It’s easy to to be impressed when you walk the halls of museums by the quality and quantity of specimens on display, but it is only a fraction of what institutions like the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and other comparable institutions have in their collections. This year, the Academy celebrates its 200th anniversary and to mark the occasion, has created a year-long exhibit titled The Academy at 200: The Nature of Discovery. The exhibit pulls out scores of hidden gems that have been taking up shelf space in the collections, that is, until now.
For these specimens to be prepared for display takes an enormous amount of work. There’s the making of display cases and mounts. The lighting and signage must be crafted. The specimens must be in good enough condition to survive the hot lights, heavy traffic, and potential damage being on display could introduce. And sometimes, they need to be spruced up a bit before going on display.
Fred Mullison, the fossil preparator in the Academy’s Vertebrate Zoology department (and the mentor who trained me to run Neil Shubin’s lab), is one such sprucer-upper. When it was decided that the extinct Irish elk the Academy had was to be prepared for display in The Academy at 200 exhibit, they quickly realized no self-respecting elk would appear in public without a full set of teeth. So if you’ve ever found yourself asking, “If I knew a toothless elk, what would I get it for its birthday?” ask no more. The answer is a set of dentures. (Aw, shucks! Really? You shouldn’t have!)
Shockingly, there are not many people trained in the fine art of making dentures for extinct elk. Luckily for our friend the elk, people like Fred Mullison are armed with a unique set of skills that includes a deep understanding of anatomy, an artistic eye for sculpting and modeling and the technical knowledge of the ways of molding and casting. Not to worry, you vain little elk. Fred’s gotchya covered; undoubtedly you will look smashing for the exhibit’s roll-out.
Shall we take a behind-the-scenes tour through the process? Fred was kind enough to provide me with extensive photographs and descriptions of his work. What follows is a photo essay based off a series of emails we exchanged the week of the exhibit’s opening.