Diving into a Coral Reef with Cambridge Communities

Written by Sara Steele, Museum Education Assistant, Museum of Zoology and Roz Wade, Learning Officer, Museum of Zoology.

This article was first published as a blog for University of Cambridge Museums, 1st June 2020.

Our audiences are full of creativity, something we see in bucketfuls at our events and workshops. We wanted to go further, and showcase audience creations and collaborations in our programming and displays.

As a Museum celebrating the wonders of the natural world, we have an innate desire to protect it. We have committed to embedding sustainability into our public programme : tackling the materials we use and considering the impacts of activity outputs. Not all craft day creations end up on the fridge, let alone as an item cherished for life. Could we bear the thought of our logo sitting atop a landfill?

With this focus on collaboration and sustainability in mind, and with the help of the artistic mind of volunteer Fanny Bara Moreau, we designed a summer activity with longevity at its core.

Every summer, the University of Cambridge Museums box up their wares and head out into the weather with themed activities to communities across the city with Cambridge City Council’s Big Weekend and Children and Young People’s Participation Service (ChYpPs). Summer 2019 had a tropical oceans theme at the Museum of Zoology, with the goal of inspiring conversations around the conservation of our coral reefs. We wanted to use this as an opportunity to bring audiences together through shared making and showcase their creations in our programmes and displays.

We took inspiration from our ‘Patchwork World Map’ project, created from individually-made sections sewn into a large tactile map of the world populated by animals.

We also piloted a collaborative family making activity at our Zoology Live festival in June 2019.

We wanted to emulate the collaborative aspect of these projects, as well as create another resource for future programming and activities.

Not forgetting our overall goal of using sustainable materials, we had our work cut out for us.

What came out of several conversations over (essential) coffee was a 5-metre long scroll of empty reef, soon to be populated with corals. From our point of view we liked how transportable it was, neatly rolling up, and that the only materials were paper, paper straws, and water-based paint. Huzzah!

Alongside handling boxes, participants could explore real coral specimens and had the opportunity to create (reusable) collages from shells. Families across Cambridge were invited to add to the reef using pools of very watery paint, blown into organic branching patterns with a paper straw. There were several ‘races’ to the top of the paper over the course of the summer.

We were so happy with what our Cambridge communities created that we began to embed it within further activities, including as a backdrop to an underwater drama created by our Young Zoologists Club and to recycled makes created by visitors to our ‘Winter Wildlife: A Christmas Coral’ (excuse the pun) family day.

Just as we did for our patchwork map, we found a space in the gallery to show-case the work of visitors. We settled on a long table-case on our mezzanine level. It was the perfect shape for our scroll of a reef, and was a space that most visitors would see. Unfortunately, it is not a fully accessible space, and for future projects we are considering how to make its content available to audiences unable to use the stairs.

The knitted and crocheted animals that you can see here were created by our local WI attendees to Creature Crafternoons, with our early years audiences in mind, and a desire from the team for more diverse ocean dwelling creatures in toy form.

Best of all, we not only generated meaningful conversations and activities for our visitors, but also new resources for future programmes, and a wonderful, colourful, collaborative display for all to see.

Of course, to be used in our learning programmes, the resources had to come out of the display case. However, our collaborative coral reef has inspired further projects displaying work created by our visitors. In March 2020, we ran a workshop in partnership with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and led by artist Hilary Cox Condron to create a vision of Cambridge where we can live in harmony with nature. The collaborative artwork created during this ‘World of Tomorrow’ workshop was made from recycled materials, and included wonderful creative solutions for sustainable transport, homes for wildlife and food production. This was put on display in our ‘Communities Case’ on the mezzanine with the aim of inspiring further conversations about wildlife conservation between our visitors.

We entered 2020 with a view to either using the materials we already have, or ordering only recyclable and sustainable materials. Not only does this do us good, but it also allows visitors to see the potential of craft materials that are not harmful to the planet.

While our non-recyclable materials stock is shrinking, our bank of bespoke and inspired resources is growing. The reef continues to give in the form of new online resources. Families can get stuck into making their own at home or gain help with home schooling during lockdown:

https://museumofzoologyblog.com/2020/05/04/dive-into-a-coral-reef/

https://museumofzoologyblog.com/2020/05/11/our-changing-reef-habitats/

By creating a space within the gallery amid the zoological specimens for community collaborations, we hope to provide a sense of ownership of space for our audiences. Our programmes aim to celebrate the animal kingdom and nurture a desire to protect it. We are proud of the passion our visitors have for the natural world, and through these projects hope to encourage more conversations about wildlife conservation.

We want to make the most of the creations by our wildlife-loving audiences, and during the lockdown our community space has moved online. Here you can add to the ‘World of Tomorrow’ with your creative recycled solutions to live in harmony with nature.

Have you created something animal-themed during lockdown? Or spotted some wildlife from your window? Why not add it to your Community Gallery of lockdown wildlife sightings.

We hope to be able to include more photos of sightings and makes as time goes on so do get in touch via our social media platforms or umzc@zoo.cam.ac.uk to submit.

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

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.

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‘Tahemaa Transformed’ The Conservation of the Mummy Coffin at The Bournemouth Natural Science Society.

Written by Bethany Palumbo, ACR, Founder and Owner of Palumbo Conservation Services on behalf of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society.

Tahemaa has been a resident of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society since 1922, when she was donated from the Salisbury museum (fig. 1). New research indicates that she arrived in the UK in 1823 from the ancient city of Thebes, now known as Luxor, on the river Nile. Her coffin is dated from 700 BC making her approximately 2700 years old. We know from the hieroglyphics on the side of her coffin that she was the daughter of a Hor a high priest of Montu, the Flacon-God of War. Other than this we know very little about her and her life in Egypt.

Figure 1. Tahemaa the Mummy at the Bournemouth Natural Science Society.

Tahemaa has been at the Society for nearly 100 years but she has spent most of this time locked away from public view. In 1993, the Society decided to put her on permanent display in the Egyptology exhibition. Since then she has been seen by thousands of admirers, however due to her age and fragile condition, she is in need of urgent conservation treatment. Hundreds of years in an unstable environment have caused significant damage to the coffin. The fluctuations have caused the wood, plaster layers and paint to crack and flake. The layers of the coffin have even separated in some areas, lifting away from the wooden frame (fig 2). Many years without a display case has also resulted in a thick layer of dark, engrained dirt concealing the original colours of her decorative paintwork (fig 3).

Figure 2. Layers of the coffin structure peeling away.

Figure 3. Original colours are darkened with the build-up of surface dirt.

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Frequently Asked Questions in Taxidermy

Written by Ella Berry (also available here), amateur taxidermist & MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University. An extended version of this blog was published here on 12 March 2020.

In March of this year I helped out on the Conservation stand at an evening event as part of my role as Volunteer Intern at National Museum Cardiff. It was a fun event, with a turnout of 852 curious visitors. Art conservators and natural history conservators collaborated to show how natural history specimens could inform and create imagery and art.

Photo of me (left) talking to guests at the National Museum Cardiff ‘After Dark’ event alongside Vertebrate Curator Jennifer Gallichan (centre) and local artist Nichola Hope (right) drawing. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Jenkins.

Throughout the event both children and adults came up and asked a lot of questions about the objects, and I noticed some reoccurring queries, especially around the ethics of taxidermy. I have attempted to answer some of these here, so that if anyone else reading this faces the same conundrums, this article will set their mind at ease, or enable them to answer the questions confidently.

Is it ‘ethical’?

‘Ethical’ is a subjective term, therefore what is considered ethical varies between taxidermists. Whether the preservation of animal remains, without the inherently unobtainable consent of the animal, is in itself ethical is up to each individual to decide. ‘Ethical-taxidermy’ has become a more frequently used term generally referring to the animal not being killed specifically for the purpose of becoming a mount. However, this refers to a wide range of sources and can range from accidental deaths such as finding an animal dead or road kill, right through to by-products of culling, pet food supply animals and pest control salvages.

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