot glue the grass onto the mesh. Finally, they will be painted the color of the living grass. Collin made color studies as soon as we got the overnight grass shipment from Wyoming. 2018-08-21 16.19.43These grass “plugs” will be situated around the diorama and most likely, they will be plastered into place when the placement looks good.Devices

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Alaskan Brown Bear and Mule Deer Dioramas Re-sealed


Whalley Glass Co. doing the heavy lifting

Both the Alaskan Brown Bear and the Mule Deer dioramas have been brought to a level of restoration to be able to re-close them.


Two more finished up! Now, I will go on to the Bison diorama to get the grass from Wyoming ready for installation. the final touches will be to put a new BEVA nose on the male bison and to install the Scarlet Globemallow flowers.


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