After working in the Traveling Exhibitions unit of the Smithsonian Institution for a few weeks, I moved across the warehouse floor to work in the Model Shop.
One day Walter (my supervisor at the Model Shop) was going to the National Museum of Natural History to visit the Taxidermy workrooms there, and asked me if I’d like to tag along. Of course I did. I loved this particular museum in Washington, and was a fan of the beautiful dioramas in it and in the NY Museum of Natural History.
There are a lot of awful taxidermists out there but the good ones are true artists – sculptors who understand each animal’s unique biology and can create lifelike appearances in a static display.
I’d never been behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum before, so this trip was very exciting for me. It amounted to a lot of walking down stairs to the basement, then sub basement, and then along long white fluorescent lit corridors til we came to the door marked Taxidermy.
Inside was an incredible jumble of all sorts of specimens and vials and contraptions – literally every surface along the long counters, the island, the shelves and cupboards in the two rooms was covered and/or filled with stuff.
When we arrived, the taxidermist was in the far room working on a collection of small brightly colored song birds. He was putting them on a tree branch as he finished each one, to keep them safe until the time that they’d be installed in some exhibit.
He was a reserved sort of man. He and Walter discussed business while I poked around – careful not to touch anything. When it was time to leave, the taxidermist presented me with a gift – a taxidermied starling.
I was flabbergasted. I know most people think of starlings as annoying menaces, but if you look closely you’ll see it’s a beautiful iridescent creature. Although some members of my family think my dead bird is creepy, I love it (the only time I’m allowed to take it out is at Halloween).
Walter teased me all the way back to the Model Shop about my new boyfriend, and continued to tease me for a long time. But he also made me a customized styrofoam storage container for my starling to protect it.
I never saw the taxidermist again. Apparently he had quit and the next time I visited the Taxidermy workrooms at the Natural History Museum it was with a crew of 5 or 6 of us from the Model Shop led by Walter. We were entrusted with cleaning up the work space – whatever that meant.
The workrooms were still an incredible jumble of stuff and as we went along we were told not to touch any snake specimens as they could still contain poisons in their fangs and mouths. There were several such large specimens laid out or coiled haphazardly around the studio and Walter took care of those himself.
We were to organize all the remaining specimens and then get rid of jars, liquids, or chemicals that we might encounter. There was a fridge and freezer in the unit full of carcasses and jars of stuff – someone more senior took care of that. There were birds, mammals, and bug specimens – there were sticky spills and mysterious gummy things…
At one point I was cleaning off a counter top and went to move a clear plastic ziploc bag, with what looked like old wood in it. I picked it up and suddenly realized it was a mummified hand and part of a forearm – I squeaked in shock – it was macabre in there, to say the least.
The whole time we were in there there was a constant backdrop of people swearing in surprise, small yells of horror, and giggles. There were several large bins of garbage at the end of the process but all the specimens were left and the place scrubbed down. Someone (I don’t know who) started pouring stuff down one of the sinks – and none of it was labelled so no one knew what the liquids were.
All of a sudden a loud alarm sounded throughout the museum, and the voice of security barked out of speakers telling the public and all the staff to proceed to the nearest exit and evacuate the building.
This museum is one big museum. The alarm went on for a long time. We could hear footsteps running down the halls as we got ourselves cleaned up and out of there. We ran for the cars that we’d come in and went back to the Model Shop to finish the job later after whatever the crisis was, was over.
Turns out that pouring all those mysterious gunky fluids and things down the drains had set off a dangerous chemical fog that was moving through the Museum – oops.
The Museum had to stay closed for the rest of the day – oops.
Another museological lesson learned.
It really was a great internship.