Plastination and Taxidermy: Which is Best for a Museum?

In a previous blog, I had the chance to give my general impressions on the “Animal Inside Out” exhibition currently being shown at the Museum. I was particularly entranced by the technique used for this exhibition: plastination.

The dried skin, skeleton and jar with internal organs of a green frog.

This green frog (Lithobates clamitans, CMNAR 16855), along with almost one million other vertebrates, is preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature in three different forms: dried, flattened skin; complete skeleton; and formalin-fixed internal organs preserved in alcohol. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Specimen of a Canada Jay.

A close examination of the inner skin of this Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and many other birds preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature makes it possible to describe the original structural layout of bird skins, thus creating an anatomical characterization of the taxon. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are several methods in existence for preserving animal tissues. One technique akin to plastination, called paraffinization, is in use since the beginning of the 20th century. It consists of injecting paraffin into soft, fresh tissues from which water has been extracted. But the results in terms of handling and long-term conservation can hardly be compared to plastination. Just how widespread is the use of this plastination technique, particularly in natural history museums?

The digestive organs of a river otter in a large glass jar.

These digestive organs of a river otter (Lutra canadensis, CMNMA 55582) are preserved at the Canadian Museum of Nature in large glass jars containing alcohol, for anatomical comparison purposes. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Natural history collection curators have a battery of different conservation methods that can be adapted to various uses and specific goals. For example, the Canadian Museum of Nature vertebrate collections that I manage as curator include tens of thousands of complete or partial skeletons. There are almost just as many skins preserved in various forms: round, flat, naturalized, dried, preserved in liquid, refrigerated, and frozen. Over one million complete fish, amphibians and reptiles are preserved in 70% ethanol or 10% formalin. We also have internal organs, though they generally make up a small portion of our collections.

The museum’s freeze dryer.

This freeze dryer at the Museum is used to extract water from an organism. Our phycologists most often use it to dry sediments that contaminate field samples. Once the operation is completed, they can more easily separate the two, just like separating the wheat from the chaff. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Canadian Museum of Nature also owns a freeze dryer for extracting all the water contained in an organism. This produces a dry specimen that keeps its natural appearance and is supposedly easy to preserve. About forty years ago, tests were done to use freeze-drying techniques as a less costly alternative to taxidermy. Our phycologists also prepare diatoms in this manner to reveal their inner structure—similar to what plastination is seeking to achieve.

Mount of an American Robin.

This American Robin (Turdus migratorius), with its naturalized look, was in fact preserved in its integrity, including skin, skeleton and all internal organs. Only the water contained in the body was extracted by freeze-drying. It was unfortunately the only surviving specimen from a series prepared at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

However, unlike the ease of handling associated with plastinated specimens, museum specimens prepared or preserved using the above techniques have a few drawbacks. Mammals and birds prepared using freeze-drying techniques are now too fragile and brittle to be handled extensively. In addition, body fats seep through the skin and damage the fur or feathers, making the specimens more prone to insect attacks. From the specimens in our bird collection prepared in this way, only the American Robin was saved from these destructive agents. Specimens kept in alcohol or formalin pose some challenges because of the dangerous nature of these chemical preservatives, likely to cause serious health problems in humans.

Plastination would be of great value in exhibitions because it produces realistic specimens. Museums would greatly benefit from it because specimens no longer need any maintenance. Why isn’t it being used? Is it because this technique is too costly that museums are so reluctant? Note that preparing the giraffe for the BodyWorlds: Animal Inside Out exhibition required almost 30,000 person-hours of work. An elephant not shown at the museum in Ottawa required 65,000 person-hours. In other words, if I set out to prepare this elephant by myself, I would need 33 years of full-time work to complete the project. It would then be the only project I would complete in my entire career! That’s much too long for a single specimen.

The giraffe specimen in Animal Inside Out.

The giraffe in the BodyWorlds: Animal Inside Out exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Amy Zambonin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Plastination is better adapted to the needs of teaching general anatomy. It is not used in natural history museums. There is however one point in common between plastination and taxidermy in a museum setting. While in the first case the skin is removed to show the original structural configuration of the body’s internal organs, the animals are reconstituted at the museum with the skin back on, in an artistic and often theatrical fashion to exhibit them as naturalized specimens. In this way, specimens in both cases are no longer simply corpses, but creatures that come to life. They are shown in all their splendour to foster an appreciation of, and profound respect for, living things.

(Translated from French)

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