The Auckland Museum blog is still finding its footing a little bit. And that’s OK. Like stuffing an elephant, good things take time.
Meanwhile I thought I’d chip in and share some pictures that I came across during a recent visit with some of the curators who look after our wonderful collections.
Behold then: the making of Rajah, one of Auckland Museum’s best-known exhibits – and a somewhat mammoth exercise in taxidermy.
Rajah the elephant has a special place in my memory just as he does in the memories of many visitors to Auckland Museum of a certain age.
Funnily enough I don’t recall ever considering how he came to be stuffed. Possibly, like my teddy bear, he was alive in my childhood imagination (just keeping very still around others who didn’t understand him like I did).
Here he is when he was actually alive, trumpeting around the Auckland Zoo.
The Zoo bought him for 125 pounds in 1930. Not sure what the equivalent of that would be today.
I’m sad to discover that Rajah wasn’t a happy elephant when he was alive. Aside from being in captivity, some horrid person had stubbed their cigarette out on his trunk, making him (rightly, I’d say) rather hostile to visitors.
So the Zoo put him down – all 4 tonnes of him (or 4000 kilograms, the equivalent of around 200 six-year old boys).
Enter Charles Dover, a taxidermist on Auckland Museum’s staff, who got to work making him into a museum exhibit.
Here’s how our curator of land vertebrates (things that live on the land and have backbones), Brian Gill, describes the rather gruesome process in a New Zealand Geographic article from 2002:
“Three weeks were spent on the hide alone, scraping and paring it down on the inside to remove fat and connective tissue. Meanwhile the scraped-down bones were placed on the roof of the museum to weather. [...]
Dover built a framework of timber struts and iron rods, incorporating papier mache casts of the skull and pelvic girdle for added fidelity. Wooden replicas of the ribs were made. The framework was finished with a layer of fine wire-netting covered with scrim and packed out in places with fine wood shavings.
The outer most layer was papier mache, painted when dry so as to be waterproof. Finally, the wet skin was taken from a tank of preservative and slid into place on the framework, which had been oiled to make the job easier. While still pliable, the cut edges of the skin were sewn together, final adjustments made and the finished mount left to dry” (The full story is called “The rogue’s return” and is published in Volume 55 of the New Zealand Geographic, on pages 8-9).
And here are the photos that I found on my tour with our pictorial collections curator, Gordon Maitland, during a welcome chance to leave my computer and my desk in the part of the Museum that does digital stuff.
(It seems somewhat cruel irony that Charles Dover is often pictured smoking).
So there you have it. The making of Rajah – a project that took seven months to complete. And you were thinking this was going to be another food post!
You’re either a taxidermy person or you’re not. I’m not sure I am…
But I do enjoy finding out about how things get made, and what lies beneath the surface of the objects we encounter around us in the world. I hope that you do too.