While volunteering with natural history conservator Julian Carter at National Museum Cardiff, I was given the opportunity to work on a wallaby skeleton. This was the first skeleton of any kind I had conserved. Although it initially appeared to be in relatively good condition, there were lots of small areas needing attention that made it a surprisingly complicated job.
The first step was to remove dirt that had built up on the bones over the years. This was cleaned away using cotton swabs and small interdental brushes dipped in a sodium bicarbonate solution; care was taken to not over-wet the bones as this can damage them.
One of the main conservation tasks was to re-wire a portion of ribcage that was hanging loose and distorting the alignment of the left side. In keeping with the pre-existing work, this required me to stabilise the free end of each rib using a single piece of wire twisted at intervals. This provided support and appropriate spacing of the bones. I had previously made jewellery using a similar technique, so my experience came in handy during the fiddliest parts!
Unfortunately, the cartilage connecting the sternum (breastbone) to the ribs was already very fragile. Following the cleaning and re-wiring, this became more fragmented and required urgent attention. Although relatively light, the sternum had warped and shrunk away from original position over the years. This made it difficult to maintain contact between it and the ribs for a strong repair. I needed to find some way of giving it additional support that wouldn’t be visually obtrusive.
I eventually settled on constructing a wire cradle, as this wouldn’t look out of place with the other articulation work. This consisted of two thin pieces of wire placed over each other to form an X-shape underneath the middle of the sternum. The four ends of the X were then pulled together and lightly twisted around each other. This created a light-weight frame that could be hung from the articulated vertebrae of the spine to hold the sternum in place whilst taking weight off the most fragile areas of cartilage.
One of the trickiest parts of the treatment involved the wallaby’s paws, the left of which had been detached from the skeleton for some time. The digits were misaligned and covered in old yellowing adhesive. This was removed and the digits rebuilt in a more correct configuration, bone by bone. This was a very slow and delicate process that required a lot of patience and several attempts before I had a result with which I was happy.
With the major work completed, I carried out some more minor alterations over the following three weeks. This included realigning the tail bones and making a foam support for the skull, so it didn’t droop. It can now hold its head high – and I like to think it looks happy about that!
Having worked on the components separately (ribs, paws, head, tail), it was really satisfying to reunite the skeleton and see the wallaby slowly coming ‘back to life’! I spent so much time working in detail on the wallaby that I developed a real soft spot for it. I’ve played with wire before making earrings and pendants, but this took it to a whole new level of difficulty. It was a challenging, if slightly macabre jigsaw puzzle – all in all, a fantastic experience to work on my first skeleton.