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Charles Waterton.

Essays on natural history, chiefly ornithology online

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and I don't know whether it be very prudent in me
to hint that it is high time for them both to
digress, and to mend their pace. I am much more
cautious now, than I used formerly to be, in giving
my opinion, when I enter a museum. The burnt
child generally dreads the fire.

Some years ago, curiosity led me to stray into a
very spacious museum. As I passed through a
kind of antechamber, I observed a huge mass of out-
stretched skin, which once had evidently been an
elephant I turned round to gaze at the " monstrum
horrendum informe," when a person came up, and
asked me what I thought of their elephant. " If,"
said I, " you will give me two cow-skins, with that
of a calf in addition to them, I will engage to make
you a better elephant." This unlucky and off-hand
proposal was within an ace of getting me into
trouble. The sages of the establishment took cogni-
sance of it at one of their meetings ; and somebody
proposed that a written reprimand should be sent
to me. However, a prudent voice in the assembly
y



3 C 2 1 2 MUSEUMS.

caused their wrath 'to subside, and smiles played
once more over their hitherto benign countenances.

I have occasionally noticed the defective manner
in which birds are stuffed for museums. At present,
I will confine myself solely to quadrupeds ; and, in
my remarks on the very inferior way in which they
are preserved, I beg to declare that I make no allu-
sions whatever to any one museum in particular.

It may be said with great truth that, from Rome
to Russia, and from Orkney to Africa, there is not to
be found, in any cabinet of natural history, one single
quadruped which has been stuffed, or prepared, or
mounted (as the French term it), upon scientific
principles. Hence, every specimen throughout the
whole of them must be wrong at every point.

Horace, in giving instructions to poets, tells
them how he would have different personages repre-
sented. Let Medea, says he, be savage and uncon-
querable ; let Ino be in tears ; let Ixion be perfidious;
let lo be vagrant ; and let Orestes be in sorrow :

Sit Medea ferox invictaque, flebilis Ino,
Perfidus Ixion, lo vaga, tristis Orestes."

Now, should I call upon any one of those, who have
given to the public a mode of preserving specimens
for museums, to step forward and show me how to
restore majesty to the face of a lion's skin, ferocity
to the tiger's countenance, innocence to that of the
lamb, or sulkiness to that of the bull, he would not
know which way to set to work : he would have no
resources at hand to help him in the operation ; he
could not call to mind one idea which would enable



MUSEUMS. 323

him to restore the protuberance which is seen over
the eye, or to give boldness to the front, or expression
to the lips, or beauty to the cheeks, or, in fine, sym-
metry to the whole. He could produce nothing
beyond a mere dried specimen, shrunk too much in
this part, or too bloated in that ; a mummy, a dis-
tortion, a hideous spectacle, a failure in every sense
of the word.

But how comes it, that such clever and enter-
prising men, as those generally are who have the
appointment of working-curators to museums^ should
never yet have discovered the true cause which has
occasioned all their errors and mistakes ? The an-
swer is brief and easy. They have not gone the
right way to work in their attempts to overcome
the difficulties which stared them in the face. They
seem not to have reflected sufficiently that the
quadruped, before they skinned it, was of beautiful
form, and of just proportions, and had that in its
outward appearance which pleased the eye of every
beholder; but that no sooner had they taken the
skin off, than it lost its beauty, and these fine pro-
portions ; and that the parts which still in some mea-
sure retained the appearance which they had in life
would, in the course of a short time, contract and
dry in, and put on a very shriveled and mummy-
like appearance. Add to this, that, in stuffing their
animals, they have tried to effect by despatch what
could only be done by a very slow process.

Thus, in order to prevent the skins from becoming
putrid, especially in hot climates, it has always
been a main object with these operators to get the
Y 9



324- MUSEUMS.

skins dried as soon as possible. Again, finding that
the skins wanted support, they have placed inside
of them a hard body of straw, or of tow, or some-
times of wood, by way of a solid foundation, into
which they might fix their wires. Such a process
must effectually destroy every chance of success.
The nose, and lips, and ears, &c., of the specimen
may look well for a few days after the operation ; but,
in the course of time, they will become so hideous,
that every connoisseur will turn from them in
disgust.

These remarks are just. Let us go and examine
a stuffed monkey, for example, in any museum we
choose. See ! its once pouting lips are shrunk to
parchment ; its artificial eyes are starting from the
sockets ; its ears seem like the withered leaf of
autumn ; and its paws are quite gone to skin and
bone. It is what it ought not to be: it is the product
of a bad system, which ought to be exploded in
these days of research and improvement. But how
is this defective system to be improved, so that a
specimen may be produced, which shall be right in
all its parts, durable as the table on which it is placed,
safe from the depredations of the moth, and not
liable to injury when exposed to damp ? To effect
this, two things are indispensably necessary. The
first is, to put the skin of the quadruped upon
which you are going to operate in a state to resist
putrefaction, and the attacks of the moth, without
the use of that dangerous, and at the same time in-
efficient, composition, known by the name of arsene-
tical soap. The second is, to keep the skin moist



MUSEUMS. 325

during the time in which you are imparting to it the
form and features which it is ultimately to retain.

These most necessary points are gained by im-
mersing the skin in a solution of corrosive sublimate
in alcohol ; and afterwards, when you are in the act
of restoring it to the proper form, by touching certain
parts of it, such as the nose, lips, and orbits, with a
mixture, one portion of which is salad oil, and the
other three are spirit of turpentine.

Those who preserve quadrupeds for cabinets of
natural history seem not to be aware that, after
the skin of the animal has been taken off, there is a
necessity for some parts of it to be pared down from
within. These parts are chiefly the nose, the lips,
and the soles of the feet. Unless they be rendered
thin by the operation of the knife, there will be no
possibility of restoring to them that natural appear-
ance which they were seen to possess in life. The
inner skin of the ears, too, must be separated from
the outer one, until you come close to the extreme
edges. Nothing short of this operation can save the
ear from becoming a deformity.

Every bone in the skin, to the last joint of the
toe, next the claw, must be taken out, in order to
allow the operator an opportunity of restoring the
skin to its former just proportions.

The mouth must be sewed up from the inside
(the skin being inside out when you sew it), begin-
ning exactly in the front, and continuing the oper-
ation each way to the end of the gape. When the
skin is taken out of the solution, it must be filled
quite full of chaff or sawdust (but I prefer chaff),
Y 3



326 MUSEUMS.

not minding whether the fur be wet or dry. When
this has been done, the skin has almost the appear-
ance of an inflated bag, quite deficient in feature
and in muscular appearance. " Rudis, indigestaque
moles." It now depends upon the skill and anato-
mical knowledge of the operator (perhaps I ought
to call him artist in this stage of the business), to
do such complete justice to the skin before him, that,
when a visiter shall gaze upon it afterwards, he will
exclaim, " That animal is alive ! " " Stare loco nescit,
micat auribus, et tremit artus ! "

There are now no obstacles, either from without
or from within, to impede the artist's progress. The
skin is perfectly free from all chance of putrefaction,
is quite supple, and will remain so as long as re-
quired. There is no hard body inside to obstruct
the transit of a working-iron ; there is not any thing
in the shape of wires to prevent him from lengthen-
ing or shortening the neck, body, thighs, and legs,
according to his own judgment.

Now we proceed to support the skin in any
attitude the artist may wish to place it in.

Join two pieces of wood in the shape of a carpen-
ter's gimlet, and of size corresponding to the size of
the animal. When you have nearly filled the ab-
domen with chaff, introduce this machine, and let
the shank hang down outside of the skin, just as
though it were a fifth leg in the centre of the body,
equidistant from the fore and hind legs. This fifth
leg, or what may be called the shank of the gimlet,
is of any sufficient length, and is passed through a
hole in the table before you, and then fastened with



MUSEUMS. 327

a couple of wedges. By this contrivance you can
raise the animal as high as you wish, or you can
lower it at your pleasure; and the feet will just
touch the table, without requiring any wire inside
to support them. I used formerly to put a stick
into the skin by way of back-bone, with pieces of
string tied to it at short intervals. These pieces of
string were passed through the skin, just where the
back-bone had been ; and then they were attached
to a gallows above, which gave an excellent support
to the skin. But I now prefer the other process, as
I find it more convenient.

Every thing is now ready for the artist to exer-
cise his abilities.

With a piece of iron, from the size of a large
darning-needle to that of a ramrod (or larger and
thicker still if the bulk of the animal require it),
and shaped at one end like a carpenter's pricker, he
will push out every part of the skin which ought to
be pushed out, and then reduce with the end of his
finger any part that may be too prominent ; having
already made divers small holes in the skin with his
penknife, in order to afford entrance to the working-
iron. Thus, a small hole on the top of the head will
enable him to reach the nose, upper lip, and cheeks ;
another behind the root of each ear ; another under
the jaws ; others, again, on the back, that he may
reach the legs and remaining parts of the body.
Under each foot there will also be a hole, to give
him the opportunity of getting at the toes. The
lips are by far the most difficult part to manage.
The operator must have a working-iron in both
y 4



hands. One of these will do the work within the
head, and the other that without : for the lips re-
quire to be re-formed with a beautiful rotundity ;
and this can only be effected by means of the inner
and the outer irons working in opposite directions.
During the actual operation, the animal need not be
kept in its original position. A smaller animal may
be placed on the operator's lap: the larger may be
thrown on the ground, or on the table. Every day
the nose, and lips, and orbits ought to be touched
with the oil and turpentine, in order to keep them
moist. At first, after you have used the working-
iron in every quarter where it is required, there will
be no appearance of a re-formation of the features.
Nevertheless, in the due course of time, as the skin
stiffens, the artist will see the features gradually
appear ; and every day he will be more and more
content with his work. At last, the skin will retain
the slightest impression communicated to it by the
touch of the working-iron. Thus the artist will
have it fully in his power to reproduce wrinkles, or
warts, or hollows, or a smooth surface, just as occa-
sion may require.

The fur will be equally under his command. He
will raise it, or depress it, according to circumstances,
and it will retain the position ever after. Thus, a
stuffed cat in anger will exhibit a tail of the same
extraordinary bulk which it does when a dog threat-
ens its existence.

All animals ought to be well washed in soap and
water, with a hard brush, before they are skinned.



MUSEUMS. 329

This will have a surprising effect in beautifying the
fur.

As there are parts of a quadruped's skin which
are bound down, as it were, to the bone (at the
eyes, for example), it will be necessary to pass a
thread, with a sufficient knot at one end, through
these parts, and to let the end without a knot hang
loose after it has been drawn out at the opposite
quarter. Thus, there must be a thread in the ex-
tremities at the gape of the mouth, and one at the
corners of the eyes; and others in different parts
of the body, according to the operator's judgment.
By pulling these at the end which hangs out, he
will be enabled to depress the parts into their
natural shape.

The artificial eyes must be put in on the first day
of the operation, and taken out and put back again
every time the head of the specimen is modelled.

When all is completed, and the skin has become
perfectly dry, the artist takes out the chaff or saw-
dust ; and he finds that the specimen is quite firm
enough to stand without any support from wires.
He cuts three sides of a square hole under the feet,
to let out the chaff; and when this is done he re-
turns the skin to its place.

A slit must be made in the crown of the head, or
under the jaws, to allow him to fix the artificial
eyes with a little putty or wax. The slit, if properly
done, will leave no mark on the fur.

If the quadruped be stuffed in distant countries,
with an intention to be sent home, it may be cut
up, when finished, into three or four separate pieces,



330 MUSEUMS.

and this will facilitate the carriage. When dividing
it, the operator must take care to hold his knife so
as to humour the angle which the fur forms with
the skin. Thus, were I to cut a preserved skin in
two parts, the blade of my knife would point to the
head, and the haft the tail of the animal. By
attention to this, not a hair of the fur will be cut
during the operation.

I will just add here (although it be a digression),
that there is no difficulty in making the legs and
feet of eagles, turkeys, and other large birds, retain,
their natural size. You may go through every
known museum, and you will find that the legs of
these, and of all large birds, are dried and shrivelled,
as though they belonged to the mummies of ancient
days. In order to give the legs of birds a natural
appearance, and a natural size, the skin, from the
very claws to the top of the leg, must be separated
from the bone by running a working-iron betwixt
it and the bone, and then modelling the skin with
the working-iron.

The wattles of fowls, the caruncles of turkeys,
and the combs of cocks, by the simple process of
internal modelling, may be made to retain their
natural size.

I have now given an outline of the mode of pre-
serving quadrupeds upon scientific principles. Here,
then, I stop ; for I can go on no farther. I can no
more explain, by the agency of my pen, how to
make the thousand and one little touches which are
necessary to insure success, than a fiddler can con-
vey instructions by letter to one who has never



MUSEUMS. 331

used the bow. He may tell him, forsooth, to draw
the horse-hair at right angles over the catgut ; and
he may add directions how the learner is to stop
and shift, and. stop and shift again, until he shall
produce delightful music. But this will avail him
nothing. The lad will scrape and scrape again, for
want of personal instructions, till at last the man
who is doomed to be punished by his. grating will
cry out,

" Old Orpheus play'd so well, he moved Old Nick ;
But thou movest nothing but thy fiddle-stick."

I have turned this new discovery ten thousand times
over in my mind, and I invariably come to the same
conclusion ; viz. that I cannot give sufficient in-
struction by means of the pen alone. I am placed
in a situation somewhat like that of the French
cook, who was ordered by his king to make a dish
out of that which put his culinary powers utterly at
defiance. " I have turned it every way, an't please
your Majesty," said he ; " and I have tried it with
every kind of sauce ; but, positively, I cannot make
a dish of it" Neither can I effect, through the
medium of the pen, that which I could wish to do
in this case. Wherefore, I beg to inform the reader
that it requires the dissecting hand of the instruc-
tor, and from two to three weeks of actual work
upon a specimen, to render the novice an adept in
this new mode of preserving quadrupeds for cabinets
of natural history. But, as I have neither leisure
nor inclination to assemble pupils around me, I
must request him who approves of the plan to be



332 MUSEUMS.

satisfied with the outline Avhich I have just given
him. I have no doubt but that his own abilities
and industry will eventually crown his efforts with
success.

Upon this new principle I have prepared the
large ant-bear, a land tortoise, an armadillo, a dog's
head (now in the possession of the Duke of North-
umberland), a hedgehog, a polecat, and the non-
descript.

These specimens will be amply sufficient to prove
that animals with a rough coat of hair, others with
a smooth one, others with a shell, others with a
scaly armour, others with a soft fur, and others, in
fine, with a skin studded over with spikes, can have
their form and features restored ; and that the skin,
prepared after the manner which I have described,
will always retain its shape and brilliancy, and be
quite free from the ravages of the moth, or from any
detriment by being exposed to damp.

Museums ought to be encouraged by every means
possible. The buildings themselves are, in general,
an ornament to the towns in which they have been
built ; whilst the zoological specimens which they
contain, although prepared upon wrong principles,
are, nevertheless, of great interest ; since they afford
to thousands, who have not the means of leaving
their own country, a frequent opportunity of seeing
the rare and valuable productions which are found
in far distant parts of the globe.

When I visit Leeds, I generally spend an hour in
Calvert's Museum, where I never fail to be highly
gratified. Mr. Calvert is a gun-maker of the first



MUSEUMS. 333

order. I am always lost in admiration when I cast
my eyes on the vast collection of treasure which
this lover of the arts has brought into the spacious
and well-proportioned apartment, built at his own
expense, and arranged after his own plan. In con-
versing with him on the habits of those animals
which have come under his own immediate notice,
I perceive something so true, so pertinent, and so
straightforward in his observations, that I always
feel regret when I see by my watch it is time for. me
to depart.

It has been remarked by some, who have conversed
with me on this new process of preparing specimens
for museums, that it would take up too much time.
I am not aware that this would be the case ; for he
who is solely occupied in preparing specimens
would always contrive to have several on hand at
one and the same time. But, even granting that a
great portion of his time were spent upon a single
animal; is not one good specimen worth twenty bad
ones ? B Who would fill his gallery full of Holland
toys, when he has it in his power to place there
statues of the first workmanship ?

Indifferent specimens are admitted into museums
only because better cannot be procured ; and better
will never be procured, until a radical change be
made in that mode of preparation which is now in
universal use.

I often think that the directors of public museums
commit an error in not giving more encouragement,
in a pecuniary point of view, to those whom they
engage to prepare the specimens. The very mode-



334; MUSEUMS.

rate salary which these meritorious men receive is
not a sufficient requital for their services. Moreover,
the quantity of work which is required at their
hands too often prevents them from trying experi-
ments, which might probably prove of vast utility to
the establishments under their inspection. Should
this paper find its way across the water, and attract
the notice of our Gallic neighbours, who are full of
genius, and are remarkable for their perseverance, I
do not despair to see a great alteration for the better
at their magnificent establishment for natural his-
tory in the Jardin des Plantes, on my next visit to
the French capital.



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Online LibraryCharles WatertonEssays on natural history, chiefly ornithology → online text (page 26 of 28)