WASHINGTON — The floor was sticky with clay; the air smelled of Lysol and white vinegar.
Chainsaws buzzed in the next room as taxidermist Paul Rhymer explained what he was doing to the knee of an 18-foot-tall South African giraffe that stood before him.
“There’s a wrinkle here,another wrinkle here and there’s a wrinkle there,so I’m using those as my guide.” Rhymer said Thursday as he molded a clump of clay to match the bumps on the giraffe’s skin.
“Once this is all tested … then I’ll take the skin off,put glue on the form,wrap it around,and start filling up the seam in the back,” he said.
The scene was the unfinished mammal hall in the west wing of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
The job was to assemble the unnamed giraffe in time for the hall’s Nov. 15 opening. The giraffe’s skin and hooves are real,but the lips,tongue,eyes and flesh around the eyes are fabricated. And the body is made of foam.
Because the animal was too tall to fit through the exhibit’s doorways,it had to be separated into two parts at the neck and transported from the taxidermy studio in nearby Virginia. Workers will complete the giraffe in the new hall along with 273 other mammals and nearly a dozen fossils.
Four people worked on different parts of the giraffe’s body at one time Thursday to make it look as alive as possible.
Natalie Settles,a museum intern and part-time seamstress,worked on the animal’s backside.
Once the animal’s skin was glued into place,Settles,25,sewed a seam below the tail,being careful to match the spots,then used a small brush to put the tiny hairs of the giraffe’s fur in place.
“The goal is to make it look like there’s no seam … with no touch ups,” she said.
The process of making the dead animal’s body look alive began in a Virginia workshop with a yellow foam body form that was sculpted using pictures and videos of the animal in its natural poses,Rhymer said.
Next,workers inserted metal rods into the giraffe’s legs to support its 600-pound weight. Clay was then molded at the animal’s joints to create real-looking bumps and wrinkles.
After the skin soaked in an acid-based pickling juice that neutralized it and prepared it for taxidermy,it was saturated with Lysol to prevent mildew from growing.
Then workers tanned the hide,making it into leather and ready to place on the foam body. The last steps were gluing it in place and sewing the seams shut.
The exhibit’s theme is a “mammal family reunion,” said Elizabeth Musteen,the project’s manager. Visitors will learn about their own connections to the mammals on display,including lions,water buffalos,wildebeests,zebras and a hippo.
Eventually all of the animals on display will be put behind glass to preserve them from people and dust,Musteen said. But samples of animal skin and fur will be available for visitors to touch.
“This exhibit is primarily designed for families with young children,” she said. “We really want people to come and learn about their family reunion and animals in their environments.”
The hall’s renovation is the biggest in the Smithsonian’s history,said Randall Kremer,director of public affairs.
It will ultimately cost $31 million — the federal government provided $14 million,and a donation from Kenneth E. Behring,for whom the hall was named,covered the rest.
The towering giraffe will be the tallest mammal displayed in the museum,but not the biggest,taking a second place to Henry,the elephant exhibited in the lobby.
“Any time you get the biggest and the best specimen,it’s exciting for visitors,” Kremer said.