- Margaret Grayson
- The "Inside Out" exhibit at the Fairbanks Museum
Just inside the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, visitors encounter two tall and somewhat intimidating greeters. A Kodiak bear and a polar bear, both stuffed, stand on their hind legs, mouths open in matching snarls. This is just an introduction to the bevy of beasts in the Fairbanks' collection, including some 3,000 birds, 400 to 500 mammals and 200 reptiles.
Yet, until recently, according to the museum's executive director, Adam Kane, staff had no sure answer to the most commonly received question from young visitors: "Are they real?"
The answer is tricky, Kane admitted with a chuckle at the museum's 2020 opening on Saturday. "Kind of yes, kind of no," he said — parts of each animal are original, like the pelt, but parts of it are man-made. Some of the taxidermied animals are more than a century old, and nobody knew exactly what was inside them. Taxidermy has evolved over the years like any other trade, and some taxidermists are more skilled than others.
For its 2020 exhibition, the Fairbanks set out to learn exactly what was going on inside its specimens. From now through December, visitors to the museum can see X-ray images of taxidermied animals and seashells in a show titled "Inside Out: Hidden Art in Natural History Collections."
Partnering with Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, the museum staff used the hospital's equipment to radiograph birds, reptiles and small mammals. A few images also come from North Country Chiropractic, which uses actual film in its radiography machine, as opposed to the digital images produced at the hospital.
Peacham designer Craig Harrison then took photos of each original animal, matched it up with the X-ray and sent both images off to be spliced into a lenticular print. In the final product, the two images are overlaid in alternating strips to give a holographic effect, so what the viewer sees changes depending on their position. Walking back and forth in front of a print, one watches the image shift from a photo of the animal to an X-ray of its insides.
The images demonstrate that a taxidermied animal typically retains a few of its bones, including the skull and wing bones (if it had wings). The rest of the body is filled with stuffing and wire to keep it upright.
Some of the animals in the Fairbanks exhibit were originally stuffed as far back as the 1890s, when the museum was founded by businessman Franklin Fairbanks. Beau Harris, the museum's collections manager, said the exhibit is an opportunity to observe the evolution of the art of taxidermy and how different people practice it.
"We knew there were wires. We knew there was cotton batting," Harris said. "But we didn't have a picture, because they're so old."
Along with the animals, Harris sent a variety of seashells through the radiography machine, revealing intricate arrangements of walls and chambers within.
"I had no idea you could x-ray a seashell," Harris admitted. He stumbled on the idea during a Google search. A traveling Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History exhibition of X-rays that the Fairbanks hosted a few years ago provided additional inspiration.
"Inside Out" was produced in conjunction with a Vermont Curators Group initiative called 2020 Vision: Seeing the World Through Technology. Throughout the year, 36 museums and galleries statewide will mount exhibits exploring the theme.
The Fairbanks closed for three weeks in January to prepare the new exhibit and revamp an older one. On Saturday, several dozen people gathered to wander the museum's creaky wooden floors, gaze at its specimens, enjoy the interactive children's corner and take in shows at the planetarium.
Shawn Tester, the CEO of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, told the crowd that the museum is an important way to get kids interested in science. Growing up in Kirby, he visited the Fairbanks and was fascinated by the exhibit of muskrats.
"I always wanted to come back and see them again and again," he said.
Also new at the Fairbanks in 2020 is an 82-foot exhibition case against the back wall where a case previously held some 800 bird specimens. Kane said the exhibit hadn't been changed for 40 years or longer. Staff removed about half the birds to make the display less crowded, added mammals and updated the nomenclature, which in some cases has changed multiple times over those four decades.
The Fairbanks Planetarium got an update this year, too: Its dome, built in 1961, was retilted in accordance with the more modern practice of tilting planetarium domes toward the horizon so viewers don't have to look straight up to see the show. Also new in the past two years are updated seating and a handicap-accessible lift, Kane said.
He enjoys the challenge of maintaining the grandeur and sense of history in the 130-year-old museum while keeping it relevant to a modern audience. "When you walk into this museum, it should look like the museum that's always been here," Kane said.
One of his goals is to power the museum's buildings with 100 percent solar generation. He thinks the Fairbanks could be a model for maintaining a historic building with energy and climate considerations in mind.
"We're kind of showing the way you could do that in a state where everything is old," Kane said.