Exploring Materials in Natural History Dioramas

Written by Claire Dean, Curatorial Assistant at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, and MA Preventive Conservation student at Northumbria University.

The wildlife dome at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery
The wildlife dome at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Carlisle, C. Dean

In many old dioramas, material mysteries abound. As a Curatorial Assistant at Tullie House, I’ve encountered a tree trunk made from a Robinson’s fruit juice box, a fake roof that contained fibrous signs of asbestos, and a hodgepodge of unidentifiable paints and old plastics. The museum’s new-in-post Biodiversity Curator discovered pests thriving amongst the real vegetation and a 30-year-old slice of bread in a garden scene.

Dioramas aim to create the illusion of real habitats for their taxidermy inhabitants, and they use a huge range of materials to do so. After decades of neglect and destruction there is now wider recognition that habitat dioramas can instil a sense of wonder in visitors that no amount of digital wizardry can replace. Through my dissertation research for an MA in Preventive Conservation at Northumbria University, I wanted to find out more about what materials have been used in dioramas over time, how these might impact the preservation of specimens, and what we can do to better protect the dioramas that remain. I put a call out to ask, ‘What’s in your dioramas?’ through an online survey and received 30 responses from people with experience in a range of different sized institutions and private practice.

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Freezing Specimens And How To Mitigate Freezer Burn.

Written by Jazmine Miles Long, Taxidermist. https://www.jazminemileslong.com, Twitter: @TaxidermyLondon; Instagram: @Jazmine_miles_long

In my opinion there isn’t one system to do things correctly in taxidermy, every museum or taxidermist may have their own preferences and strategies already in place. This is simply a guideline that works for me, and I hope it can help others to mitigate some of the problems I encounter when working with skins that have been frozen in a way that has accelerated freezer burn. Following this advice might get more time out of frozen specimens and give you a greater chance that they can be mounted once the budget or staff time is there to pay for taxidermy or processing cabinet skins.

What is freezer burn?

Freezer burn happens when the moisture is evaporated out of the animal’s skin and muscles over time in the freezer. Most specimens even if they are well packed in the freezer will still get some freezer burn over a long period of time but it will be much worse if the specimen is poorly packaged or has something absorbent (like a paper label) inside the bag with it.

You can tell if a specimen has freezer burn because it will look white and dry in areas such as the feet, hands, around the eyes, ears, and mouth. And when you start skinning the skin will be yellowed and hard to remove rather than red, fleshy, and easy to peel away.

Firstly, I advise to always freeze your specimens before handling or skinning them. At a minimum you could record the specimen’s weight before freezing as this measurement is affected slightly after freezing. I personally would not take any other measurements until after they have been thoroughly frozen (unless you want to collect live parasites). As the animal dies, any parasites on the skin of the animal will leave the body as it cools and hop onto the next willing subject which will be you or any living creature in your lab! A note that fleas are not killed over night, if you freeze a fox for example leave it in there for at least two weeks before defrosting. It completely depends on the temperature of your freezer however so if you start to defrost an animal the fleas will defrost first, so if there is movement you know to refreeze! Obviously very large animals may need to be skinned straight away, so in this case my advice is wear appropriate PPE.

Great Spotted woodpecker. Image by Jazmine Miles Long.
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The First Steps Of An Epic Move

Written by Clare Valentine, Head of Life Science collections, Natural History Museum, London.

Securing £182m to build a new science and digitisation centre in March 2020 was an incredible moment for the Natural History Museum, and the culmination of many years of hard work across the organisation to make the case for better facilities for the collections and research. The support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport provides an opportunity to secure the future of the collections by moving them into bespoke, accessible storage, to accelerate digitisation of the collections to expand access for researchers globally and transform the study of natural history through an investment in new analytical facilities, technologies and techniques.

Receiving confirmation of the funding just a matter of days before the UK shutdown for the best part of 2 years didn’t come without its challenges, but it’s been incredible to see the progress that has been made towards our immense plan to build the centre and move tens of millions of specimens there by 2027.

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Thomas Bateman’s Ichthyosaurs

Written by Alistair McLean, Curator of Natural Science,  Sheffield Museums Trust.

2021 was the bicentenary of the birth of the Derbyshire antiquarian, Thomas Bateman (1821-1861). To commemorate the event, Sheffield Museums Trust developed an exhibition focusing on the Bateman collection, much of which is preserved in Sheffield. 

Figure 1. Thomas Bateman & Son

The collections of Thomas and his father William Bateman (1787-1835), are perhaps best known in archaeological circles. The pair were prominent barrow diggers, and spent much of their relatively short lives excavating burial mounds in the Peak District of Derbyshire and surrounding counties. The specimens they acquired were displayed in the family museum at Lomberdale Hall, Middleton-by-Youlgreave in Derbyshire.

The collection consisted of archaeology, world cultures and natural history (predominantly taxidermy, birds’ eggs, insects, mineralogy and palaeontology). A large part of it was initially loaned to and later sold to Sheffield Public Museum (now Weston Park Museum) in 1876 and 1893 respectively.

The importance of the Bateman family’s contribution to the study of natural science has historically been overshadowed by their notoriety as archaeologists. But their efficacy as general collectors plus the relative abundance of surviving contextual information, puts them into the top tier of contributors to Sheffield’s natural science collection.

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The SS Great Britain’s ‘Final Passenger’

Written by Nick Booth, Head of Collections, SS Great Britain Trust.

Drakon Heritage and Conservation can be contacted via their website – https://drakonheritage.co.uk/.

This blog explores conservation work and public engagement activities focused on a natural history specimen found in an unlikely museum setting, made possible thanks to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award 2020.

Brunel’s SS Great Britain is a museum and visitor attraction on the harbour side in Bristol. The site centres around the Steamship Great Britain, which sits within the drydock she was originally built in and launched from on the 19th July 1843. The famous Victorian Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, acted as her Chief Engineer. She returned to the same drydock on the 19th July, 1970 – a gap of 127 years during when she steamed or sailed to every continent in the world, excluding the Antarctic, and circumnavigated the globe 32 times. The site also includes two museums – the Dockyard Museum, which tells the story of the SS Great Britain from construction to her return to Bristol, and the Being Brunel Museum, which explored the life and works of IK Brunel. The Trusts Collections were Designated in 2014.

In March 2020 the SS Great Britain Trust applied for funding as part of the Bill Pettit Memorial Award.

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