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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.