Artist Sean Murtha restores a large painting. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

Twelve fish and five flamingos recently left their home in The Hall of Fishes at Centerport’s Vanderbilt Museum in the care of taxidermist George Dante, for a trip to his Wilderness Preservations studio in West Paterson, N.J., and some much-needed care and repair.

Dante’s work is part of the Marine Collections Conservation Project, and complements the extensive work being completed during the next few months by staff curators on nearly 1,500 of the Vanderbilt’s fluid-preserved ocean specimens. Over the past several years, significant gifts from the Roy M. Speer Foundation and the Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation have allowed the Vanderbilt to undertake these much-needed conservation and restoration efforts.

Above, taxidermist George Dante (left) and artist Thomas Doncourt in the Vanderbilt Museum’s Hall of Fishes. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

Dante, an accomplished taxidermist, he has been working with the Vanderbilt over the past several years to conserve and preserve some of the animals in its Stoll Wing dioramas. Now he’s begun to work on some of the Museum’s critically damaged or decaying marine specimens, which Mr. Vanderbilt gathered during his global ocean voyages and collecting expeditions in the early 20th century. Collaborating with Dante are gifted artists Sean Murtha and Thomas Doncourt.

Murtha is repairing and restoring the background painting in a large Hall of Fishes diorama of flamingos and their clay pedestal nests along the coast of Cuba, Dante is cleaning and restoring the flamingos and Doncourt is restoring the clay flamingo nests and foreground vegetation.

“This phase of the project will address the dry mounted fish specimens that were originally prepared by Mr. Vanderbilt’s curator, William Belanske,” said Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs for the Vanderbilt. “His original paintings of these fish, done at the time they were caught, served as a color reference for the mounted fish skins. A dozen have been removed from display and are being carefully conserved by George Dante. He will address not only the damage and loss to the hand-painted skins, but also restore missing fins and tails. As many of these specimens were prepared nearly a century ago, they are extremely fragile and difficult to work with.”

Sean Murtha said he is restoring the Flamingo diorama painting to its former appearance. “We’re not updating or changing it, but trying to erase the damage that has occurred to it over the past nearly 100 years,” he said. “The original was painted by William Belanske, and therefore has historic importance. Over the years, moisture has affected the background painting in a few different ways, discoloring it in many places and in a few areas causing the paint to crack and flake off.

“I am removing very loose chips of paint, stabilizing it with an acrylic polymer, and then painting in the missing areas, to match the color and style of the original. Meanwhile, George and Tom are conserving and restoring the birds and plants. When everything comes back together, it should have the impact that it did originally,” added Murtha.

Thomas Doncourt is consulting on foreground conditions and restoration, including ground surfaces and plant models, he said. “The challenge is to coordinate work between Sean and George,” he said. “I remove foreground objects and materials so they can have access to the specimens and the background painting.”

Doncourt’s restoration work will include repairing the clay nests, made of painted plaster, and the branches and leaves of the rhododendron, fashioned out of beeswax. “Then I will work with George to return the specimens, nests and foliage to their original places and make it look like nothing ever happened to disturb the scenic beauty.”

During his epic global journeys in the 1920s and 1930s, William K. Vanderbilt II (1878-1944) collected thousands of specimens of vertebrate and invertebrate sea life for the museum he was building on Long Island. His Hall of Fishes houses what is considered the world’s most extensive privately assembled collection of marine specimens from the pre-atomic era.

The Vanderbilt marine collection comprises 13,190 historic aquatic specimens housed in the two-story Hall of Fishes; in the Habitat, a natural-history diorama hall; and in an invertebrate gallery. The collection, in addition to the fluid-preserved marine life, includes vertebrate and invertebrate specimens, dried or preserved through taxidermy.

The Hall of Fishes constituted the beginning of today’s Vanderbilt Museum complex. Constructed in 1922, it began as a one-story structure open to the public each Wednesday during the years Mr. Vanderbilt lived on the estate.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit


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