Last Two Dioramas (Almost) Completed

I finished the Florida Everglades diorama by installing the new red-bellied woodpecker taxidermy mount and adding new Spanish moss.


The Spanish moss arrived after the holiday break from Maishe Dickman, who collected it in Florida. It was nice and supple, but I knew that if I merely painted it and hung it over the branches, it would become as brittle as it dried like the old moss. So, I prepared it as I did with the Wyoming grass. I soaked it over the weekend in a mix of glycerin and water.


The color is fugitive, so after it dried, I painted it a very light gray-green, and installed it. It should remain somewhat pliable for many years to come.

Bighorn Sheep:

Sheep group copy

I opened the last of the original eleven Peabody dioramas, the Bighorn Sheep, in order to restore/renovate it. Ever since my first day at the Peabody, I was floored by this diorama. The background painting by James Perry Wilson is stunning especially for the illusion he created of deep space. I later found that Wilson reversed the Kodachrome slides so the longest view down the canyon would be on the left wall closest to the viewer. Most diorama painters do the opposite, they use the wall with the longest distance from the viewer to help with the illusion of deep space. Wilson’s perspective grids with which he transferred his references, could create such accurate perspective that he could perfectly paint his landscapes on any shaped background wall that came his way. In this case he proved that he could paint the longest distance on the closest wall and it would work beautifully.

B Sheep canyon

Left wall of the Bighorn Sheep diorama


I began by removing the two mounted white-tailed ptarmigan and the gray-crowned rosy finch. The rosy finch is displayed high up on the cliff face and will be replaced with a carved bird.


The Rosy Finch is a beautiful bird in life. This mount has seen its better days!

The ptarmigans need to be replaced as well, but since they are in the foreground so close to the viewer, I’m not sure a carving, even a good one, will work better than the old mounts. The only way to find out is to try it. Therefore I had Collin 3D scan both ptarmigan mounts and print them out. I will apply and carve the wax coating and paint them. Once installed I will get feedback on how well the models work. If it’s thumbs up, they will stay, if not, they will go and I will replace the old taxidermy mounts (which only look a little threadbare).


Old mount on the left, carving with wax at a rough stage-on right

While the 3D work was progressing, I got my air compressor up to the diorama and sprayed the Orasol dyes to darken the sheep. I ran into a problem during the first stage of cleaning with cotton wipes and alcohol. The sheep’s fur consists of hairs, each hollow inside. As the fur ages, these hollow hairs get very brittle. The hairs break off during the wiping process. I wasn’t finding a lot of dirt, so I stopped the alcohol cleaning. I discovered that hair brushes were also too harsh, so I stopped brushing as well. I found some dermestid beetle activity at the base of the horns in both mounts. Damage was minimal and there were no signs of living bugs, so I merely blew out the exoskeleton frass with canned air. I then moved directly to recoloring the sheep with an air brush. Peabody has several Bighorn Sheep study skins in its study collection, so I checked one out and brought it into the diorama to use as a color reference.


Quite a dramatic difference between the faded mount on the left and the recolored mount on the right.

With a buffing of the glass eyes and some B-72 clear glue used as gloss on the noses, the recoloring was finished in one full day of work, bringing back to life these faded mounts that have bothered me since I began working here in 1988. The satisfaction I feel to restore to their original color is profound. I can only imagine what Ralph Morrill, the original foreground preparator, would say if he were here. The link with Morrill is powerful because, in addition to learning the details of taxidermy and foreground preparation during my mentorship, there was, I believe, an unstated covenant that I do everything in my power to insure the longevity of these unique artistic/scientific displays.

Finally, I removed the old, yellowing “snow” made of ground plexiglass and spread over cotton batting, which was also yellowing. In its place I laid down white ceramic batting and covered it with ground white foam. (see my earlier posting of working on the musk ox) This mix should not yellow over time.

I now have just a few more odds and ends to take care of and then I can leave these dioramas to the next generation. In addition to the ptarmigan and rosy finch models, I need to put a prickly pear into the Point Pelee diorama, the VA deer may need recoloring in the Forest Margin, I have tiny ants and an earwig to make for the Shoreline diorama. I have the flesh fly to create in the Bog. Last, but not least, I intend to exchange a bigger male jaguar mount for the female jaguar in the Tropical rainforest. My work, I hope, will then start to transition to fabricating models for the new museum.

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3D Technology-Dodo Reconstruction

Collin Moret works two days a week for me in the preparation lab working exclusively on furthering 3D techniques for use in my museum exhibit work. He spearheaded our successful project of scanning taxidermy bird mounts back in January 2017 (see past blog posts from December 2016-November 2017) and has taken on a variety of new projects since then. One of these is the creation of a new, slimmer Dodo model.

Kristof Zyskowski, the Ornithology collections manager, mentioned to us that there is an ongoing controversy about how big dodos were.  The Peabody’s reconstructed model was purchased from Roland Ward in 1961.


Reconstructed Dodo model currently on display in the Peabody Museum

Reviewing early descriptions and illustrations of the bird, it is easy to see why Roland Ward created such a large bird. Nevertheless, we have a composite, but accurate Dodo skeleton on display and this is what should guide the reconstruction.


In times past, I have produced soft-tissue reconstructions of early man, King Tut, and of the Torosaurus. In every instance, I have found that the “ecorche” method, sculpting the musculature and anatomical structures on the bony skeleton, produces the best reconstruction. So, why not see what kind of body we get by using the skeleton as the basis of the reconstruction?

Collin wrote about the steps he took to create our new model:

The project started with a Artec Space Spider 3D scan of a brant goose skeleton. The brant allowed me to get a sense of skeletal structure and the scanning capabilities of this complex form.


I analyzed the 3D brant on my computer using the program Meshmixer. This study helped to pave the way for scanning the full sized Dodo skeleton.

The Yale Peabody Dodo skeleton was removed from the display case. Chelsea Graham (Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage) and I once again used a Artec Space Spider scanner to 3D capture the full Dodo skeleton.


I used the Artec software to clean up the digital model and close any holes from areas lacking information. The final 3D model was exported into a 3D sculpting program called Pixologic ZBrush. With ZBush I started to sculpt the muscle structure onto the skeleton. I consulted Michael along with ornithology manuals and anatomical references. With these resources I spent the next several weeks digitally sculpting the proper muscle structure on the bones of the bird. 


After the digital sculpture was finished the file was sent to Yale’s Center for Engineering, Innovation, and Design at Becton Lab for 3D printing. 

And since this is the first time making a soft tissue reconstruction on the computer, there may need to be sculptural adjustments to the print. Stay tuned!


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Digression Back to Ants

I’m biding my time until the holiday break working on the finishing touches to the Red-bellied Woodpecker that I’m going to change out in the Florida Everglades diorama when I get back in January.


Red Bellied Woodpecker drying and needing some more fussing over.


Nicole Pallfy-Muhoray came over yesterday and somehow we got out the box of experimental ants she and I have been trying to produce for the Shoreline diorama. I haven’t liked any of them because they look too big to me. I decided to see if I could silver-solder tiny 0 insect pins together to attach legs to a bigger 3 insect pin. It wasn’t as hard as I thought using a small nozzle for the torch. I used small amounts of 5 minute epoxy with black oil paint mixed in to make the abdomen, thorax, and head.


The bodies of the ants are 12-13 mm long. I’m using the tiny “minuten” insect pins for the antennae

Update: Nicole just came by and said my ants are still too big and she further critiqued my minute antennae telling me they shouldn’t be straight and have to be bent! Fortunately, she’s going home to Ohio for the holiday break and says she and her mother will make some even smaller. I believe they might pull it off. (see Nicole’s mom, Eunice, when she helped me paint pitcher plants for the bog diorama in the Nov 22, 2016 post-Merry Christmas Eunice!)

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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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