One in 10,000: The Darwin Museum’s exhibit of unusual animals

One in 10,000: The Darwin Museum’s exhibit of unusual animals
Why did the museum’s first director exchange a samovar for a squirrel? Who are taxidermists? Why have these valuable items been put on display for the first time? And what did Vladimir Lenin have to do with this exhibit? Find the answers to these and many other questions on

The Unusual Animals exhibition, which has opened at the State Darwin Museum, comprises 30 rare mammals with unusual colours such as squirrels, hedgehogs and moles, including rare albinos – a Manchurian hare, a Siberian musk deer and a Russian desman. These aberrant animals are extremely rare; there are only one or two of them per 10,000 typical animals.

The exhibit is part of a large project, First Time Exhibits, which will run throughout 2017 to mark the museum’s 110th anniversary

Brought to light

“We waited so long to show these animals to the public because they are aberrant animals. They are rare animals, while we usually show ordinary ones. If we show a white Siberian musk deer, the public might think that all Siberian musk deer look like this because few people have seen them before. This is why we have decided hold an exhibit of animals with unusual colours,” said Igor Fadeyev, a leading researcher at the Darwin Museum and the exhibit’s creator.

The animals look alive, and it is impossible to believe that some of them are about 120 years old. Special conditions maintained at the museum’s repository to preserve these animals include darkness, a humidity level of 55 percent and a temperature of 18 degrees Celsius. The animal’s fur must be also protected against biodeterioration: an asset for the museum is food for moths. In the past, the museum staff used poison for this purpose, but that’s been replaced by special substances.

“Many specimens in the museum were killed by hunters back in the Soviet period, when all furs were delivered to Moscow for grading at Soyuzpushnina, a state company that supplied furs to international fur auctions. The fur of aberrant animals was a substandard product, which is why many of them were turned over to the museum,” Fadeyev said.

The Himalayan black bear and the squirrel

One of the most interesting displays is the preserved body of a partially albino Himalayan black bear. The skin was delivered to Moscow in 1923 for an agricultural exhibition, where Vladimir Lenin saw it.

“We don’t know for sure where the skin was from, probably the Far East or the Primorye Territory. The skin was so unusual that it was decided to show it. After the exhibition, the skin was transferred to the Darwin Museum for stuffing. Rumour has it that the order was issued by Lenin himself, but it’s just an unconfirmed rumour. As a result, we have a valuable item. The owner, whoever he was, either forgot about the order or decided to present the unusual piece to the museum,” Igor Fadeyev said.

Another museum legend is Professor Alexander Kots, the museum’s founder whose hobby horse was albino and melanistic (completely black) animals.

“Alexander Kots writes in his memoirs about a story that happened in the early 20th century soon after the museum was established. He was walking in central Moscow when he saw a preserved albino squirrel in a basement window. The professor went directly to the lady who owned the rare rodent and said he would like to buy it. Sensing his interest, the lady set a high price, claiming that she had saved it as a memento of her late husband,” Fadeyev said.

Ultimately, the museum founder said she could have anything she wanted in return, and the lady asked for a samovar. Kots ran home, where his family was having tea from a samovar. He took it without any explanation and ran back to the lady.

There are several albino squirrels in the museum now. One of them, possibly the squirrel Alexander Kots exchanged for the samovar, is on display at the Unusual Animals exhibit.

Not stuffed animals, but taxidermy sculpture

Taxidermy is the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals for display. Most people would call it a “stuffed animal,” but professionals refer to it as a taxidermy sculpture.

Darwin Museum taxidermist Oksana Mbita-Ebele said that animal skins are washed in a special solution to prevent decay, and then the skin is de-oiled and dried.

“And then we mould a mannequin of polyurethane foam. In the past, taxidermists used wood chips and cotton. A mannequin is formed proportionally as an animal with tiny details added when necessary. For example, if we are making an animal with its head turned, the mannequin will have wrinkles on its neck. This implies that you must know anatomy very well,” Oksana Mbita-Ebele said.

The skin is cut open along the stomach or paws, pulled over the mannequin and glued together. This completes a taxidermy sculpture, but experts say they sometimes need to restore the work.

“We mostly have to restore ears and toes, which break more often than other body parts. First we soak them to make the skin soft, and then we remove the old filler and put new filler inside. The restored part is glued or sewed back to the body, after which we apply special plaster to the seam and paint it,” Oksana Mbita-Ebele said.

Other rarities

The Darwin Museum has about 400,000 items. The most valuable of them are stuffed animals that are considered extinct, for example, a flightless bird called the great auk.

“Our museum has the only stuffed great auk in Russia. We also have the skeleton of a dodo, another extinct flightless bird and a relative of the crowned pigeon. Our dodo skeleton is the only one in Russia and one of 26 in the world. We also have several passenger pigeons, which used to be the largest group in the world and can only be seen in museums now. The last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914,” Igor Fadeyev said.

Another group of valuable specimens are the so-called holotype animals.

“Each biological species has a holotype kept in a large natural history museum. The holotype is the animal that was used when the species was formally described and named. All other animals in the given species must look absolutely the same as the holotype. Holotypes are an extremely valuable possession,” Fadeyev said.

The Darwin Museum has several holotypes, mostly insects and birds.

In addition to stuffed animals, the museum has many other items, such as rare books, memorial items that belonged to the museum’s founders, a collection of unique photographs, as well as sculptures and paintings, which are unusual for a natural history museum.

The museum’s first director, Alexander Kots, believed that scientific exhibits should be accompanied by works of art. This is why the Darwin Museum has paintings, many of which were painted by famous animal artists such as Vasily Vatagin, a professional zoologist and full member of the Russian Academy of Arts.

The Darwin Museum holds Russia’s largest collection of animal art and continues to expand it.