A natural ability

Fourth-generation taxidermist Leon Bouten supplies, stuffs and restores all of the Natural History Museum's animals in his studio in Holland or, in the case of Spotticus the giraffe, on site in the museum itself. Emma Browne looks at this fascinating procedure.



A trailer full of dead animals, driven by a dodgy-looking Dutch man who chain-smokes roll-up cigarettes would look more than suspicious to Irish customs. But according to Leon Bouten, who transports these dead animals into Ireland every three or four months, Irish customs “want to see the animals, not for control but just because they find them interesting”.

Leon Bouten is a fourth-generation taxidermist who supplies, stuffs and restores all the National History Museum's animals. Three or four times a year he travels by car with his trailer for two days to Dublin to deliver restored animals from his workshop in Venlo, Holland and to collect animals that need his attention.

One of the more recent and troublesome projects Leon undertook for the museum was the replacement of a 150-year-old giraffe. Leon had a stuffed giraffe ready-to-go at his workshop in Holland. Nigel Monaghan, keeper of the National History Museum, travelled there, but rather than finding the giraffe in Bouten's workshop where most of the animals are kept, Nigel had to go to the local Ford dealership – the only place tall enough to house the lofty ruminant

Height wasn't the only problem the giraffe posed for Leon. “I wanted to sell him [the giraffe] to the museum but the problem was that the door to come inside the museum was not big enough. I have another giraffe skin in my freezer so they arranged to assemble that giraffe in the museum.”
Leon manages one of Europe's leading taxidermists, Bouten Taxidermy. Nigel Monaghan says the National History Museum use Leon's firm because of the staff's expertise, which is hard to find these days in Ireland, or even in Europe. There are only three major taxidermy firms in Europe left and one of them is about to close down. The Bouten's are the only EU company to make plastic moulds which support the animal skin. This is very skilled, with creases, skin folds and veins all represented in the mould.

The taxidermy company was founded in 1918 by Leo Bouten, Leon's grandfather. He was originally a saddle maker and practised taxidermy for his own private use but soon realised there was a profit to be made. At that time, taxidermy in Holland was limited but Germany was the centre of EU knowledge on the subject so Leo soon gained the necessary skills.

During the war Leo was forced to flee Holland and travel to Germany. When they returned they found their house had been completely destroyed by bombs but the taxidermy studio was still intact. The company is still accommodated in the original workshop in Venlo.
Leon took over the company in 1989. His son Maurice began working with him 10 years ago and he will take over the family business when Leon retires.

As well as replacing items in the museum, Leon and his team also clean many of the existing animals. When they come to deliver new items they will pick up any animals that need cleaning or restoring and bring them back to the workshop in Holland. At present they are undertaking to clean the entire mounted deer collection at the museum.

Leon also supplies other museums around Europe. Most of the dead animals come from zoos or wildlife parks. At the moment he is working on a moose for the national museum and he will bring that back in March. He also does work for private individuals, which he says is as popular as ever.

Nigel Monaghan says the work they did on the giraffe was highly skilled and very difficult. He watched them work in the museum applying the skin for four days. After the Boutens had made the plastic mould for the skin and done other preparations in Holland – including scraping the muscle and sinew off so that the skin is as thin as possible – they then travelled over to the National Museum to assemble the skin on the giraffe. To get the skin on, they roll it out starting at the head. It is a very delicate procedure – the skin would still have small details like the eyelashes and eyelids on it. “For me this is one of the most skilful aspects,” says Niall Monaghan. “It's like turning a rubber glove inside out.”

In total the Boutens worked on the giraffe for a month. Not all the animals they stuff are this painstaking. A giraffe is particularly laborious because of its height and thin legs. “It's hard – you have to stitch 15 metres along the neck and the legs.”

Other animals the Bouten's have recently replaced for the museum include a zebra, a wolf, and a kudoo (a type of deer). Spotticus the giraffe cost about €20,000 and the replacement zebra cost €3,000 to €5,000.

The museum is also home to a 150-year-old polar bear that was shot by an arctic explorer from Co Louth and extinct species such as the giant Irish deer and a Tasmanian tiger, a wild dog that once roamed Tasmania until they were wiped out by sheep farmers. The last Tasmanian tiger in captivity died in a Tasmanian zoo in 1935, while the Dublin exhibit was killed in Tasmania in 1917.

The museum's origins lie with the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), who began gathering these collections in the 18th century. It was the enactment of the Dublin Science and Art Museum Act of 1877 which led to the transfer of the Natural History building and its collections to state ownership. The museum opened in 1857.

Earlier this year a report on the present and future needs of the museum was sent to the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, John O'Donoghue. The report said there was “chronic understaffing” and “inadequate financial support” at the museum.

The museum displays 10,000 animals but it has two million specimens in storage. Only about five per cent of the two million specimens have actually been catalogued and it would take 20,000 years for one person to complete the task of sorting them out. There are 3,000 birds alone on display in the museum.

A major problem at the museum is a lack of space. The Boutens offered the museum a Bengal tiger some time ago but they had to refuse it as they have no space to accommodate it. The museum, housed in a period building, has no room to extend, being surrounded by government buildings.

As well, some of the animals on display at the museum have been there since the museum opened in 1857. During this time they have been in direct sunlight and their hides have faded and cracked, as well as being covered in dust.

Although the restoration programme undertaken by the Boutens will improve the animals' appearance, there remains the longterm space problem. As well as this, the museum's period building is in need of modernisation so it can accommodate children's classes properly and extend in the future.

More: www. www.museum.ie/naturalhistory