Conserving Century-Old Marine Specimens

Taxidermist George Dante and artist Thomas Doncourt
Taxidermist George Dante (left) and artist Thomas Doncourt in Vanderbilt Museum Hall of Fishes
Vanderbilt Museum photo

Twelve fish and five flamingos recently left their home in The Hall of Fishes at the Vanderbilt Museum in the care of taxidermist George Dante, for a trip to his Wildlife Preservations studio in West Paterson, N.J., and some much-needed care and repair.

Dante’s work is part of the Marine Collections Conservation Project, and complements the extensive work being completed during the next few months by staff curators on nearly 1,500 of the Vanderbilt’s fluid-preserved ocean specimens.

Beginning with William K. Vanderbilt II’s creation of The Hall of Fishes, in 1922, the Museum has enjoyed a nearly century-long association with the scientists and artists of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). That tradition continues today.

AMNH specialists built the nine Habitat dioramas for Mr. Vanderbilt in the late 1920s. Later they designed the wild animal exhibits for the Stoll Wing, which opened in 1970, and restored the Habitat before its reopening in 2008.

Dante, an accomplished taxidermist, often does substantial projects for the AMNH and other major museums. Over the past several years, he has been working with the Vanderbilt to conserve and preserve some of the wild animals in its Stoll Wing dioramas.

Now he’s begun to work on some of the Museum’s critically damaged or decaying marine specimens, which Mr. Vanderbilt gathered during his global ocean voyages and collecting expeditions in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Collaborating with Dante are Sean Murtha and Thomas Doncourt, gifted artists – and former members of the AMNH staff – who also undertake major projects for that museum, and recently restored animals and diorama paintings in the Vanderbilt Stoll Wing.

Over the past several years, significant gifts – from the Roy M. Speer Foundation and the Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation – have allowed the Vanderbilt to undertake these much-needed conservation and restoration efforts.

Artist Sean Murtha repairs large painting
Artist Sean Murtha repairs large painting
Vanderbilt Museum photo

Murtha has created many paintings for AMNH dioramas, including the spectacular background murals for the museum’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. He is repairing and restoring the background painting in a large Hall of Fishes diorama of flamingos and their clay pedestal nests along the coast of Cuba.

While Dante cleans and restores the flamingos, Doncourt is restoring the clay flamingo nests and the foreground vegetation. He is a retired senior principal preparator for the AMNH exhibition department. (His work included sculpting diorama objects and foreground art, designing interactive displays, mounting specimens, and painting.) Currently he teaches a continuing AMNH course in diorama history and construction.

“This phase of the project will address the dry mounted fish specimens that were originally prepared by Mr. Vanderbilt’s curator, William Belanske,” said Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs for the Vanderbilt. “His original paintings of these fish, done at the time they were caught, served as a color reference for the mounted fish skins. A dozen have been removed from display and are being carefully conserved by George Dante.

“He will address not only the damage and loss to the hand-painted skins, but also restore missing fins and tails. As many of these specimens were prepared nearly a century ago, they are extremely fragile and difficult to work with.”

Sean Murtha said he is restoring the Flamingo diorama painting to its former appearance. “We’re not updating or changing it, but trying to erase the damage that has occurred to it over the past nearly 100 years,” he said.

“The original was painted by William Belanske, and therefore has historic importance. Over the years, moisture has affected the background painting in a few different ways, discoloring it in many places and in a few areas causing the paint to crack and flake off.

“I am removing very loose chips of paint, stabilizing it with an acrylic polymer, and then painting in the missing areas, to match the color and style of the original. Meanwhile, George and Tom are conserving and restoring the birds and plants. When everything comes back together, it should have the impact that it did originally.”

Thomas Doncourt is consulting on foreground conditions and restoration, including ground surfaces and plant models, he said. “The challenge is to coordinate work between Sean, the background artist, and George, the taxidermist,” he said. “I remove foreground objects and materials so they can have access to the specimens and the background painting.

The Vanderbilt flamingo painting was inspired by a large mural created for the American Museum of Natural History by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927), Doncourt said. Fuertes is considered one of the finest illustrators of birds in history. The scene with its curving formation of flying flamingos is similar to the original, still on display in the AMNH.

Doncourt’s restoration work will include repairing the clay nests, made of painted plaster, and the branches and leaves of the rhododendron, fashioned out of beeswax.

“Then I will work with George to return specimens, nests and foliage to their original places and make it look like nothing ever happened to disturb the scenic beauty.”

***

During his epic global journeys in the 1920s and 1930s, William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944) collected thousands of specimens of vertebrate and invertebrate sea life for the museum he was building on Long Island. His Hall of Fishes houses what is considered the world’s most extensive privately assembled collection of marine specimens from the pre-atomic era.

The Vanderbilt marine collection comprises 13,190 historic aquatic specimens housed in the two-story Hall of Fishes; in the Habitat, a natural-history diorama hall; and in an invertebrate gallery. The collection, in addition to the fluid-preserved marine life, includes vertebrate and invertebrate specimens, dried or preserved through taxidermy.

The Hall of Fishes constituted the beginning of today’s Vanderbilt Museum complex. Constructed in 1922, it began as a one-story structure open to the public each Wednesday during the years Mr. Vanderbilt lived on the estate.

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