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PHOTOS: A look inside the taxidermy lab at The Natural History Museum

by Mukta Mohan | Off-Ramp

Taxidermist Allis Markham works on a female Cooper's hawk at the Natural History Museum on April 24th, 2013. Mae Ryan/KPCC

The Natural History Museum is celebrating its 100th year this summer. They’ll celebrate with two new exhibits, Becoming LA and Nature Gardens which will feature dozens of taxidermy animals including birds, possums, and cows. 

Off-Ramp’s Mukta Mohan talked with taxidermist Allis Markham to find out what it’s like behind the scenes at the museum and to learn about the art of taxidermy.

In the North American Mammal Hall at The Natural History Museum, families gather around dioramas and watch rare animals in their natural habitats. There are jaguars, bison… even polar bears. But unlike at zoos where the animals roam around, all of the animals here are preserved and made to look alive through taxidermy. Allis Markham is the newest member of the museum’s taxidermy team.

Markham describes taxidermy as “science meets art.” She says, “At the end of the day, we’re artists. We’re creating sculpture. It’s model making. You’re just working with this organic material that is essentially an animal.”

On the fourth floor of the museum is a temperature controlled taxidermy lab with no windows—that keeps the skins from fading in the sunlight. Death masks line the walls. Thousands of reference photos lie in drawers, and a full-sized Corriente cow stands in the middle of the room.

All of the museum’s animals either were donated or found dead in the wild by staff members like Markham. The space is cluttered with tools used for taxidermy — steel brushes, thread, glass eyes. Markham uses scalpels to skin animals and prepare them for mounting.

“I mean it’s like the old phrase, ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat,'" said Markham. "I can tell you first hand, that there is. There’s several different types of incisions.”

In her lab, a parrot lies on a tray with its wings spread out. All of the bird’s insides have been removed, revealing the slimy skin underneath the feathers.

Markham gently holds the parrot skin up to a fleshing wheel, a rotating wire brush that shaves off the fat from animals.

“It’s almost weird for me that people are like, 'oh grossed out, that’s dead.' Well, it ceased living, but it’s still very much organic and there are things happening with it, and I’ll make it look alive again,” says Markham. “It’s all just science, and it’s all anatomy and nature, and I think that’s beautiful.”

To view some of Markham’s recent work, visit the new Nature Gardens exhibit opening in June and the Becoming LA exhibit which opens in July at The Natural History Museum.

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