Museum conservation team polishes elk, vacuums ocelots

Photo by Gideon VanRiette

The Kansas University Natural History Museum's panorama exhibit is an epic example of 19th-century taxidermy, with flora and fauna from all the biomes of North America gathered together in one display. The Rocky Mountain habitat (pictured above) flows into temperate forests, which fade into tundra, and eventually become polar bear-filled Arctic landscapes. In the other direction, you can find the prairie and the desert and the Central American jungle. Originally built for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, it's one of my favorite museum exhibits.

It's also in need of some serious conservation work, which explains all the folks in hazmat suits, tromping around the biosphere like a cross between Merry Maids and Ancient Aliens.

All of this is just the first part of a full restoration effort, explained Giles Bruce in The Lawrence Journal-World:

… after decades of exposure to light and humidity, the panorama is in need of a makeover.

"As these mounts begin to fall apart, they create this disconnect between the viewer and the object," said museum spokeswoman Jen Humphrey. "They begin to see the cracked skins and the faded hides instead of seeing the woodland scene or seeing the animal on the mountain or taking in how big an elk is."

The preservation project began with a $50,000 "challenge grant" from museum board members Kent and Janet McKinney that was then matched by other donors in the community. In total, about $100,000 is going to fund the conservation assessment.

The assessment started last year, with an analysis of the toxic chemicals in the exhibit because, in the late 1800s, taxidermists used heavy metals to prevent insect infestation. Researchers found arsenic, mercuric chloride and lead (possibly from the background paintings). Thus, the hazmat suits.