Fairbanks Museum Taxidermy
Taxidermists at the Fairbanks Museum
What is taxidermy? It's the practice of creating a life-like mount for display using the skin of an aminal. Many taxidermy mounts include glass eyes and metal skeletons to give the animal a dynamic appearance, and some taxidermists pushed this practice further by creating groupings that help us understand how animals live. The Fairbanks Museum is a treasure-trove of late-Victorian taxidermy, many of the animals are arranged in full-habitat displays that tell intimate stories about how these creatures live. Consider these installations Victorian-era Virtual Reality -- a chance to wander through a world that would be out of reach!
During the late 19th century, collectors amassed large collections with hundreds or thousands of specimens. It was fashionable for wealthy Victorians to display mounts of birds and small mammals in their homes. Natural history museums embraced taxidermy as a way to display animals in their halls, calling attention to the diversity of creatures that inahbited our planet.
One prominent museum practitioner who ushered in the era of the diorama was Carl Akeley. He began his taxidermy career at Ward’s Natural History Establishment, a company also noted for progressing taxidermy techniques, before moving on to the Milwaukee Public Museum and finally settling in at the American Museum of Natural History. His work in the development of natural history displays had wide-ranging influences throughout natural history museums, including the Fairbanks Museum.
The first collections at the Fairbanks Museum were those of Franklin Fairbanks, which he had collected over his lifetime. The museum’s records do not reveal much about which taxidermists Franklin used before establishing the museum. One we know of was C. W. Graham, a businessman who operated a “Museum of Taxidermy and Curiosities” in St. Johnsbury, Vermont in the 1870s and 1880s. During this time a popular way to display mounted animals, especially birds, was on “bird trees.” These were groupings of up to thirty-five birds. Many of the birds that came from the mansion of Franklin and Frances Fa’s home were displays of this type.
When the museum opened in 1891, a group of animal skins from Australia were among the first to arrive, including two platypuses, two koalas, and an echidna. Most were mounted by Graham. A couple were prepared by William Balch, who was working for Graham at the time. Balch lived in nearby Lunenburg, VT and started doing taxidermy in the late 1870s. Balch was a keen observer of the natural world, an exceptional photographer, and skilled taxidermist. When Graham moved to Portsmouth, NH in 1890, Balch was asked to work directly for the museum as part of his wider taxidermy business. All of the full habitat groupings at the museum were prepared by Balch. He continued creating mounts for the museum until his death in 1919.
Balch’s son, Walter, tried his hand at taxidermy and a few of his mounts can be found in the museum’s collections. However, his skill did not match his father’s, and his mounts lack the life-like positioning that is a hallmark of William Balch’s work.
One of the next taxidermists to fill the museum’s needs through much of the middle of the 20th century was Ernest Skinner of Passumpsic, VT. Many of his mounts can be seen throughout the museum, including the bald eagle that has been displayed in our endangered species exhibit for many years. He was in many ways similar to Balch in that he was a great observer of nature and sought to represent it in the most accurate way in his work. In recalling a snowy owl he saw in his childhood in a newspaper interview, he said “I was fascinated by that bird, how life-like it looked. I vowed to learn how to mount birds that way.”
Since the mid-1900s, the museum has relied on other local taxidermists, all with equal passion for their work and the natural world. The museum is no longer actively collecting as it did in its early years. However, there are some gaps in the collections we are working to fill. Recently taxidermied specimens include three turtles to fill out our collection of Vermont species.