Society Adventures: The Dying Art of Taxidermy - Atlas Obscura
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Society Adventures: The Dying Art of Taxidermy

On March 22, Obscura Society LA visited Allis Markham at her new taxidermy studio in the Spring Arts Tower, a vibrant community in the historic core of downtown Los Angeles. Climbing up to the fourth floor, we gathered for an evening of hands-on taxidermy and behind-the-scenes stories about death at the zoo, flesh eating beetles, and a secret diorama hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM).

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Allis is a taxidermist at NHM and the owner of Prey: Ethical Taxidermy Designs and Classes. Scalpel in one hand, arctic fox in the other, Allis started with a skinning demonstration — the process of removing the pelt from the body. Delicately peeling the skin away, the muscular and digestive system were revealed in a surprisingly clinical fashion — not a drop of blood spilled! Allis explained that when an animal is dying, blood rushes into the organs in a final act of preservation.

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Obscura LA observes a skinning demonstration on an arctic fox.

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photo by David Iserson

The next step is tanning, a chemical process that transforms skin into leather by converting components that can rot, such as proteins, into a stable state. Allis uses a tried and true formula that’s been used at NHM for decades:

1) formic acid pickle down to two on the pH scale; 2) lutan F for a final tan; and 3) Knobloch’s tanning oil. The tanning process takes about two to three weeks. Below, Allis pulls a baby warthog hide from its tanning bath.

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While animals are the stars of the show, many other elements go into each natural history museum diorama, including plants. Because pre-made silk plants are flammable, they cannot be used. Instead, each leaf is made by hand with vacuum form plastic. For a single tree, Allis and her team create over 2,000 leaves from 200 different molds. Each leaf is then hand painted with up to 15 different colors (see an unfinished leaf below).

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photo by Allis Markham

There is also the question of where the animals come from. Manny was a 350 pound, Sumatran tiger who lived at the Los Angeles Zoo. In January 2014, he began exhibiting some troubling symptoms that required an operation. Unfortunately, after being treated, he didn’t wake-up from the anesthesia. After 14 years of educating visitors at the zoo, Manny was donated to NHM where his skin and bones live on, furthering scientific knowledge and educating future audiences.

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photo by Allis Markham

Arriving at NHM, Manny was delivered to the taxidermy department where Allis and her boss, Tim Bovard, took over 200 measurements of the body for reference and prepared the skin for tanning. To clean the bones, they traveled to an offsite location in Vernon, California: a storage container filled with thousands of black, hairy beetles known as Dermestes maculatus. In a matter of days, the beetle larvae ate the protein off the bones, leaving a pristine, white skeleton for NHM’s collection of large land-mammal specimens, a library that helps scientists better understand each species and the challenges they face in the wild.

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photo by Allis Markham

Museum taxidermy is a dying profession. From the top of her head, Allis could name only three taxidermists employed by museums in the United States: herself, her boss Tim Bovard, and Wendy Christensen from the Milwaukee Public Museum. Other museums maintain their collections with contractors.

We feel very lucky to have Allis and Tim working here at NHM in Los Angeles! One new project proposed is reopening the Exotics Hall. Forced to close to the public in the 1990s, the Exotics Hall is currently used as annex office space. Ringtail lemurs, the clouded leopard, and kangaroos, are waiting in the shadows to tell their story.

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Peering into the windows of Allis’ taxidermy studio & classroom in the Spring Arts Tower

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Allis’ studio and classroom. 

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Allis’ studio and classroom. 

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A shelf of taxidermy supplies including Stop Rot, a bacteria that stops rot during the skin prepping process. 

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California quail mount and pelt at Allis’ studio.

Learn more about Allis’ new space and her upcoming taxidermy classes!

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.


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The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!

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