Reaching under her workbench, taxidermist Allis Markham lifts the lid of a ten gallon bucket to reveal her latest project — a litter of baby possums, floating ghostlike in a bath of tanning solution. This summer, these eight tiny marsupials will be on display with their mother in Becoming Los Angeles, a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on the history of Los Angeles. through six historical eras. During the final days of specimen preparation, Field Agent Matt Blitz and I went behind the scenes to visit Allis’ studio, and learn about the history of taxidermy at the museum.

Baby possum pelts tanning in Allis’ studio. These specimens were donated to the museum by local animal control.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) is one of the few institutions in the country that has continuously staffed a taxidermy department, going back to the introduction of its habitat halls in the 1920s. While most museums glassed and sealed their dioramas after completion, the NHM kept theirs open. Over the years, new scenes have been added, old dioramas have been rehabbed or replaced, and others have been simply maintained with dusting, repair, and the occasional replacement specimen. With three large habitat halls; African Mammals, North American Mammals, and Birds, the creation and preservation of taxidermy at the NHM is no small task.

Allis points out a small bat in the corner of “L.A.’s Backyard” diorama.

Entering the African Hall of Mammals, we began with the basics; all dioramas at the NHM depict a real place. Approaching a family of elephants on the savannah, Allis explained that this was not an idealized vista conceived by an artist, but a recreation of an actual waterhole near the Tana River in Kenya. Each diorama is the result of an expedition into the wild with a team of scientists, biologists, taxidermists, and, often, a donor.

The Savannah Elephant diorama in the African Hall of Mammals. This scene depicts a waterhole near the Tana River in Kenya.

The last major expedition made by the museum was to Tanzania in the 1980s. While animals are continuously collected today, most are small additions, such as ptarmigan brought in by head taxidermist Tim Bovard from hunting trips to Alaska, or animals from rehab centers that were found dead or died onsite. Because of the dire state of the natural world today, most large animals are acquired through zoos or donations from private collections.

Often, these specimens have been frozen for 30 years or were previously someone’s rug. Reanimating an aged pelt is a great challenge. In order to capture the animals’ former essence, a taxidermist must have a thorough understanding of anatomy, biology, and sculpture, plus years of experience.

This polar bear was constructed from a rug donated to the museum. Due to old age, the skin was very delicate and had to be glued together rather than stitched. Allis noted that using a needle and thread would have been like “stitching together kraft singles.”

Returning from the field, the team would begin the process of sorting data to construct a compelling story. The first iteration was in the form of a miniature model. Below is an image of the Kodiak Bear Model constructed by George Adams, a famous taxidermist renowned for his expertise with elephants. Once the scene was set, the team began construction on the three major elements: the scene painting, the landscape, and the animals.  

The Kodiak Bear Model constructed by George Adams now sits in Allis’ studio at the NHM.

Unlike zoos and aquariums, natural history museums are able to show the public unique behaviors or interactions between species that they would not see in captivity. Diorama environments often incorporate hundreds of small animals and insects in addition to the larger mammals who star in the scene. These frozen moments tell a complex story about life in the wild.

Here are a few dioramas illustrating behaviors that surprised us:

The Cougar diorama in the North American Hall of Mammals seems to depict a tranquil family scene. A mother and her cubs play on the rocks while the father watches from above. Unfortunately this is not the case. Cougars are extremely solitary and territorial creatures, that meet only to mate. If a father came across a mother and her cubs, he would likely kill them all.

The Lion diorama in the African Hall of Mammals. This scene depicts the Maswa Reserve in Tanzania.

A mighty roar? Not so! Allis informed us that there is actually something much sexier going on in the Lion diorama. The male is displaying a flehmen expression in response to the lioness rolling in front of him. With his mouth half open and his nose scrunched, he exposes his vomeronasal organ to detect pheromones. 

The Ratel or Honey Badger diorama in the African Hall of Mammals. This scene depicts the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania.

In an amazing act of interspecies collaboration, the honeyguide (below, top left corner), is known to attract mammals and lead them to a bee hive. Once the mammal has had his or her fill, the honeyguide will feast, filling-up on wax and bee larvae.

Currently, Allis shares her studio with an adult cow. With a few pins still left in her face, this heifer is nearly ready for her new home in the upcoming exhibition, Becoming Los Angeles.

Following Allis through a labyrinth of offices and research facilities, we reached her studio, a small windowless room on the top floor. Ushering us inside, we squeezed between the workbench and precariously placed animals.

Measuring charts are used to create a detailed record of each animal for sculpting reference. Next to the charts are several heads carved from polyurethane foam. In the early days of taxidermy, strategy and skills were not shared among colleagues. Rumor has it that taxidermists working at the same institution would drill holes in the wall to spy on one another, hoping to learn each other’s closely guarded secrets.

Fetching a dripping possum pelt out of the tanning bucket, Allis explained the skinning process.

While the possum pelts tan, Allis works on constructing wrapped body forms based on detailed measurements taken from each animal. 

Lining the walls of Allis’ studio are death masks, plaster cast taken at the time of death to use as reference while sculpting new forms. 

Combining art and science, the taxidermists at the NHM apply their skills and love of nature to create lasting masterworks. By providing the public with experiences in immersive, natural environments, they hope to foster wonder, curiosity, and respect for the natural world.

We are looking forward to returning this summer for Becoming Los Angeles and Nature Lab, an indoor/outdoor hands-on exhibit. Hope to see you there!

To learn more about Allis and her taxidermy practice, check out her blog and Obscura Society LA’s recent Society Adventure at her home studio in Hollywood, California.

All photographs by the author.

One of the most important things to us here at the Atlas is to always keep traveling and discovering. Notes from the Field are first person reports from the most inspiring trips taken by the Atlas Obscura Team. Read more Notes From the Field Here>