Inside the world of museum taxidermy

By Angela Heathcote 20 October 2017
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Jo Bain, who’s worked at the South Australian Museum as a taxidermist since the age of 15, guides Australian Geographic through the changing face of his beloved profession.

“WHEN I FIRST STARTED, if you needed something you just went out and shot it and that was considered fine.” Jo Bain, now 52, began working at the South Australian Museum at the age of 15. He recalls his superior dragging him to a local national park to shoot small birds to be used in a diorama at the Museum. “I was just devastated. My motivation for doing taxidermy is my love for wildlife and I think it’s important to show people our fauna, because without knowing what’s out there we cannot protect it.” 

Now the only taxidermist left at the Museum, Jo does things his own way, and has for a long time. “If you work for a museum and you have the appropriate permits you can go anywhere. I choose not to do it because I don’t think it is right. It’s not the ethic I want to perpetuate.” Instead, Jo relies solely on road kill and donations from pet owners and zoos. The difficulties that can arise when using mangled remains rather than clean kills has encouraged Jo to formulate new techniques that are currently revolutionising the trade. 

The beginning

Jo has been working with road kill far longer than his career at the Museum spans. “As a kid I wanted to be a vet but as I got older I realised everything dies anyway. I got fairly cynical so I just decided that taxidermy was the way to go and so I started experimenting at home,” he tells Australian Geographic. Picking up dead animals off the road, taking them home, taking them apart and then putting them back together again was a common childhood pastime for Jo, which must have come as shock to Jo’s parents and teachers.

“I tried communicating with the Museum back then but because I was so young they didn’t want a bar of me. I had the skills from a very young age I just wasn’t allowed to start until I was 15-years-old.” When Jo eventually got his big break, his methods weren’t popular amongst the older, more seasoned staff. He recalls one his first encounters:

“Many years ago I was putting together an echidna exhibit when Alan, a 90-year-old taxidermist who had previousl worked at the Museum walked past. He said ‘what are you doing?’ He was renowned for being quite an unpleasant man. He said ‘in my day you’d rip them up the guts fill them full of hay, nail their feet to the floor and pat them on the sides.’ Then he stormed out of the room.”

Jo explains that this age-old method is more comparable to upholstery than taxidermy, and it doesn’t have much shelf-life. “It was much easier back when Alan was the Museum’s taxidermist, they worked with skin, wire and hay -I work with the latest synthetic resins to 3-D printing. Consultation with conservation departments ensures we can make these things last. A properly prepared animal can last 500 years but we want to extend that,” he says.

Despite the occasional run-in with the mature staff Jo’s unconventional approach to taxidermy is what has made him a life-long asset to the Museum.  And it’s paving the way for a revolutionary approach to the ancient trade.

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Jo working away in his studio. (Image Credits: Denis Smith/South Australian Museum)

3-D imaging and taxidermy

“Recently I’ve had to do some extinct animals. One of the problems we had with a plesiosaur I was working on was that its head was crushed by a bulldozer and so I had fragments of bone and I had teeth,” Jo says. Guided by the remains he had and old drawings of the animal, he created a 3-D image that he then printed and used to shape a muscle by muscle reconstruction of this long-gone creature— a process which allows visitors to look into the face of an animal no human had previously seen before.

“With valuable or rare birds for instance, you don’t want leave the skull inside so I’ve developed some slightly weird moulding techniques to replace faces and hands so that we can remove the entire skeleton and keep that for scientific reference,” he says.

When asked whether digital technology could ever entirely replace the role of taxidermy at the Museum, Jo is resolute. “For me, and you see it with children especially, there’s nothing that replaces the feeling of being able to stand in front of a specimen or object. Digital media is great because it allows you to do things you previously couldn’t do with a physical object but being able to see the physicality of an animal in front of you is extraordinary.” You can enhance everything with digital media and augmented reality which is what we’re keen on doing at the museum,” he says.

According to Jo, the mammal gallery of the SA Museum is the only place you can get within 2 cm of a lion, a tiger or a cheetah without any sort of danger. “When you stand there and see how powerful the animals are you’ll see there’s nothing that can replace it. In a museum you don’t have constraints and you can accentuate the things that make that animal unique. For that reason I think it’s very important to museums.”

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(Image Credits: South Australian Museum)

Apprentice wanted

Today, there aren’t a lot of museum taxidermists around, which Jo says has a lot to do with government funding. But thanks to a kind donation from an unnamed philanthropists, the museum now has the money to take on an apprentice this coming November. And he’s eager to pass on his knowledge of taxidermy and all the new technologies he’s helped develop since he first started at the Museum all those years ago.

“When I was 18 and still at art school —blue hair and all — the headmaster asked me what I do and I told her that I’m a taxidermist. She said ‘oh I thought they were creepy old men that lived in basements.’ Now I’m 52 and I probably am considered a creepy old man that lives in a basement so it was a self-filling prophecy.”

Any fresh blood willing to take on the position will certainly have their work cut out for them. It seems that the most important thing for Jo is that they share his love for wildlife. “For me it’s about protecting our wildlife… I walk around the museum and a part from the Aboriginal gallery most of it is my work. One of the things I really love is to watch the way kids respond and interact with the animals.”