Taxidermy occupies a nebulous, contradictory realm between actuality and artifice. These objects incorporate real pelts and skins of once-living animals, and at first glance they appear alive themselves, albeit frozen in time. That life is, nevertheless, an illusion, carefully crafted by skilled artisans. Depending on the age and quality of the taxidermy, this artificiality can become more pronounced. Fur frays, colors fade, and skins stretched over less-than-perfect mannequins can appear warped or even freakish. Even for the most skilled taxidermists, dead skin and fur are imperfect mediums for creating the appearance of life.
For Leon Walters, a taxidermist and model-maker at the Field Museum of Natural History from 1911 to 1954, the organic nature of real skins was a shortcoming he could do without. Rather than trying to will dead animals into looking alive, he turned to plastics and other inorganic materials to create more perfect animal replications.
Walters was aware of the philosophical quandary of filling museum displays with entirely artificial animals. “Taxidermy has realism as its ideal,” Walters wrote, “and this brings up the question of just what constitutes all we see or regard as ‘life’ or the appearance of life…is there anything expressed through form or color [that] cannot be translated into glass, marble, celluloid, metals, or other materials?” Walters recognized that the goal of a natural history display was to show authentic nature to the public. He argued, however, that the custom of putting actual animal specimens on display was limiting. Too often, these specimens showed visitors what an animal looked like in death, rather than in life. Walters was convinced that other materials were better suited for the task.
And so the “Walters celluloid process” was conceived. Walters would begin by posing a dead animal specimen. This could be as simple as stuffing the skin, but more often Walters used the taxidermy techniques pioneered by Karl Akeley, which involved constructing a clay mannequin to represent the musculature over which the skin could be stretched. Walters preferred very fresh specimens at this stage, and offered some gruesome commentary on how to procure them (drowning is apparently “very satisfactory in most cases.” Scientist or serial killer?). The next step was making a plaster mold of the posed animal. Molds could be taken in multiple parts if needed, but Walters usually attempted to make a single mold, even when working with large mammals.
After the molds were taken, the role of the original specimens was over. Walters experimented with a number of materials for casting, including varnish gums and gelatin. Ultimately, he settled on cellulose acetate, a translucent compound that has been used to make laminating foil, playing cards, and most famously, film stock. The advantage of cellulose acetate is its ability to hold varying consistencies of pigment. Walters would dissolve pigment into the viscous material and apply it directly to the mold. By building up many layers of cellulose acetate with different pigments and patterns, he could reproduce the subtle color shifts of living skin or scales. This was a carefully orchestrated process with little margin for error. Sometimes, Walters had to keep his models rotating on a wheel, synchronized to match the flow of the compound so that the colors would not mix or distort.
In addition to the use of novel materials, Walters’ animal models benefited from his careful observation of nature. When preparing the animal specimens for molding, no detail was too trivial. He took particular care to ensure that the set of the eyes and eyelids was true to life, often propping them up with bits of cotton. Walters also observed animal behavior in the wild, whenever possible. He found that animals in their natural habitat displayed behaviors he never saw in their captive counterparts. For example, he observed that wild crocodiles adopted a “dinosaur-like position in walking” unheard of in the more lethargic zoo crocs. Walters ended up using that very pose for his caiman model.
When Walters first pioneered his celluloid process for creating convincing animal models, his primary focus was reptiles and amphibians. As the years passed, he became more ambitious, molding and casting a hippo, a rhino, great apes, and even a pod of narwhals. Most of these models are still on display at the Field Museum today, and I suspect that few visitors recognize them as entirely fabricated animals.
Walters’ models are not perfect. Up close, one can see a slight loss of detail from the casting process, not unlike one might see on a 3-D print. Like traditional taxidermy, the cellulose acetate is not permanent, and sometimes splits and cracks over time. These models are also extremely flammable, and modern fire regulations require them to be housed in airtight cases.
Ultimately, the Walters celluloid process did not catch on, and real skins and pelts continue to be used for animal displays today. Still, his work has stood the test of time, and he is to be remembered for his absolute commitment to realism in natural history displays. In Walters’ words, “a fabrication in form and color is no less a misrepresentation than if it were in written words.”
Bauer, M.J. March 1946. Twice as natural and large as life are the animals mounted by modern techniques in taxidermy. Popular Mechanics.
Poliquin, R. 2012. The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Walters, L.L. 1925. New Uses of Celluloid and Similar Material in Taxidermy. Field Museum of Natural History Museum Technique Series No. 2.