Trials From The Riverbank: Conserving a Taxidermy Otter

Written by Jen Gossman, MSc first year Conservation Practice student at Cardiff University.

Otter mount © Jen Gossman

I received a mounted taxidermy otter in still life pose without a base from the Tenby museum, Wales where it had been in long term storage wrapped in Tyvek. On initial examination it showed some skin shrinkage and was covered in a thick layer of dirt, grease and dust.

The main concern was an infestation by carpet beetles. Inspection of the fur and hide revealed evidence of the beetles in the form of fras, some dead or empty larvae casts and matted fur alongside large bald areas.

The decision was taken to send the otter to be frozen using industrial freezers with the valued assistance of Julian Carter from Amgueddfa Cymru (Cardiff), where it spent 3 weeks at -30 degrees wrapped in plastic sheeting and placed in a strong container to avoid freezer burn or contact with moisture. Once the otter returned, a detailed examination of the mount could be undertaken.

Otter examination in fume cupboard © Jen Gossman

The exact age of the mount could not be determined due to the lack of records but the potential of there being arsenic contamination, commonly used as preparation and an anti-pest measure prior to the 1980s, was likely.

In response to this I decided to examine the mount with surfaces covered using polyethylene sheeting and a fume cupboard, making sure to wear protective PPE whilst handling. For certainty and the safety of students and staff, we decided to undertake tests to ascertain the likely presence and potential contamination level of the mount by arsenic. I used the XRF machine and dab tests to sample common aggregation areas such as the feet, armpits and ear areas. Two tests were decided on to allow a holistic view of the mount.

Pest damage to underneath of mount © Jen Gossman

Alongside the general dirt levels and grease or debris on the surface layers of fur, underneath this and close to the hide, was found to have been warped by the potential actions of moisture or eaten and matted by pest action. The fur itself was severely degraded from fading and showed some embrittlement from this occurrence. There were various areas of the hide that had been subject to warping. This had potentially caused dislocation of the toes and warping of the jaw. It was decided not to address this as it had low impact on the mount at this time.

Due to Covid-19, the actual treatment of the mount has sadly been put on hold but the planned treatment is to clean and remove pest damage and dirt from the fur and attempt to recolour the mount to reflect a realistic appearance. I decided that recolouring was important as I feel that the purpose of a taxidermy mount of this type, is to represent as much as possible the real animal. Taxidermy either scientific or trophy most commonly has the purpose of allowing a closer understanding of nature, and may provide scientific value.  To maintain the validity of that experience the accurate appearance of the mount is important to our understanding. Re-colouring may hide history of the mount and will interfere with any scientific data but will enhance public experience, I feel that this opinion is important to consider when displaying taxidermy of extinct species.

The treatment of the pest damage on fur layers will be performed by delicate detangling and very light brushing of the hide with tweezers, pick and a soft brush. Matted fur being gentle tweezed apart followed by a soft brush and a filtered vacuum to pick up loose material.

Grease and ground in dirt will be removed with a mixture of 1:1 ethanol and deionised water. The solvent will allow the removal of the dirt and will retard the exposure of the mount to moisture from the deionised water which itself will reduce the excessive drying of the fur which could lead to embrittlement. A blotting paper guard will be used to prevent the solution from touching the hide directly. The solution is applied with a swab, working backwards through the fur in thin sections which are then brushed back to a life-like appearance. Once free of grease, dirt and pest debris, colouring can be performed.

The exact decision to proceed with this is the responsibility of the client museum but the process proposed will be to use a mixture of acrylic dyes and ethanol. These will be applied in very thin amounts via the controlled use of air spray methods applying thin coats working systematically over the hide using realistic colour pallets of brown auburn and umber tones to achieve a representative coat.

The mount is now snuggled up in our stores awaiting the return of the students and the commencement of the treatments.

Waiting in storage © Jen Gossman

NatSCA Digital Digest – October

Compiled by Lily Nadine Wilkes. NatSCA Volunteer.

Welcome to the October edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.What can I read?

There are some wonderful posts on our blog. Patricia Francis, the natural history curator of Gallery Oldham, wrote Natural Connections an investigation of the person, place and specimens of a painting that reveals a hidden Oldham story. There is also Andrew Kitchener’s post on CryoArks, the UK’s first zoological biobank.

As we are in Black History Month, there is a lovely collection of research from the Natural History Museum into how the museums history and collections are connected to the transatlantic slave trade in Slavery and the Natural World.

What can I see?

The National Museum of Scotland has a fabulous small exhibition on Scotland’s Precious Seas, exploring Scotland’s diverse sea life and many threats facing marine life.

Chester Zoo have shared this fantastic animal video for World Animal Day.

Not visiting anywhere currently? Take a look at the interesting online collections of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

What can I do?

The Geological Curators Group have their Symposium of Palaeontological Preparation and Conservation 2020 event on 11th – 17th October.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History are holding an online lecture ‘How do many-eyed animals see the world?’ with Dr Lauren Sumner-Rooney, a research fellow.

As part of the iDigBio webinar series ‘Adapting to COVID-19: Resources for Natural History Collections in a New Virtual World‘, Virtual Project Management, Tips and Tools, will take place on the 27th October 2020.

On social media you can get involved in #ReptileAwarenessDay on 21st October, showcase your spookiest collection on #Halloween (31st October) and on November 8th there is #STEMDay.

Save The Date!

Pest Odyssey 2021 – the Next Generation Detect, Respond, Recover – best practice IPM in 2021.

20th – 22nd September 2021

Submissions are invited for the third Pest Odyssey Conference. This will be a fully virtual conference and will enable participants to focus on changes and new developments in IPM over the last ten years.

They invite contributions looking at science, sustainability and climate change in relation to IPM. Additionally, papers examining how to carry out IPM well and what a successful IPM programme looks like over 10+ years. Methods of advocacy and successful ways to share the IPM message both in your organisation and the wider world will be welcomed.

Abstracts should be a maximum of 500 words and should be submitted to pestodyssey@gmail.com by 12 a.m. (midnight) GMT on 8th January 2021.

Successful authors will be notified by 8th March 2021. Completed papers will be required by 30th June 2021 for peer review for inclusion in the conference publication. Poster abstracts will be invited, but the call for these will follow later.

Jobs?

National Museums Scotland are looking for an Assistant Preventive Conservator. Closing date 16th October.

North Pennines AONB Partnership are looking for a Geology Projects Trainee. Closing date 11th October.

Before You Go…

If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Similarly, if you have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, we welcome new blog articles so please drop Jen an email if you have anything you would like to submit.

CryoArks – Discover The UK’s First Zoological Biobank

Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.

Many of us have probably been approached by eager PhD students and other researchers who want to snip a bit off those specimens or drill a few holes in others. As curators we start to feel somewhat uncomfortable about seeing our precious collections sliced and diced, and yet we are also keen to discover more about the genetic content of our specimens for their own sake. This is partly because collectively we can contribute to studies that benefit wild populations of species, including the conservation biology of many endangered species and the possibility of rewilding extirpated species. You may also have a chest freezer bursting with grip-seal bags or plastic tubes filled with tissue samples collected from specimens you have acquired, but you’ve no idea what to do with them, but you know they will be useful one day. Or maybe you have a freezer full of specimens you want to get rid of. CryoArks is a new initiative that just might help you to solve all these problems.

Sorting through lemur muscle samples at National Museums Scotland © National Museums Scotland

CryoArks is a BBSRC-funded project led by Professor Mike Bruford at Cardiff University, which has established the UK’s first comprehensive zoological biobank for research and conservation. CryoArks is a consortium of museums, zoos, academic institutions and biobanks, which is working together to establish common standards and working practices to store tissue and DNA samples and make them available on a common web portal, so that researchers and conservation biologists will be able to find out what is available for their research. This will help cut down on the sampling of our permanent collections by giving researchers something else to sink their scalpels into. CryoArks has two main sample storage hubs – at the Natural History Museum in London and at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh – that currently house more than 65,000 samples, but we have room for almost a quarter of a million. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is also a joint CryoArks and European Association of Zoos and Aquaria biobank storage hub, bringing the zoo and non-zoo biobank communities together.

Continue reading

Natural Connections

This is a modified version of two articles originally published on the Gallery Oldham webpage by Patricia Francis, Natural History Curator, Gallery Oldham. May & June 2020.

Fred Stubbs shown in The Naturalist by George Henry Wimpenny

This painting reveals a hidden Oldham story. It dates from the 1920s and has always been a great favourite with our visitors. Several years ago it inspired me to look more deeply and investigate, the person, the place and the specimens.

The person is Fredrick J. Stubbs

Fred was born in Liverpool in 1878 and moved with his family to Oldham where he became apprenticed to an upholsterer. He joined the Oldham Microscopical and Natural History Society, his first love being birds. Fred volunteered at the Oldham Municipal Library, Art Gallery and Museum which was long connected with the Natural History Society. When a vacancy arose at Stepney Museum’s Nature Study Centre, he was successful in getting the job and in 1909 left Oldham for London. Completing the booklet, ‘The Birds of Oldham’ in 1910.

Returning to Oldham in April 1919 he became the Deputy Librarian and Curator at the Library and Museum. He became president of the Yorkshire Natural History Society; was a member of the Beautiful Oldham Society and help found the Oldham Society of Artists. He worked at the Library and Museum until his death caused by pneumonia in 1932.

Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest – September

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth.

Welcome to the September edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

What can I read?

There’s a few lovely posts on our blog. Our chair, Isla Gladstone, encourages our members to have a look at our survey, for the committee to learn more about your needs from NatSCA. Bethany Palumbo takes us through the conservation of a mummy sarcophagus at the Bournemouth Natural Science Society.

There’s some nice reading on our friend’s, The Geological Curator blog. An interesting post about the discovery of a dinosaur bone on the Isle of Wight, Vectaerovenator inopinatus.

There’s a new book recently out, which is the most up to date look at our closest extinct relatives, the Neanderthals. Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art is available now.

What can I see?

There are more museums opening this month. Gallery Oldham has opened one day a week and Reading Museum has reopened ready for visitors. The Manchester Museum opens again on 16th September. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum open their doors again on 22nd September.

After a 5 year redevelopment project, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery reopens. Newly christened as The Box, Plymouth, the new museum features an all new natural history gallery, with more specimens on display than ever before.

There’s some nice You Tube videos from the National Museum of Ireland. One video explaining more to the public about what taxidermy is. Another video looks at craft projects for kids, so that teachers or parents can use them to help with their learning.

What can I do?

With many conferences being postponed or cancelled because of the coronavirus, some have taken to online conferences.

The South West Federation conference on October 1st and 2nd, focuses on Interpreting, Curating and Combating the Climate Crisis. More details for booking on their website here.

The conference for the Symposium of Palaeontological Preparation and Conservation will be held virtually on 11th – 17th October. More details here.

Save the Date – Decolonising Natural Science Collections

NatSCA will be holding a one-day online conference on November 19th 2020. The programme will include papers originally selected for our May 2020 annual conference which had to be cancelled. The event will be hosted via Zoom, consisting of presentations and live Q&A with speakers. Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das will be leading the proceedings as keynote speakers, presenting an update on their widely shared NatSCA paper Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections.

This event will be free for members and booking details will be announced shortly.

Before You Go…

If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Similarly, if you have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, we welcome new blog articles so please drop Jen an email if you have anything you would like to submit.