Billy Goat, American Museum of Natural History, New York


In the Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, most of the taxidermy ignores you. The specimens are preoccupied with acting out their animal nature: moose fight, bison herd, wolves hunt. But one specimen – among the first prepared for the hall in 1938 – seems arranged expressly to meet your gaze. It’s the male mountain goat, the billy. He’s perched overhead on an Alaskan glacial crag; peering down with bulging black eyes and a snout that homes in on you like a security camera.

I spent the last year in eye lock with this goat, and I think it’s asking for personal acknowledgement. Yet this is the antithesis of what I was brought into the hall to do.

As an exhibition writer, my job was to craft new text for the Hall of North American Mammals’ decades-old interpretive labels, part of an exhaustive restoration of the exhibition’s 43 luminous, iconic habitat dioramas. The labels contextualize the scenes by offering ecological and evolutionary perspective. In other words, the goal is biology, not biography. It’s not to write the goat’s story, but the goats’, plural.

The more I worked to convey the hall’s specimens as representatives of their species, however, the more my longing, as Rachel Poliquin puts it, grew for them as individuals. I imagined writing not just odes to species, but odes to specimens; tributes to their distinct, discrete lives – or more feasibly, their deaths.

I satisfied my curiosity by collecting scraps of found details about the animals; morsels of information more suited for an obituary than an exhibit label. The fact that the fisher’s face was riddled with porcupine quills when captured. Or that the musk oxen were shot by Robert Peary’s crew on one of his preparatory expeditions to the North Pole. Or that the mount of the black-footed ferret, the rarest species in North America, was prepared from roadkill.

But my longing was most keen for the male mountain goat. The feeling came not only because of our mutual awareness, but because I had discovered the billy’s moment of transition from wild animal to museum specimen.

The moment was publicized in the December 1937 issue of Natural History magazine, in the first article of a series that chronicled expeditions to collect plant and animal specimens for the hall. At four in the morning on August 9th, 1937, the mountain goat expedition, composed of the diorama’s patrons, two museum staff members, and hired hunters and guides, alighted in a small yacht from southern Alaska’s Ketchikan harbor. Steering its way through icy canals and straits for more than a week – capturing a few Dall porpoises for the museum’s collections along the way – the party eventually anchored in Fords Terror inlet, a steep-edged fjord furrowed with waterfalls. Hunter John Lyman, museum taxidermist Gardell Christensen, and two guides scrambled up the fjord’s north flank for a two-day camp in search of goats.

That afternoon, they spotted their first quarry – a magnificent „10 ¼” billy,“ referring to the length of its iron-colored horns. The animal was just 50 yards away and „trotting easily“ over the barren, ice-glazed terrain. Lyman took aim and dispatched it with little effort. Christensen took careful measurements of the body – these I never found record of, but were protocol for each specimen – and packaged up its pelt and bones for the 6,000-foot descent back to the yacht. Several other billies were seen during this sortie, but none were captured.

The article’s text reveals nothing vital about the male goat, but the photographs rattled me. On the left page of one spread, the living billy is circled in a snapshot, its back turned to the huntsmen. On the right page, the goat lies immobile on an icy rock, its front leg stock straight and its belly still pendulous and warm. „The billy goat slated for immortality as central figure of the Mountain Goat Group,“ reads the caption.

That’s the actual goat we see in the hall today. The very one. For me, this witness to the billy’s life, death, and afterlife offered a sliver of the recognition and intimacy I hoped for. I wonder if Christensen, the goat’s taxidermist, was after something similar in his work as I was with mine. Back at the museum, he articulated the animal’s bones, sculpted its musculature, cast its form, and stitched its pelt in a pose so provocative and full of personality that it is impossible to ignore this individual, even in a hall with spectacle beckoning at every turn. With this specimen, the taxidermist disturbed the roles of observer and observed, making the glass wall between seem very thin indeed.

The newly restored Hall of North American Mammals has now returned to public view on the first floor of the American Museum of Natural History. You may view a video series on the 2011–2012 diorama restoration via this YouTube playlist.

All images © American Museum of Natural History.

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With this specimen, the taxidermist disturbed the roles of observer and observed, making the glass wall between seem very thin indeed.