Tall order: rehousing a taxidermy giraffe

Go behind the scenes with Museum staff as they take on the challenge of fitting a taxidermy giraffe through some tight spaces.

Safely moving a towering giraffe specimen from the Mammals gallery to Hintze Hall demands both a delicate touch and military precision. 

Project Manager Natalie Tacq is helping coordinate a number of important activities in the lead-up to Hintze Hall reopening. She walked us through one of the Museum's more challenging moves.

'Coordinating this move has called on a lot of different expertise from across the Museum,' Natalie says.

'From hoof to horn the giraffe is 4.35 metres tall, very fragile and also probably the most awkward shape you can imagine to transport.'

Conservation work started in January 2017 and over the course of four months, a number of experts have been involved in making the move happen.

Best hooves forward

Up in the rafters of the Mammals gallery, Conservator Chelsea McKibbin described the process of grooming the giraffe ahead of the big move. 

Chelsea and giraffe

Conservator Chelsea McKibbin checks every detail to ensure the specimen looks its best for Hintze Hall

 

The bay where the giraffe will be displayed is near the main door of Hintze Hall, so great care had to be taken to make sure the specimen is robust enough for the move.

Conservation work included cleaning with a low-suction vacuum and soft brush, reinforcing old repairs and strengthening fragile skin tears. 

'The fur is so short it's been acting a bit like Velcro for the dust, which is particularly sticky in the Mammals gallery,' Chelsea says.

'The environmental conditions are likely to fluctuate more in Hintze Hall because of the direct access to outside, so we need to ensure the giraffe is as stable as possible.'

X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analysis confirmed the giraffe has small amounts of arsenic, mercury and lead - though this is to be expected for a specimen of its age. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, these materials were commonly used for preparation of skins and for pest control.

Packing a giraffe

'With taxidermy as old as this, if too much pressure is applied to any one area you run the risk of creating indentations or bald spots.' Natalie explains. 'The neck and sides are especially delicate and there are areas of skin with cavities underneath that an ill-placed hand could easily go through.'

museum conservator prepares custom fibreglass

A Museum conservator prepares custom fibreglass moulds to protect the delicate fur from damage during the move

 

Once ready for the public, the specimen had to be carefully packed for a somewhat acrobatic journey.

While mostly upright throughout the journey, the specimen was also on its side and face down. 

'We mapped where the most stable points were and built a frame around it that only uses those parts. But the moment of truth was really when we turned the giraffe over,' she says.

'When it comes to taxidermy you never quite know what might be rattling around inside,' Natalie quips. 'One time, conservators found a chair inside a sunfish.'

The big move

Once lifted into its frame, the giraffe was in the capable hands of Exhibition Technician Andy Wahl, who is no stranger to unusual cargo.

giraffe move two facing

The giraffe was secured safely inside a custom built frame

 

'Three large mammal specimens were moved out of the way so that the giraffe could be manoeuvred through the large Museum "stage doors" and craned onto the back of a truck,' Andy says.

'The only way to get it through the doors was on its right side, which is more stable than the left.'

The project has been mapped out in the most minute detail. 'In moves like this, every single centimetre counts. It's a tight programme and we don't have much margin for error,' says Natalie.

Travelling upright on the back of a truck, the giraffe was brought to the front of the building, then lifted onto the scaffolding and rotated onto its front. It entered Hintze Hall head first before being brought upright again. 

giraffe on front

At one point in the journey the giraffe was rotated onto its front in order to enter the main doors of Hintze Hall

 

At home in Hintze Hall

When installed, the taxidermy giraffe will be placed alongside a giraffe skeleton, providing a life-sized comparison study of the animals' anatomy.

The pairing is an homage to Museum founder Richard Owen and his role in the development of the modern study of comparative anatomy and arrangement of collections when the Museum opened in 1881.

The giraffe display will be one of the first things visitors will encounter when they visit the refurbished Hintze Hall.

See the blue whale

Visit the Museum to walk beneath the largest animal ever to have lived.