05. January 2018

Is the big cat on display in the museum "real"? What is the gold standard for taxidermy? The SCHIRN MAG explores the work of zoological taxidermists at Senckenberg Museum.

By Katharina Cichosch

The graceful jaguar lounges majestically on its branch: Its front legs are crossed over each other, its back legs dangling down, its head turned slightly to one side. The viewer’s gaze becomes lost in the spots and colors of its seductively beautiful coat for which so many of its kind were hunted. The jaguar exudes calmness – but who can really say, after all, a big cat like this could take up the hunt again at any time when hunger and a suitable opportunity strikes.

True to life, but not actually alive. The perfect illusion is the trademark of Udo Becker and Hildegard Enting, the zoological taxidermists in Frankfurt’s Senckenberg Museum. And this illusion is created through craftsmanship in the best sense of the word, with the greatest precision and skill. “When children stand in front of the display cases they often ask: ‘Is it real?’,” explains Becker. “But what do they actually mean?” Real in the sense of alive, or that it had been an actual living animal at some point in time? Often visitors also find it somewhat difficult to distinguish between the two. An examination of these issues is anything but banal: in an art or natural history museum everything revolves around illusion, reproduction and representation. And zeitgeist also plays a role. But more about that later.

Three-dimensional planning programs?

If you quite soberly consider the jaguar on show here, which is no longer a big cat, you could describe it as a stuffed specimen: a true-to-life taxidermy object that weighs roughly the same as the living animal, and was covered in the actual animal skin. For that to work everything had to be done really quickly after the jaguar died in late 2012, before the decomposition of organic matter sets in. The skin and coat were taken to the tanner, the individual body sections documented down to the smallest detail. Three-dimensional planning programs? Not here! The taxidermists measure and calculate everything themselves. As the Senckenberg is not only a museum, but primarily a research institute, tissues samples and skeleton were made ready for the mammologists section, the mammal experts in the museum.

Only then can Udo Becker get down to his actual work: Since the material becomes very much heavier later he shapes the figure on a metal structure. Then without resorting to casts or prefabricated shapes, like a sculptor he forms the body, which he had studied precisely earlier so as to exactly replicate muscles, ribs and proportions. His most important task: “to create an expression!” Naturally, every exhibit must be scientifically correct, “…we don’t make imaginary creatures here.” Biology provides the framework, but the taxidermists do also have some artistic freedom. What the animal is to do, in what pose and setting it is depicted is the result of discussions, current requirements and finally the vision of the taxidermists and their concept.

Responsibility and respect

As there are no jaguars in Frankfurt Zoo, Becker consulted film footage, books and photos. He liked an image taken by Yves-Jaques Rey-Millet for WWF, the world wildlife fund, so much that he chose the animal’s pose as a model. This pose has to be precisely transferred to the actual animal, only then does the finished coat fit perfectly. Fresh back from the tanner, Udo Becker then had to place the still damp skin onto the finished sculpture. He shows pictures: On one photo the jaguar’s coat is bristling with pegs no more than a few millimeters apart. They stop the coat from bunching up or developing creases during the drying process. This shell must fit the animal in its new position like a glove.

Jaguar Drying, Copyright SGN

When Udo Becker talks of his profession he does so with responsibility and respect: He would never think of treating an animal skin simply like some material or other. It is only rarely that he gets to prepare a big cat like this one, and that makes it all the more precious with all its physical components. But it is not just that: Becker says that when working on an animal he is concerned not only with its value in financial terms, but also in a non-material sense. He is loath to show bloody images, which naturally document his working process. Of course, they are a part of the process, when he takes tissue samples, prepares tendons, has to measure the animal and all its various parts. But he considers picking out such details as motifs just too sensationalist, and moreover for the visitor, who could not experience the preparation process the picture of the whole creature would be lost.

100 pairs of eyes gaze at the visitor

But how are you to answer the children’s question? Not easily at any rate. Once the exhibit is finished, it has become just that for Udo Becker – an item intended for display, which was modeled on a living creature. Often it includes individual elements of the original, mostly the outer hull, the fur or feathers. It is different again for fish, reptiles and amphibians. But when the taxidermist walks through the displayed collection he does not fall under the spell of the gazes from 100 pairs of eyes directed at visitors.

Artificial Body of a Jaguar, Copyright SGN

We pass by a work by Herman ter Meer, the world-famous father of mounting animals as sculptures: He developed the procedure that is gold standard today at the end of the 19th century. Thanks to his invention, mammals from the fox to the jaguar can be preserved and mounted true to life, rather than simply being stuffed in the truest sense of the word. Udo Becker is still enthusiastic about ter Meer’s exhibit today: “Look here,” he points to the ensemble of two orangutans between branches, “that is a truly artistic arrangement – and yet realistic!” The orangutan lying in a lower position looks at the other one, and the pose of his bent arm is reflected in the line of the upper tree trunk.

Artistic freedom

Apart from ter Meer’s famous exhibit the museum’s dioramas are also sure to attract visitors. For Udo Becker it has to be “the supreme discipline” – although he is an experienced zoological taxidermist he has not been able to design one himself yet. There is not a huge demand for new versions of these illusionist display cases, which suggest endless spaces. An ibex in front of mountain scenery, a couple of deer in a field: there is a rather outdated melancholy about these orchestrated images. Although, or perhaps precisely because animal and setting are man-made, the spaciousness so simple and fashioned by hand, the illusion traceable they still have a certain appeal.

Image via: fr.de, Foto: Andreas Arnold

Udo Becker joined the Senckenberg over thirty years ago: After attending school he did his training in the museum itself. “Nature, technology, manual dexterity,” these are the three pillars of his work. Naturally, there is also a limited amount of artistic freedom. On the way to the Zoological Preparation section we pass by all manner of special rooms: dust-free, for metalworking or for plastics – the taxidermists need to keep up with the latest trends in terms of materials.

Expressive faces of apes

Anyone who listens to him even for a short time finds it hard to imagine that all this knowledge can be acquired in a two or four-year training. And both taxidermists agree it cannot: “You never stop learning.” Their workshop is simultaneously office and workplace. There are computers and papers, textbooks and anatomic tables, a box labeled “corals”, color pigments, feather samples, three-dimensional models. On one wall hang death masks, so to speak, the highly expressive faces of apes and giraffes captured for all eternity.

Udo Becker studying the anatomy of a young giraffe, Copyright SGN

In fact, preparing objects for exhibiting or doing museum research is just one part of the every work of the taxidermist. Needless to say, in a museum open to the public there are not only large projects like the majestic jaguar. A colleague from geological preparation comes by, he and Becker share a laugh: Sometimes their everyday work is much less exciting when an exhibition is being set up or paper work has to be done. The work that falls to a taxidermist covers everything from the very delicate painting and silver painting of a fish model through to metal working: “I can also weld!”

Hunted by a predator

There is no official division of work, but every taxidermist has his main areas of works and favorite tasks. Becker points to a group of animals that looks over the shoulders of himself and his colleague in the workshop: “Just look at these foxes – each one is well done, but they all look different. Each taxidermist has his own style.” In the details lies their artistic freedom. In order to depict a kangaroo caught jumping he used an ultralight polyurethane foam for modeling. Otherwise, taxidermists do not depict movements quite so dramatically: Around the turn-of-the century the so-called “dramatic ensembles” were in fashion – a herd of antelopes, hunted by a predator, the more sensational the better. Today, such portrayals are more peaceful, but not boring: The exhibit standing still on four legs is just as much the exception as the motif frozen in movement.

Photo: Katharina Cichosch

But the world of animals does not only consist of fur and eyes. This is where it gets exciting for Hildegard Enting: “Naturally, at first sight my exhibits can’t compete with a sweet dormouse,” explains Becker’s colleague. She makes models of animals that cannot be prepared. Marine creatures, for example, which consist largely of soft parts. Pictures of the spores, which are responsible for potato blight, including their “really disgusting” effects – the yuck factor helping visitors to relate to an exhibit. Or to extinct species. Then you have to really delve into old literature: currently Enting is working on a true-to-life depiction of a dodo, familiar to many people only from “Alice in Wonderland”. Difficult, when you can’t resort either to your own observations or photos: Was the dodo clumsy, fat and lazy? Or was it not totally open, more delicate, but simply unable to fly? You can learn a lot from bad drawings, she argues, when they repeatedly portray similar observations.

Somewhere between an alien and a bear

This profession is also about visualization. Sometimes in the truest sense of the word: “Have you heard of the tardigrade?” asks Enting, and her enthusiasm for the creature that measures just a few millimeters prompts her to google for it. “It is so cute!” And indeed this tiny creature that sheds its skin, which can withstand extreme temperatures and even survive a trip into space unharmed really is characterized as a cute creature even in scientific descriptions. A clumsy creature somewhere between an alien with a vacuum cleaner nose and kind of bear. The taxidermist is planning to make a larger model of the creature, which few people have heard of, because unlike many other tiny creatures it is totally unrelated to them.

Photo: Katharina Cichosch
Photo: Katharina Cichosch

And the dodo? It has meanwhile been given plumage of pheasant’s feathers. Enting has had samples sent, cream-colored, chestnut colored and dark brown feathers, which she attaches, tries out, compares with images. The result of Hildegard Enting’s research, which has included historical drawings and paintings, written descriptions of animal observations and many of her own sketches and experiments will probably move into the Senckenberg Museum in the spring: and with its head tipped slightly to one side it will gaze at visitors with “great curiosity”.