The New York Times: ‘Refurbishing a Museum Wing and Its Trophies’

N.Y. / Region | Arts | Long Island

By JAMES KINDALL MARCH 14, 2014

To hear George Dante describe them, you would think the animals whose stuffed heads he carted away in October from the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum had been in a rowdy bar fight. The mule deer, he said, had a bashed-in skull and an antler hanging by a thread. The black bear’s teeth were broken. And let’s not even talk about the poor moose with their mangled ears and split lips.

“When we left, we put their eyes in our pockets,” the taxidermist said.

As part of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s restoration of its Stoll Wing, George Dante, a taxidermist, repaired stuffed animal heads. Photos: Kathy Kmonicek for The New York Times
As part of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s restoration of its Stoll Wing, George Dante, a taxidermist, repaired stuffed animal heads.
Photos: Kathy Kmonicek for The New York Times

Stephanie Gress, the director of curatorial affairs at the museum, agreed that the 20 restored heads, which also included those of a bighorn sheep and a couple of soulful-looking walruses, were in sad shape when they were transported to Mr. Dante’s workshop in New Jersey for repair.

“Now, they look great,” she said, surveying the strange herd that Mr. Dante and his assistant had just returned and unloaded in the museum’s Stoll Wing, where they were scheduled to be hung on the walls again this week.

Even the moose seemed revived.

“They look kind of snooty with their noses in the air like that,” she said, laughing at how their floor-level position arched their necks into a haughty demeanor. “Well, after all, they are Vanderbilt moose.”

The four-month restoration was part of a project to spruce up the wing, named after Charles H. Stoll, a lawyer, Nassau County judge, explorer, naturalist and big-game hunter as well as a trustee of the museum, who died in 1988. A $100,000 grant from his granddaughter, Lynnda Speer, and her brother, Charles H. Short, through the Roy M. Speer Foundation, financed the work.

The money also is being used to refurbish the wing’s eight wildlife dioramas. Plans call for three to be completely redone and the rest retouched, Ms. Gress said. That work will be handled by Sean Murtha, an artist who formerly worked at the American Museum of Natural History.

The Museum, which is in Centerport and is run by the county, comprises a Gold Coast era mansion completed in 1936, a marine museum and a planetarium, contained in a 43-acre park. It was created by William K. Vanderbilt II, a world traveler, explorer and collector who wanted his summer estate turned into an informal educational facility for the public. The Stoll wing and adjoining Habitat Room (once Vanderbilt’s private collection of nine dioramas) are in a separate section underneath the mansion.

Sean Murtha, a mural artist, is working on the dioramas there.
Sean Murtha, a mural artist, is working on the dioramas there.

The property was turned over to the public in 1950.

The 15 full-size animals and 21 mounted heads housed there were trophy kills made during hunting trips Stoll took with his wife, Merle, from 1922 to 1969, on expeditions to such distant climes as the Arctic and the jungles of India. The result is a wide-ranging assortment of exotic creatures, including blue wildebeest, polar bear, Cape buffalo, kudu, ostrich, jaguar, Bengal tiger and leopard.

Mr. Dante, president of Wildlife Preservations of Woodland Park, N.J., has worked on similar projects for the American Museum of Natural History and repaired the Vanderbilt’s badly deteriorated whale shark several years ago. The eight-ton, 32-foot monster, which hangs in the museum’s Habitat room, was caught by local fishermen off the coast of Fire Island in 1935. “That wasn’t a restoration,” Mr. Dante said. “That was a resurrection.”

Most of the wear and tear on the renovated heads was the result of age and damage from fluctuating temperatures, he said. Through a capital improvements project provided by the Suffolk County Department of Public Works, the museum recently installed a climate control system to correct this, Ms. Gress said.

The mansion where the Stoll Wing is being restored on the grounds of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum.
The mansion where the Stoll Wing is being restored on the grounds of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum.

The animals, hunted over a span of more than 40 years, represent something of an evolution of taxidermy, Mr. Dante said. Restorers in earlier years did not have access to more stable modern-day glues and fillers, but still managed to create virtual works of art, he said. He pointed to the delicate red sclera of a walrus’s eye (the protective outer layer, which is white in humans). Taxidermists can add in that detail with glass eyes nowadays. Back then, it had to be painstakingly created with beeswax.

“You’ve got to remember these are historical pieces, so we didn’t want to alter them too drastically,” he said. “You’ve got to know when to pull back and when to keep going.”

Mr. Murtha, who painted the murals for the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History, said he was also trying to match the “old masters” with his diorama repair. He has been using a copy of an eight-millimeter film the Stolls made of one of their African trips in 1969 to approximate some of the wildlife settings. He turned to his laptop and watched as antelopes and zebras galloped out of sight. Occasionally, an animal buckled from a gunshot.

The trick with his work is creating what appears to be a vast visual background in a small space, he said. Mr. Murtha now is on the staff of Bruce Museum of Art and Science in Greenwich, Conn.

“You have to deny the fact that there’s a wall in the background and distort things so that you don’t see the curvature,” he said.

Of course, accuracy is an issue, too.

He frowned at an African background in a diorama behind a posed leopard. “I’ve got to check out those red trees,” Mr. Murtha said. “They look a little too ‘New Englandy’ to me.”

Stoll’s trips might not be regarded as appropriate in today’s conservation-minded times, but Ms. Speer said her grandfather killed only for food or to collect a representative of each type of animal for an exhibition.

“He was an animal lover,” she said. “When I visited his house, he always had pet deer and peacocks around.”

In any case, Ms. Gress said the dioramas remain a good way to show touring schoolchildren how each animal lived and was shaped by its environment.

“They’re still here, and they’re still very effective,” she said.

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