Famous Flies – Petiver

Yes. That is the title and this is a blog telling you about some of them. I was tasked with the job of hunting through the thousands of drawers, the hundreds of jars and the millions of slides to find the most famous or most infamous of specimens within the Collection at the Natural History Museum London. I have worked on the fly collection at the museum for over ten years now but still regularly come across hidden gems in the collection. Just in the fly collection, we have approximately 3-4 million specimens (when you see jars swimming with flies you will understand why this estimate has such a large degree of error), that have been collected since the early 17th Century from every geographical region around the world. Some of the collectors are recognisable whilst others are less so but have come to mean so much to us who deal with the collection.

So, let me welcome you to the collection. It is arguably the best fly collection in the world – I admit I may be a little biased but please be patient with me. I get very excited about the flies and forget most of my impartiality. Continue reading

Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2016

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

2016 was a busy year for the NatSCA blog, we published 27 blogs from a super range of authors on an exciting variety of topics. When looking at the analytics of the blog to see what’s popular, it became apparent that people don’t just read what’s current in terms of publication date, they read what’s relevant to them at the time. This means that on top of the 27 blogs published last year, a further 102 blogs dating back to 2012 were also viewed from our archive, in 2016.

Since its inception in August 2012, there have been 182 blogs published on the NatSCA website, and so with such a large number, it’s really interesting to see what grabbed people’s attention, or search engines, the most. Continue reading

How to Store Taxidermy

We all know that discussing issues with other museum professionals within Subject Specialist Networks is an efficient way of disseminating information within the sector, but the following article provides a perspective from a generalist commercial storage company; a voice we don’t usually hear from.

Safestore, the UK’s largest self-storage provider, recently made a video series called ‘Stuff is Great‘ which focused on collectors and their individual passions. Among other client case studies, the series featured Suzette Field and her collection of taxidermy specimens. The following article, How to Store Taxidermy, was written by Safestore themselves and provides useful guidance on how to use these public facilities for storing such material.

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project 'Stuff is Great'. © Safestore

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project ‘Stuff is Great’. © Safestore

As any taxidermy enthusiast will know, a sizable collection can take years to build.  During that time your life and circumstances will change; you may welcome children into your life, move home, change job, all the while accumulating more pieces.  At some point you may be faced with the challenge of storing your taxidermy and with the right know-how it’s not as painful a process as it sounds!

Safestore recently stored a taxidermy collection and found it to be the safest environment for high value taxidermy.  Your attic or garage may seem like a cheaper alternative but both locations are affected by the changing climate throughout the year, putting undue stress on your collection.

Follow these tips for storing your taxidermy safely…

  1. Use wooden crates.

Using a wooden crate for each taxidermy piece means you can affix the mounts to the inside of the crates.  This will keep the taxidermy from touching the inside of the crate and allow air to circulate the piece.  Cardboard isn’t sturdy enough for large taxidermy pieces and doesn’t offer the same protection.

  1. Keep the damp away.

Storage units are typically very dry but the climate can vary from time to time.  Add silica gel packets to each crate as they will absorb any moisture in the air and keep your taxidermy dry.

  1. Keep the pests away.

Moths and small bugs would love nothing more than nibbling away at your taxidermy pieces so using ‘no pest strips’ or moth killer strips will help to keep your crates critter free.

  1. Climate and humidity.

When looking for self storage units for your taxidermy, ensure your unit is somewhat climate controlled.  Units on the outer edge of the building may be more prone to temperature changes so ask for a unit that remains cool and dry throughout the year.

Taxidermy is expensive and some pieces are one of a kind, therefore it is imperative to ensure your items are safe and secure once in storage.  Look for self storage facilities with 24hr CCTV, restricted access, sole key holder policies and intruder alarms.

  1. Check!

It’s super important to check your taxidermy from time to time, especially if you’re storing for a number of months.  Make sure you replace the pest strips and silica packets and check for any signs of damage or stress.  It’s easier to rectify a problem sooner rather than later!

Ultimately taxidermy is for displaying and enjoying, however if you’re in need of an interim home for your collection you’re not short of options.  Keeping your pieces safe and in good condition is easy so long as each item is packed with due care and is stored somewhere out of harm’s reach.

By Tiffiny Franklin, Digital Outreach Executive, Safestore

Cold Case Curation

Museums have many curious objects behind closed doors. Recently, volunteers discovered some ‘cold ones’ at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust.

Behind Closed Doors

If museums are icebergs, then museum exhibits are just the tip; and the remaining 90% or so of specimens are tucked away safely behind closed doors. Many people, lucky enough to have visited these museum storage areas (‘behind-the-scenes’), will be familiar with almost endless rows of racks and shelves packed with all sorts of different objects, ranging from Chinese vases to taxidermy monitor lizards. But few non-curators would be familiar with the idea of freezers full of dead animals!

We have two large freezers, at our off-site storage facility, packed full of animals; we needed to know exactly how many animals were in there and where they were from, hence this project- Cold Case Curation. The specimens also have excellent provenance; labels with location details including specific grid references and dates. Therefore this Cold Case Curation project was as much a biological survey (albeit indoors) as a detailed museum inventory.

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers “surveying” the “fauna” of our freezers

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers surveying the ‘Fauna of our Freezers’.

Volunteer-Power

Enter our team of volunteers. They were specially recruited for a day for this Cold Case Curation task; to survey the frozen fauna, matching specimens against existing inventory records. This was a joint initiative with our Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (hosted at the Museum), to capture biological records. Most of our volunteers are long-term with the Museum and the Centre, and are current university students.

As our team of five volunteers eagerly crowded around the two huge freezers, they were fascinated with the idea of freezing animals to preserve them before they are stuffed and prepared as taxidermy specimens (but don’t worry, they all died naturally!).

In teams, the volunteers enthusiastically worked their way through documenting the freezer contents. 241 individual specimens later, we had documented 11 species of mammal and 48 species of bird. Interesting discoveries included a bittern, a little grebe chick, 10 waxwings and a white-tailed tropic bird (with stomach contents). Volunteers delighted in handling iconic British species including 54 red squirrels and 24 barn owls.

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer “faunal assemblage"

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer faunal assemblage.

Their experiences are best summarised in their own words;

“After helping out at Tullie House with their cold case curation, recording everything they had in the freezers, we found some amazing specimens from polecats to owls, your typical garden birds to brown hares, but I have to say my favourite by far was the river otter. This otter was fantastic and it was brilliant to see it so upclose as it is a creature I have only seen from afar in the wild. This event was extremely educational and rewarding to myself as I’m studying zoology here in Carlisle”.  Volunteer, Laura Carter.

Volunteer, Laura Carter with River Otter discovery from freezer

Volunteer, Laura Carter with a River Otter discovery from the freezer.

Another volunteer, Donna Salter was also drawn to the otter:

“It’s a bit obvious to go for the big, furry, cute mammal, but my favourite has to be the otter. I was somewhat of an otter obsessed child: other girls wrote fan letters to Mark Owen or Ronan Keating while I wrote to Philip Wayre, founder of the Otter Trust (he sent back a signed visitors guide – I still have it). So for me, getting to hold and see the details of an otter can’t really be beaten!”

Cold Case Reflections; Learning from the Model

The Museum has greatly benefited from this exercise with our detailed inventories and biological records which will go into our database and ultimately end up on the Global Biodiversity Network Gateway for public access (and we also have the data we need to make more informed decisions over which specimens we decide to formally accession). However, this project proved to be a particularly successful public engagement event. It was a combination of the fact that volunteers were seeing and handling a variety of animals and that they were ‘discovering specimens’, whilst working together as a team, which is vastly more enjoyable than lone working. The event was enhanced with use of Twitter  (#coldcasecuration), which captured some of the magical moments of discovery.

This exercise illustrates how a relatively routine (inventory) collections management exercise can be turned into an exciting public engagement project, capturing critical data for the museum and inspiring a future generation of potential young scientists and curators.

By Simon Jackson, Curator, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust

Project Airless

Project Airless’ is a three year venture that began in August 2015 at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, with the objective of treating and preventing pyrite decay in the Museum’s historic earth sciences collections.

Pyrite Decay

Pyrite, or ‘fool’s gold’ (iron sulphide), is a common mineral of varying crystal structure (though cubic is common) that can often be found in or around fossils. It can occur in a compact, crystallized and stable form – or as a porous, microcrystalline and unstable form.

Pyrite oxidation, or ‘decay’, can occur when the mineral reacts with atmospheric oxygen in relative humidities (RH) above 60%. The resulting by-products of this oxidation depend on the mineral composition of the fossil and matrix, but often comprise sulphuric acid and hydrated ferrous sulphates, which can be very harmful to specimens, labels, and storage media. Once pyrite has begun to oxidise, mineral hydrates will form at as low as 30% RH. Signs that pyrite oxidation is occurring include expansion cracks, white or yellowish acicular crystal formations, and a sulphurous odour.

Distressing scenes for fossil enthusiasts: a drawer of fossils with pyrite decay

Distressing scenes for fossil enthusiasts

Method

Three conservation technicians have been surveying the collections and recording where pyrite decay is occurring amongst the NHM’s 7 million fossils and 500,000 mineralogical specimens.

Hunting high and low for signs of pyrite oxidation; conservators check drawers for suffering specimens

Hunting high and low for signs of pyrite oxidation

Affected specimens are temporarily removed from the collection, photographed, and a condition report created for the specimen on the Museum’s collections database. Following this, any remedial treatments are undertaken as necessary (ammonia gas treatment, for example). The fossil is then placed in an acid-free tray within a Plastazote inlay for protection. To prevent further oxidation, the specimens are heat-sealed in a NeoEscal barrier film bag with oxygen scavenging sachets, forming an anoxic microenvironment. Once sealed, the technicians complete a process report and return the fossil to the collections. This work is being undertaken in advance of the development of a new Earth and Planetary Science building, which will have a more efficiently controlled environment.

Specimens re-housed in an anoxic microenvironment, sealed in a bag

Specimens re-housed in an anoxic microenvironment

Treatments

Once a specimen has been assessed for pyrite decay, there are some remedial treatments the conservation technicians can undertake, depending on the severity. The first of these is the removal of any white/yellowish crystals by dry brushing, followed by consolidating any cracks in both the fossil and the matrix with Paraloid B72 in Acetone.

If a figured or type specimen is exhibiting signs of severe pyrite oxidation, a cast can be made in order to preserve morphological detail before it deteriorates further. However, moulding and casting carry risks for fragile specimens.

Ammonia gas treatment is a method that successfully neutralizes sulphuric acid produced by pyrite oxidation, and involves exposing specimens to the vapour emitted by a mixture of ammonium hydroxide and PEG 400 (polyethylene glycol) within an enclosed polyethylene or glass container. The vapours from the ammonium hydroxide react with the decay products, turning the affected areas a brick-red colour.

Team Airless to the rescue!

Team Airless to the rescue!

The Future

According to current estimates, 14,000 specimens at the Museum are in urgent need of this protective measure. As the project progresses, the team hopes that they will be able to share knowledge and expertise with other museums and institutions that may be facing the same problems as the NHM. Images generated for each specimen during the project should vastly improve the Museum’s collection database – and may even limit the need to open the bags. While ensuring that these valuable specimens remain intact, and of use for years to come, the project is also increasing digital access and reducing unnecessary handling by using a web based application to associate images with each specimen’s unique barcode.

Kieran Miles, Matthew Porter, and Amy Trafford

NHM, London

New loose taxidermy storage at Canterbury Museums

The following is a review by Philip Hadland, of a storage project undertaken by the Canterbury Museums:

Introduction

Much of Canterbury Museums taxidermy collection is loose taxidermy and is stored in shelved cupboards without any additional physical protection from handling, movement, or insect pest damage. A pilot project was carried out in 2013/14 to develop a new storage system for this section of the taxidermy collection to improve its care and management.

 

Aims of the Project

  1. Improve storage conditions and long term care
  2. Improve the management of the collection
  3. Free up storage space

 

Evaluation of Potential Storage Methods

To get a feel for what might work in practice I sent an email to the NATSCA Mailing List asking for ideas on what works well and what works not so well. Based on the plentiful feedback I received, I evaluated the advantages and disadvantages of the methods suggested.

From this initial research it is clear that there is no single method that can satisfy the needs of the great variety of sizes and shapes of taxidermy that exist in museum collections. Some methods are of course better than others in satisfying similar aims but cost is also an issue.

It was decided that a method based on Really Useful boxes was the best solution. The main reasons were the amount of time needed to prepare each box was minimal, there were very good offers available to acquire the boxes cheaply at the time and the sizes available matched up very well to the storage cupboards.

 

Method

2014-06-03_birds

Plastazote was first cut to fit the boxes. Then the bases of specimens were drawn around in pen with the specimen number written alongside and orientation to enable easy identification of what goes where. A list was also kept of the contents of each box.

2014-06-03_cut-foam

The foam was cut using a Stanley knife and affixed to the bottom of the box using masking tape.
The birds were then carefully slotted into place and the boxes were labelled and the location documentation was updated.

Before

2014-06-03_before

After

2014-06-03_after1

2014-06-03_after2

Resource breakdown and cost

Really useful boxes x 10 £110
Approximate cost of Plastazote used £20
Fixings and adhesives £1
Mothballs £4
Total material cost £135
Curatorial time (including planning) £300
Volunteer time (for photography and documentation 10 hours
Total cost £435

 

Summary

127 items of taxidermy have been rehoused and are well supported in robust, waterproof and conservation standard materials that are easily moved without the birds toppling and they are transportable. This will limit damage to the collections through preventing unnecessary handling, toppling, and pest attack – increasing their long term care. Each specimen now has a specific box location linked to the database so that it can be found easily when required.

 

I’d like to thank my colleagues and the NatSCA community for their help with this project.