ROCKFORD - A trip to the museum doesn't have to be boring.
The trick to creating clever exhibits lies in the creativity of museum staff who work to preserve unseen collections, including taxidermy.
At Rockford's Burpee Museum of Natural History, Special Projects and Exhibits Director Alexandra Koch, along with Paleontology Director Josh Mathews, put their minds together in building and designing the newest exhibits.
Burpee's taxidermy collection is considerably large for a regional museum. Burpee holds many treasures in its collections storage, a room that must be kept between 65 and 72 degrees at 45 percent humidity. The items are very particular in their climate requirements.
Preserving the museum's taxidermy items hasn't always been easy. The museum has endured two major floods due to water mains and pipes bursting, once in 1999 and again in 2014.
In 1999, Benson - then 8-years-old - helped dry wet pieces, ranging from taxidermy birds to small mammals.
"It was crazy," Koch said. "As a small child, you are never in the biology collection, so all of a sudden I walked into this room and it was covered in tables and tables of wet animals."
"It was a series of unfortunate events," Mathews said in recalling the 2014 incident that happened on Christmas Eve. "We had to get all the animals out of the room."
Smaller museums used to have taxidermy staff, but as the need for new items decreased, the focus shifted to preservation of items.
Taxidermy is the process of preserving an animal's body by mounting or stuffing for future display or study, and specimens are often placed in displays that mimic the natural world. The process has been around for centuries, and multiple methods are used. Most museums contract out for taxidermy work, Burpee included.
"If you store something properly, they should last in perpetuity," Mathews said.
A creative touch emerges during the process of creating taxidermy pieces, Mathews added.
"It's an art," he said. "It is something that is creative (but) sticks to nature and biology."
The museum's vast taxidermy collection of animals are from every corner of the world, most of which have been donated over the last 80 years from private collections.
In the museum's basement, beyond public view past two sets of double doors sits hundreds of taxidermy displays - hundreds of birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians - alongside thousands of pieces of anthropological finds - from early indigenous American artifacts to items from ancient Egypt.
"We take on the responsibility to preserve what comes into our collection," Koch said. "We have to take into account that we have more than one collection back there."
In a small half box, four birds are used to show each step of the taxidermy process - from mounting to stuffing.
To preserve specimens, the animals are cleaned and dried before being stuffed. The most common repairs needed on existing taxidermy pieces are to fix cracking and drying of mounts, since collections date back to the late 19th century.
Burpee used to have a dermestid beetle taxidermy lab, but the demand waned for using the natural process of having insects "clean" donations before they were stuffed. The beetles pose a major risk to taxidermy collections if they aren't contained. The beetles are used to remove everything and leave just the bones to be reused in a mount or a given display.
Koch and Mathews said it was vital to Burpee's mission to preserve all donated items to continue engaging the public for generations to come.
The museum is currently preparing to display American Bison on the museum's third floor to prompt an awareness of past North American natural history. Koch said Burpee was in the process of securing funding to expand the museum's bio lab to create a larger preparation area for taxidermy-related work.
Mathews and Koch worked countless hours to display the "Survival of the Smallest" insect exhibit, showing off the best of the museum's insect collection from around the world.
For special events, like during Halloween, Koch brings out items from the "wet" taxidermy collection, which includes preserved items like an octopus, hila monster and rattlesnake in vats of chemicals. The wet collection is a great way to engage the public in the details of reptiles and other items.
Both Koch and Matthews said the museum was grateful for the collections volunteers that work to sort, clean and quantify items to be ready for future displays.
To inquire about becoming a volunteer, ask for an application in person at 737 N. Main or online at burpee.org.
From its founding conservationist, curator and first executive director Milt Maulberg, the museum will keep alive the pursuit of curiosity and education.
"Milt was an '-Ologist,' he did a little bit of everything," Mathews said.
"And we are here to make sure the museum's collections are enjoyed for years to come," Koch added with a smile.