Meet the Taxidermists Who Care for the Animals at Your Favorite Museums

Only a few U.S. museums still employ the specialists. The rest rely on a small group of highly skilled contractors

Hall of Birds
A popular display in the Whatcom Museum’s Hall of Birds features several owls. Whatcom Museum

After visitors enter the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington, most flock to the Hall of Birds. The display of almost 500 taxidermy subjects, which has been part of the museum since its founding in 1941, garners more attention than the other exhibits, including the 18th-century jail cell and the maritime history gallery. Visitors to the hall gawk at the many specimens—a trumpeter swan, eagles, snowy owls—donated by John Edson, the naturalist who collected and mounted the birds around the turn of the 20th century.

“I know for certain that it’s wildly popular because I hear the squeals of delight, all the time,” says Maria Coltharp, the Whatcom Museum’s director of collections, who cares for the historic taxidermy in the Hall of Birds. “It’s near and dear to a lot of people’s hearts in this area.”

Many of the birds in the exhibit are over 100 years old and require constant vigilance for pests, careful dusting, specialized cleaning and, occasionally, restoration. But Coltharp’s specialty is in caring for post-World War II contemporary art, which does not include prewar birds. She does not have a background in taxidermy, and the museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, doesn’t have a taxidermist on staff. It isn’t alone. Today almost no museums employ a full-time taxidermist, and instead they rely on finding qualified outside contractors with the artistic and scientific skills needed for high-quality museum work.

“Finding those in-house staff is harder and harder in museums now, just across the board,” says Paul Rhymer, who retired as the Smithsonian Institution’s staff taxidermist in 2010. Rhymer says he’s certain he’ll be the last staff taxidermist hired by the Smithsonian. “Taxidermy is just one of those skill sets that’s no longer an in-house staff resource,” he says.

Part of the reason for this, says Dave Might, an exhibits artist and taxidermist at the Cincinnati Museum, is that many museums already have well-established taxidermy collections and aren’t adding as many new pieces as they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In that era, museums were assembling collections and setting up the exhibits that are still on display today. Museums sent out expeditions to collect rare animal specimens, which they would then hand over to the taxidermists.

“It was a big thing then—taxidermy was huge in Victorian times,” says Might.

George Dante, an independent taxidermist who has done work for many different museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York, says that taxidermists in that early era were often paid more than the museum’s curators—who were technically their bosses. “It was a revered profession, especially in the museum community,” he says.

Now, Might is one of only a small number of taxidermists employed by American museums. The five museum taxidermists interviewed for this article knew of only one full-time taxidermist on staff in a U.S. museum and just a few others who had taxidermy as part of their job description. Qualified taxidermists who can do contract work of museum quality are still out there, says Dante. But a major challenge, especially for smaller institutions like the Whatcom museum, is even knowing when they need to ask a taxidermist to help maintain or restore a collection and where to turn to find a person who can do that work.

The difficulties generated by the lack staff taxidermists are exacerbated by a larger trend in museum staffing. Rhymer says overall museum staffing has gone down following the Covid-19 pandemic, and that many staff took early retirement through that time. Now, museums are having trouble finding qualified people to fill vacant jobs, and this loss of experience and institutional knowledge has worsened the divide between museums and independent taxidermists. “You’ve lost this incredible knowledge base,” says Dante, who founded the Institute for Natural History Arts in part to help connect museums and taxidermists.

At the Whatcom museum, Coltharp didn’t know how to properly care for the avian specimens in the collection. She worried that even seemingly simple things like dusting the birds on display could damage them. Since she joined the museum in 2019, the Hall of Birds has intimidated her. “It was probably the piece of this collection that scared me the most being responsible for, because it seemed really unlike anything I had ever cared for before,” she says.

Before coming to the museum, Coltharp had worked almost exclusively with art collections. With the bird specimens, she needed to identify those animals that needed restoration work while also figuring out how to care for the beloved flock. Not being sure where to start, Coltharp prioritized other parts of the Whatcom’s collection.

This year, she got help with the Hall of Birds thanks to the interests of another Whatcom museum employee. Adrienne Dawson, now the director of marketing and public relations, had taken a taxidermy class on small animals in her then hometown of Austin, Texas, in 2019. Wanting to grow her hobby, she followed a taxidermist on social media and registered for a 2023 course at Prey Taxidermy in Los Angeles. She eventually went to Prey Taxidermy’s Los Angeles studio for two classes that year, one focusing on starlings in March and the other on quail in November.

Prey Taxidermy is an independent studio founded and run by taxidermist Allis Markham. The studio contracts with museums, does custom commercial work and holds classes for the public.

Allis Markham Teaching
Allis Markham teaches a class on bird taxidermy at the studio of Prey Taxidermy in Los Angeles.  Adrienne Dawson

In 2023, between her two classes at Prey Taxidermy, Dawson moved to Bellingham to work at the museum and saw how popular the Hall of Birds was with the community. She knew she wanted to somehow get Markham up to Washington State. Dawson convinced the Whatcom, and in 2024 she brought Markham and a few of her colleagues from Prey Taxidermy to the museum for a screening of the documentary Stuffed and to lead a workshop on bird taxidermy.

STUFFED - Official Trailer

Markham and Paloma Strong, a taxidermist and the studio manager, say the goal of museum taxidermy is to create a unique experience that connects visitors with animals.

According to Strong, viewing subjects in a museum creates bonds between visitors and nature. “You can just take a peek and see what it would be like if you’re just a fly on the wall in the middle of a jungle or in the middle of the savanna,” she says. “And then you get a connection with it, and you care about it.”

Coltharp saw an opportunity when she heard the skilled taxidermists were coming to the Whatcom museum. She emailed Markham and Strong to see if she could get their opinion on what needed to be done in the Hall of Birds.

Coltharp worried the assessment would not go well. Much of the taxidermy was done over a hundred years ago, often while the collector was out in the wilderness on expeditions. She was also concerned she was missing something in how she cared for the birds. She dusted them the way she dusted fine art, and she was at a loss for what else the aging birds needed.

Markham and Strong were worried, too. “Let me just tell you what I’m expecting,” says Markham, “heads missing, pests, feathers everywhere, inaccurate specimens everywhere.”

Those fears were misplaced. “We look at the first little display or diorama, and it was immaculate,” says Strong. “It was incredible.”

Markham and Strong immediately noted the lack of pests, which can spread through taxidermy collections and attack the specimen. If such pests get established, specimens might even need to be destroyed. The museum had set traps to catch any bugs that might make it into the locked displays. The taxidermists did note that a few specimens had skins cracking with age and as a result of a lack of proper internal support, and they identified several birds that they could repair back in their studio.

But, most importantly for the Whatcom museum, the visit began to address the main challenge that Dante says museums face with their taxidermy: not knowing what they don’t know. Now, Coltharp is empowered. She knows that her cleaning and pest control methods are working, and she has a strong connection with taxidermists she can contact when issues with the collection go beyond her skill set.

Prey Taxidermy
Paloma Strong (left) and Allis Markham of Prey Taxidermy, in their Los Angeles studio.  Andre Pattenden courtesy of Prey Taxidermy

Maintaining taxidermy subjects like those at the cherished Hall of Birds at the Whatcom is important, Markham says, because encountering a life-size animal in a museum is a deeper experience than just seeing it on a screen.

While taxidermy is enjoying a boom in popularity—according to the taxidermists interviewed for this article, more people than ever are taking up the craft as a hobby—it takes a special skill set to work on museum pieces. “Museum-quality [taxidermy],” says Might, “is going to be a little harder to find.”

Museum taxidermists need to be both artistic and scientific in their work to create high-impact specimens that connect with visitors. They also need to problem solve, says Dante, to work on rare animals where multiple specimens aren’t likely to be available for taxidermy. One of the pieces that Rhymer is most proud of is the gorilla now on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The animal, named Blanche, had died at the Buffalo Zoo in 1999.

After receiving the animal, Rhymer created a display that captured the gorilla walking toward visitors on the first floor Hall of Mammals. “One arm was up, reaching out, and so we wanted people to be able to make that connection through the eyes, through the hand, to see and make those relationships between you and that animal,” says Rhymer.

He and Markham both agree that good taxidermy involves having a reverence for the animal. “I don’t think I need to do better than mother nature. I don’t really want to change anything on them,” says Markham. “I just want people to enjoy the most fascinating part of life. And that’s nature.”

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