by Patrick McShea
Museum visitors sometimes offer spontaneous testimony to the deceptive power of taxidermy.
“There’s a dead bird!” is a comment frequently voiced by people encountering a bird specimen lying on its back in Bird Hall, such as the Wilson’s phalarope pictured below. These specimens, so often called “dead birds”, are actually called study skins.
Study skins are a traditional form of specimen preparation for birds in scientific collections. Unlike taxidermy mounts, which attain a pretense of life through concealed body forms, strategically positioned wires,
and glass eyes of the appropriate size and color, the cotton-stuffed study skins appear lifeless.
The more than 154,000 bird study skins in the museum’s research collection have all undergone similar preparation. For each specimen the full skin of the bird was carefully removed from the underlying muscle,
skeleton core, and internal organs, preserving every feather of the creature. Such Uniform preparation creates a standard for comparisons of features between both similar and strikingly different specimens. In addition, the low profile of study skins allows for their storage in shallow cabinet drawers in the manner of the passenger pigeon study skins pictured below.
Although taxidermy mounts far outnumber study skins in Bird Hall display cases, the “skins” play an important role by representing the most numerous form of preserved specimens in the museum’s vast bird collection. Whether or not adjacent taxidermy mounts seem more alive because they share display space with the skins is something you may judge for yourself during your next museum visit.
Patrick McShea works in the Education and Visitor Experience department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences of working at the museum.