August 15, 2019
Four sandpipers are missing from the Birds of Connecticut exhibit hall. We will scan one of the small taxidermied sandpipers to create four models to fill in the blank spots. Rather than kill live birds or have to painstakingly sculpt accurate bird models, can 3-D models scanned from taxidermy mounts work in the exhibit hall? Does the process save time? Are the models scientifically accurate?
- Michael Anderson, chief preparator, Exhibitions, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
- Collin Moret, assistant to the preparator, Exhibitions, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
- Sprout Pro by HP computer workstation
- Dremel IdeaBuilder 3D printer
- DAVID structured light scanner
Situated on the third floor of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Birds of Connecticut exhibit hall is one of the museum’s most enduring attractions, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year. Open to the public in 1972, the hall was meant to showcase the more than three hundred bird species that occur regularly in the state — with each species represented by one or more specimens showing sex, age, and seasonal plumage differences.
But when Michael Anderson joined the Peabody’s staff in 1988, he inherited an unfinished exhibit, with over a hundred slots unfilled. All of the existing models were taxidermied, and obtaining live specimens of the missing birds was too difficult.
So, a few years ago, Anderson started making the missing birds by hand, a time-consuming process. He describes what was involved: “….a painstaking process of producing a ‘gestural’ clay sculpture of general dimensions, molding it in plaster, and casting in a carving wax. Once the model is cast in wax, I measure wing chords and tail lengths, and delineate feather groups and wing feathers using surgical and dental tools. I make a silicone rubber mold of the wax model and cast it in polyurethane plastic. I fill the hollow cast with urethane foam, add eyes, casts of beaks and legs. The model is finally painted, using ornithological bird skins from Peabody collections (and) field guides (as references.)”
Now, with an immersive scanning workstation and a 3D printer, Anderson has a whole new way of sculpting bird models.
To create a model for a missing bird closely related to one they already have, Anderson and his assistant, Collin Moret, scan either an existing taxidermied bird or a study skin (a hollowed out bird body stuffed with cotton to create a bird lying on its back with its wings folded), and adjust the measurements. If neither a study skin nor a model is available (as with extinct birds), they work with models or study skins of similar species, using the technology to adjust the size, colors, and markings.
After the bird is printed from the scan, it is sanded, and skimmed with a thin layer of wax that allows for the addition of fine details. Sometimes the 3D prints themselves have to be further manipulated (for instance, by repositioning a head or tail) to get the precise gesturing. Then the bird gets glass eyes, a beak, and legs before being painted. This digitally enhanced workflow reduces the building process from months to a couple of weeks for each bird model.
In February of 2017, Anderson and Moret installed the first digitally-created bird model into the Birds of Connecticut exhibit hall — a non-breeding Baird’s Sandpiper. The following month, they added three other sandpiper species. As spring progressed, they added several other birds. When they are done over the next several months, twenty of these models will join their taxidermied relations in the hall’s exhibit cases, each model reviewed by the museum’s ornithologists to ensure accuracy of markings, measurements, and coloring. Models of four extinct birds — the passenger pigeon, the heath hen, and male and female Labrador ducks — are among the twenty. Anderson and Moret have made more progress towards the goal of a completed Birds of Connecticut exhibit over the past several months than they had made over the previous years using traditional modeling methods. And completion is now in sight.
Anderson and Moret had a lot to learn about the technology in order to produce the results they wanted. Now, seeing those results, elated by what the technology has allowed him to do, and with time freed up from fabricating casts and molds, Anderson can envision how these technologies can be applied to other museum projects, some of which he has already undertaken. “I had a feeling that this grant would change my life,” he says. “And it has.”