Is it Real? It Sure Looks It!

Bernadette’s in a tizzy. There’s a speck of dust on the spotted fawn’s eyeball! She notices another bit of dust on the roebuck. “Good God!” She curses. “How did that get in the case? I just cleaned!” She may sound like your average housewife, but she isn’t. When she goes home each day from her job maintaining almost 10,000 specimens at the Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, New York, Bernadette Hoffman has to answer to her Canadian lynx Max. Despite what she claims, he does growl!

Each day when Bernie comes to work, she passes under the steely eyes of four big game mounts over the stairs to the second floor museum:

Heads mount the stairs from the Pember Library to the second floor Museum. Ascending the stairs from the right: sable, greater kudu, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope

Once she climbs the second set of stairs, she flips on banks of lights over the display cases, turns on her computer, and toggles between answering visitor questions and the scientific work of collection maintenance.

Eight-foot tall cases line both walls of the museum space, birds on the left (shown above) and mammals on the right. In the center are shells, rocks, skins. Ahead you can see the caribou on the door to the attic, and just beyond on the right is a leopard and ocelot.

Dusting is just one more task in the life of a curator, but it’s a perpetual one. Realism is at the heart of good taxidermy and a large part of its art, and a speck of dust spoils the illusion. A recent six-year-old visitor gaped at a resting fawn in the third case from the back. “Is it alive?” I shake my head, but he insists: “It must be alive! It looks so real!”

His next question averts what might have been an interesting philosophical conversation about the nature of reality with sheer practical curiosity: “Did they shoot it? I don’t see any bullet holes.” I shrug. A good taxidermist will keep you guessing. In perpetuity. Then my six-year-old friend shifts gears: “I think they made the tiger into a rug because they shot it so many times they couldn’t stuff it.” Out of the mouths of babes.

A good taxidermist gives us something even NatGeo Wild can’t: the opportunity to look close and long at a once-living animal that is almost as lively in death as it was in life. You can stare as long as you like. Close inspection imparts a sense of awe at the intricacy, delicacy and beauty of nature’s work. “Look! The possum’s carrying its babies on its tail!” he exclaims.

The Pember Museum display cases are specially designed to keep all but the most persistent dirt and dust out. Cleaning specimens is a huge task and requires a specialist. A costly specialist. These cases are a good eight feet tall, clear glass, well-constructed oak. Original to the museum, founded more than 100 years ago.

Franklin Pember, Museum founder, was born near Granville in 1841.  He was an entrepreneur, with interests in the fur trade, oil fields, and orange groves.  From boyhood, he was interested in the natural world and collected mounted birds and mammals, bird nests and eggs, shells, insects, plants and rocks and minerals.  This collection became the basis of the Pember Museum.

Pember is one of many natural history museums dotted across the US and the world, created by enthusiasts and hunters who wanted more from their prey than the meat, who gloried in the wild diversity of natural life and wanted to help others see it too.

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