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 – August

Compiled by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Welcome to the August edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. We are really keen to hear more about museum re-openings, exhibition launches, virtual conferences and webinars, and new and interesting online content. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Where Can I Go?

Museums have been steadily reopening since the beginning of July, and August brings a growing list of museums tentatively opening their doors to a limited number of visitors. The Art Fund has put together a list of opening dates, with big names in August including The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum (London), the Museum of Science and Industry (Manchester), National Museum Cardiff and Eureka (Halifax).

What Can I Read?

We’ve got two great posts on the NatSCA blog this month. Yvette Harvey writes about the colonial history of the collecting trips of George Forrest, whose collections still have a huge impact on what is grown in our gardens today. Jan Freedman writes about his experiences in busy museums, and how a calmer, post-Covid environment may benefit the experiences of visitors.

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Resurrection 101

Written by Paolo Viscardi, Curator of Zoology, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History

Anyone who has to deal with fluid collections, without the support of a natural history conservator, probably has nightmares about cracked jar lids and desiccated specimens. But would you sleep more easily if I told you that it’s possible to get a transformation like this using a straightforward and inexpensive method?

Frog_before-after

Here’s my account of how I resurrected this dehydrated specimen using stuff you probably have sitting in your museum cupboards or that you can buy for less than £20. It’s worth noting that the technique will not always work and if you plan to use it on a specimen that may have useful DNA to contribute, you should take a sample before rehydrating, since it is likely to reduce the quantity and quality of DNA you can extract.

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How To Get Money For Your Natural Science Collection

Written By Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science, Leeds Museums and Galleries.

So you’ve got a lovely collection, with lots of lovely potential, you yourself have loads of lovely ideas for all the lovely things you could do with it but you have no money. It’s a pretty common situation in museums but there are ways to fund your collections and the rewards for doing so are BIG.

©Leeds Museums and Galleries

Where and How to Look

There are various companies you can subscribe to who will produce lists of funders that suit your project. People like https://www.grantfinder.co.uk/ and https://www.fundingcentral.org.uk/default.aspx but others are available. We’ve used these in the past in Leeds but haven’t kept up our subscription as museum funders rarely seem to change from year to year.

The main funders to consider in the natural science collection world are:

https://ellerman.org.uk/,

https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding-finder/designation-development-fund,

https://www.esmeefairbairn.org.uk/,

https://www.wolfson.org.uk/,

https://garfieldweston.org/,

https://www.museumsassociation.org/collections/esmee-fairbairn-collections-fund,

https://www.heritagefund.org.uk/

and absolutely not forgetting https://www.natsca.org/awards-and-bursaries

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NatSCA Digital Digest – January

Compiled by Jennifer Gallichan, Curator of Molluscs & Vertebrates at National Museum Cardiff.

Welcome to the January edition of Digital Digest and a Happy New Year to you all.

I am dedicating this first Digital Digest to conferences, as calls for papers seem to be coming thick and fast. There are some fab events this year so get planning, submitting and registering.

NatSCA Conference & AGM 2020 .

Changing the World: Environmental Breakdown, Decolonisation and Natural Science collections

Thursday 14th & Friday 15th May 2020. National Museum Wales, Cardiff.

The #NatSCA2020 conference invites proposals for presentations exploring the role of natural science collections in addressing or engaging with ‘big issue’ challenges, both in the environment and in society. For example:

  • Have you been involved in a research project using natural science collections to inform decision/policy makers on the implications of climate change, biodiversity loss or biosecurity threats?
  • Are you developing plans to reconceptualise and decolonise your collections?

We would like to hear from anyone and everyone who uses natural science collections to interact with important global topics.

Deadline for submission: 7th February. Click here for more info about how to submit your abstract.

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