We’re working with Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital to learn more about what’s inside our treasured natural history collections.
This duck-billed platypus was one of the early mammal mounts acquired by the Fairbanks Museum from a local taxidermist and businessman, Clarence Warren Graham. He had a business on Main Street in St. Johnsbury called C.W. Graham’s Museum of Taxidermy and Curiosities. Franklin Fairbanks acquired a number of things from Graham in the years leading up to the museum’s founding, including cultural objects in addition to other natural history specimens. This platypus is attributed to him.
The echidna skin came also came from Graham, but was mounted by William Balch, who worked for Graham until Graham moved his business to Portsmouth, NH in 1890. When this move happened, Graham wrote to Franklin recommending Balch to as an accomplished taxidermist to do future work for the museum. Balch went on to do most of the early taxidermy for the museum, including the iconic habitat groupings found in the main hall of the museum’s first floor exhibits.
These two specimens represent a category of mammals called monotremes (egg-laying mammals), one of three groups of living mammals. They are only found in Australia and New Guinea.
The x-rays reveal twisted wires that were bent by the taxidermist to provide a structure around which the “filler” material was wrapped. Sometimes the wire would extend beyond the mount to secure it on a base. Filler materials varied from specimen to specimen and include cotton batting, wood shavings/sawdust, and plaster molds. The eyes are made of glass. Harris comments, “Often bones are left in as much for providing guidelines for the taxidermist to know where to put a joint as for structural support or anything else. Some bones can’t be taken out without seriously damaging or destroying the skin, like small, delicate wing and paw bones.”
Knowing what goes on inside might be helpful in conservation to show internal damage (like breaks in wires, screws, etc… or corrosion possibly.) “I can imagine that they’d be useful in helping to know where fasteners are located (screws, etc…) that aren’t visible or obvious from the outside. Just knowing what bones are there can be helpful with adding support,” says Harris. Conservation of these historic specimens is central to the mission of the Fairbanks Museum, so they can be appreciated for generations to come.