As Michelangelo could eye a block of marble and see David, so Smithsonian taxidermists John Matthews and Paul Rhymer can spot the life in a wedge of polyurethane foam. The yellowish polymer is for them the stuff of faces and necks, limbs and paws and haunches. In a vast, faceless box of a building 20 highway minutes south of Washington, D.C., Matthews and Rhymer are preparing the hundreds of specimens that will be exhibited in the National Museum of Natural History's new Hall of Mammals. It's a labor daunting enough to win sympathy even from Noah. (The hall, which will open late next year, is but one of many improvements to the Smithsonian made possible by the generosity of California philanthropist Kenneth Behring.)
The Greek roots of the word "taxidermy" are straightforward as to its meaning: taxis for arrangement and derma for skin. The taxidermist tans the skins of animals and mounts them on man-made forms—the trade's own mannequins. The forms over which the treated skins are stretched, fitted and sewn were once papier-mâché, but for the past several decades they've generally been made of polyurethane foam. You can order them complete from taxidermy supply houses, whose catalogs offer most species. The entirely bare likenesses look at once familiar and unearthly on the page, and even more startling right in front of you. Or you can order à la carte: limb, head, ear, eye. Look into a drawer of the old wooden card catalog Matthews and Rhymer use for storage and the contents look right back at you: dozens of glass eyes attached like fancy colored buttons to strips of cardboard.
Using their protean foam, Matthews and Rhymer often alter a supplier's form to accommodate the particular skin it will hold or pose it will assume. The zebra mannequins purchased from a catalog, for example, need enlarging to become the majestic Grevy's zebras that will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition. Sometimes the taxidermists simply bypass the catalogs. On a shelf in the studio lies a collection of inch-or-two-long bits of Styrofoam attached to popcorn-size pieces of auto-body filler. They look like—well, nothing at all. But the Styrofoam pieces are bodies and the kernels of filler are heads, and when Matthews and Rhymer are finished, the bits will all be bats.
Some specimens for the new hall were previously exhibited in the Natural History Museum, and these "old mounts"—a number of them irreplaceable because the species are extinct—will be cleaned and restored. (A panda in particular looks in need of a makeover, or, at the least, a good shampoo.) Matthews and Rhymer will give other old mounts a new attitude: through a strategic adjustment of limbs, for example, a running oryx will be brought to a halt and made a nursing oryx. But most specimens will be new. Indeed, the museum has a wish list of species it still needs—mongooses, for one—and has asked zoos around the world to notify the Smithsonian when animals that might have a place in the exhibition die.
Rhymer and Matthews are scrupulous about detail. (Rhymer continues a family tradition at the Institution, where his father also was a taxidermist and his grandfather an illustrator and exhibition designer.) After all, one animal may represent a species; to portray it truly is to respect the species. Both men speak of the need to get right such characteristics as the precise angle of an eye in a head and the exact location of a pupil in an eye, the depth of wrinkles in a snout and the differing definition of muscles on a haunch when an animal runs or rests. Through their painstaking craft, they give creatures an idealized existence after death; capture images that just happen to have all the dimensions of life. They persuade an observer that an animal's energy has been only temporarily contained. In another instant, life will resume: the giraffe will promenade; the zebra will paw the earth, the wildcat will spring, and those tiny bats will scatter to the sky.