June 04, 2013
At this point of my summer internship here at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, I am elbow deep in animal fur and taxidermy mounts and have been learning a great deal about the techniques applied in animal taxidermy. Carl Akeley and William Temple Hornaday, revolutionaries in the field of taxidermy, have now become household names; the innovations in taxidermy mounting made by these men have definitely been studied and applied to the specimens within the KLGO collection.
In the case of the taxidermy mounts at KLGO, a man by the name of Percy Colton is thought to have prepared the specimens for the Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum. An important component of art conservation involves historical research of an artwork or artifact. The identification of maker’s marks, signatures, or even the recognition of a similar hand, or “fingerprint,” in a series of artworks can provide crucial information about the artist, time period, and the materials used during fabrication.
Two specimens that I have been treating consist of a grey wolf mount and a Husky dog mount. During the conservation treatment of these specimens, I have been examining and taking note of both the similarities and differences in the animals’ construction and mounting systems. After spending hours carefully surface cleaning the animals inch by inch, it was revealed that both the dog and wolf musculature and body structures were prepared in very similar manners.
The first critical observation that draws parallels between the two specimens is that their core interiors were both made by the same method: wrapping a large mass of wood shavings, or excelsior, with a cotton/linen twine. The tone, texture, and density of the wood shavings from each individual specimen appear to be nearly identical. Interestingly, the cotton/linen twine used to wrap the excelsior appears to be akin to the twine used in two other specimens I recently treated in the collection: the winter ermine (http://www.nps.gov/klgo/blogs/Itjens-Curiosities.htm).
Secondly, both animals’ interior face structures were sculpted or cast in plaster. The wolf mount has exposed plaster around its eyes, nose, and mouth, as does the husky dog mount. This process likely entailed applying plaster in layers or with plaster bandages (one of Martin Itjen’s commonly-used materials) over top the excelsior/twine bundle until a basic form was accomplished. The material then could be wet-sculpted or dry-carved to achieve a canine-like head.
Finally, both animals’ mouths were fastened shut by the taxidermist, but by two very different methods. In the dog’s case, it is unlikely that the teeth were preserved within the mount because there was a concentrated effort to enclose the mouth with hand-sewn sutures covered in a black fill material, mimicking the black lips of a dog. Alternatively, some of the wolf’s teeth were retained within the mount and jut out from gaps in between the upper and lower lips which have been tacked shut with small copper nails.
The correlation between the materials and methods used in both the wolf and dog mounts suggests there is a strong probability that the specimens were prepared by the same person. Supporting this theory is the fact that Skagway’s population in the 1930s was around 500 people; so if Percy Colton was the pronounced taxidermist in town during this time period, it seems unlikely that Martin Itjen would have outsourced the work, instead of contracting Colton to do it.
Perhaps the real test to this hypothesis will be when I begin my next project: treating and stabilizing two horn-interlocked full size taxidermy moose! It will be interesting to see what observations will be made during the treatment of such large specimens. Stay tuned!
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Did You Know?
The official Alaska state mineral is gold, which played a major role in the opening of Alaska for future development. There were more than 50 gold rushes in Alaska and the Yukon from 1880 to 1915. Learn about one of them at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park!