Playing with Wire: The Conservation of a Wallaby Skeleton

Written by Caitlin Jenkins, MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University and volunteer at National Museum Cardiff.

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.

A bony jigsaw…

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!

Beginning the ribcage wiring

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Funny Bones

I wanted to be an Archaeologist when I was 11, and this was certainly down to a fascination with the bones of animals. My inspiration from a very young age came from the wonderful series of ‘Funny Bones’ books by Allan and Janet Ahlberg. The skeletons certainly made me think about how the bones of humans and animals (admittedly not 100% accurate) moved together. I trace my later interest to the many books on dinosaurs and prehistoric life that I assiduously read in my school library. Fast forward 20 years and as an intern at Auckland War Memorial Museum in 2012, I was allowed to ‘have a go’ at preparing some native birds for skeletonisation by de-fleshing them. At Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum, I worked on a small project to re-house some Moa bones whose storage and provenance needed to be updated. However, I wasn’t aware of the methods to clean and maintain bone and re-mount skeletal collections in museums.

I was therefore pleased when NatSCA and conservators from the Cambridge Museum of Zoology put together an amazing conference and workshop called ‘Bone Collections: using, conserving and understanding osteology in museums’. Depending on your area of interest, you could attend for some or all of the talks, or take part in a bone cleaning workshop hosted by Bethany Palumbo, Conservator at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and Vicky Singleton and Natalie Jones of Cambridge University Museums. By taking part, I was able to gain some practical hands on experience of handling and observing bones in collections, and using a variety of dry and wet cleaning methods that are recommended as safe to use, easy to apply, and non-invasive.

Bone cleaning in progress (Image: Anthony Roach)

Bone cleaning in progress (Image: Anthony Roach)

Bethany began by outlining the structure and composition of bone and the impact that light, humidity, and temperature can have on bone if not properly cared for. Bone can become bleached through exposure to light. The surface of bones can crack if they become too hot or suffer mould damage if left in cold, damp conditions. Bethany explained that the bone itself can also cause problems, such as with the secretion of natural fats and oils, which are acidic and can ooze out of specimens long after they have been cleaned and erected for display. This can lead to acid burn. Mechanical damage of bones can also occur, where wire is excessively tight in articulated specimens, or fatty acids react with copper wire and pins to cause Verdigris.

Vicky Singleton,  Conservator at Cambridge University Museums  pictured demonstrating dry cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

Vicky Singleton, Conservator at Cambridge University Museums pictured demonstrating dry cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

Vicky Singleton and Natalie Jones then systematically went through the various methods for dry and wet cleaning of bones. The methods for dry cleaning include using a vacuum and brush, smoke sponge, a ‘groom stick’ made of natural rubber, and air. These methods are less time consuming, less invasive, and more cost effective than wet methods. I was able to choose specimens from a box of assorted bones, and see the impact of the methods for myself. I could see the difference literally first hand on the digits of a primate hand, using the various dry methods. I then used the wet methods on a collection of horse vertebrae. The wet methods made a dramatic difference to the surface of the bone. These include using solvents such as de-ionised water, ethanol, and white spirit, enzymes, and detergents (e.g. Synperonic A7). I was amazed by the impact of white spirit on greasy bones, where water made little or no impact. The clear favourite to remove dirt in general was actually something I hadn’t ever considered: human saliva, which is full of enzymes. Human saliva! Who knew?

Bones shown partially cleaned by various solvents including water, ethanol and white spirit, as part of the wet cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

Bones shown partially cleaned by various solvents including water, ethanol and white spirit, as part of the wet cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

The talks were equally excellent, such as the session by Paolo Viscardi on the uses of skeletal reference collections at Sheffield University, which consists of over 1800 specimens, organised in a useful way for teaching and research. Jack Ashby’s #BoneIdols talk about the successful crowdsourcing project to protect some of the Grant Museum’s most scientifically important and rare specimens was also inspiring. The quagga, for instance, has became something of a celebrity in its own right through a very successful marketing campaign where visitors could see the conservation, re-mounting, and re-storage of the specimen. Interest was also maintained through press releases and blogs about the Quagga and the use of technology used in museums. Jan Freedman’s ‘Game of Bones’ talk on the methods for preparing animals for skeletonisation and using bone collections was also memorable.

Anthony Roach, Natural History Museum (NHM)

Exciting new natural science workshops and a new book

Time is racing away, and in just a few days we will be at the NatSCA Bone Collections day in Cambridge (8th September 2015). The talks and posters promise to be really varied, interesting, and hugely informative. There is also the added bonus of a practical session to get your hands on some skeletal material, and, under the expert guidance of Bethany Palumbo, learn all about the basics of bone conservation.

Just a month later (15th October 2015), Paolo Viscardi will be leading a workshop on the identification of natural materials, a free course run by NatSCA and held at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter (now sold out).

There is still more good news in that NatSCA, the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and Icon have published a book containing the full papers given at the Conservation of Hair conference held in June 2014. The book is published by Archetype books.

Conservation of Hair Publication


Request for Poster Submissions for Bone Collections Conference

Bone Collections: Using, conserving and understanding osteology in museums.

Tuesday, 8th September 2015
University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

NatSCA invites you to submit abstracts for short, informal poster presentations to be held at the NatSCA Bone Collections day on the 8th September at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

The day will include both a workshop on in-depth case studies of bone cleaning, re-articulation, conservation and restoration as well as presentations on bone identification and preparation, covering a wide variety of museum osteology topics.

Spaces are still available for both workshop and talks. The full programme and booking are available here.

Working with, understanding, using, maintaining and conserving bone collections is a large and complex topic. If you have experience and would like to submit a poster, please follow the guidelines below.

We hope that this poster session will facilitate skills-sharing and friendly discussion among participants, as well as providing an opportunity to exchange tips and tricks. Poster presentations are an ideal format for student projects, case studies, innovative ideas, and tried and tested techniques, as well as research related to this topic.

Abstracts must be submitted by 14th August, 2015. All submissions will be acknowledged within a few days. The posters will be on view throughout the day, with an organised time period for authors to discuss posters with conference attendees. Please ensure posters are no larger than A2 (420 x 594mm).

All abstracts will be printed and made available to attendees, and all posters will be made available on the NatSCA blog in pdf format.

Abstract submission:

  • List all authors: surname first, followed by first and middle names or initials. Separate authors’ names with semicolons
  • List authors’ institutions and addresses
  • Include the title in boldface
  • Abstract

Please send your abstracts and any queries to:

Natalie Jones
T 07786 023709


Vicky Purewal

T 07917533411

Bringing the Dead Back to Life, with Paolo Viscardi

Paolo at the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Last week saw the first PubSci talk by NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi since we moved venues to the King’s Arms near London Bridge. The subject, Bringing the Dead to Life, is less a Frankenstein manual and more of a description of his role as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. He works with dead things every day and he does so for the public’s benefit, because these collections are yours: both yours as a national collective, and yours as an individual if you want to do something with them.1

A large part of the reason we have these amazing collections is due to massive amount of world exploration by wealthy industrialists, tradesmen, and philanthropists. Frederick John Horniman was a tea trader, and collected all sorts of things in his travels. The stuff he brought back captured the public imagination because it introduced them to international cultures they would otherwise have no idea about. We take global information for granted today because we all have access to internet resources in our pockets, so it is hard for us to grasp how unusual it must have been for people in 1948 to see frescoes from Ceylon temples for the first time.

One of the fun side effects of this close encounter with the unusual is that oftentimes people preparing the specimens from overseas were only going by descriptions, and were not at all familiar with the species they were working on. A great example of this is the iconic Horniman Walrus, who was overfilled until he was wrinkle-free – in the style of a seal. There is an exhibit at the Grant Museum of Zoology at the moment discussing this phenomenon and featuring a lovely Stubbs painting of a kangaroo that resembles a giant mouse. Knowing how meticulous Stubbs was about his animal anatomy, one has to believe that this is exactly how he understood them to look and is not in any way an accident of the proportions.

The topic of proportions and measurement brings me on to a study done by Paolo et al. in 2010, looking at the variation in measurements taken of a section of owl bone, so naturally the paper was titled How long is a piece of Strix. Comparative measurement is a fundamental part of species identification, so naturally one would assume a consensus of readings taken by professionals. The results were somewhat different: when working alone, the measurements were accurate. When working as part of a team, the measurements strayed, and the more people collaborating, the greater the disparity between measurements.

As a science communicator both at the museum and through his blog, Paolo has had the opportunity to work on some interesting projects: he has advised BBC television series such as our patron Ben Garrod‘s Secrets of Bones and he has been interviewed for The One Show to explain why cats get stuck up trees (they can’t rotate their ankles). This allowed Paolo to introduce the viewing audience to the Margay (Leopardus wiedii): a cat that can rotate its ankles. He has shared his love of osteology with 13-year-old fellow-blogger Jake McGowan-Lowe, which led to Jake publishing a book on the subject! To promote a recent Horniman exhibition on extreme animal adaptations, Paolo was subjected to the harshest elements in nature, which earned him the title ‘Extreme Curator’, and his very own Lego action figure.


Margay. By Clément Bardot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Where next for Paolo’s science communication? You’ll have to ask him at the next PubSci with Professor Ian Barnes. If you’re a fan of pleistocene megafauna (and, let’s face it, who isn’t), I wouldn’t miss it.

Sam Barnett, NatSCA Blog Editor

1. Depending on what it is you want to do with them and how run-ragged the museum staff are.

An Interview with the Next Generation

Last week we covered the history of Charles Jamrach: a Victorian animal trader who, though his methods would be considered questionable today, was nevertheless the source of many museum and zoo specimens in his day.

Today I’d like to talk about the future – specifically the fresh lay-enthusiasts who could one day be museum professionals. At the RSPB Conference last week, Nick Clegg said that “Many young people now know more about playing Angry Birds on their phone than they do about spotting real birds when they’re outside”. That may well be true but there is hope for the next generation, with lots of up and coming young naturalists.

I caught up with two of them to ask them about their passion for natural history: Melanie and Sam.

Sam's mounted swallow

Sam’s mounted swallow

1. What first got you interested in natural history collection?


“The thing that first really got me interested in natural history collecting was seeing Ben Garrod‘s series Secrets of Bones on tv. I was still a little bit freaked out by bones and skulls before seeing this series. This made me see bones as interesting. I have always had a massive love for animals and wildlife, so this helps me to see them from a new angle.”


“Well when ever i see an animal i wonder how i can learn more about it, sure you can look online and in books but nothings works as well as … Looking at whats behind its beauty skills and adaptation, the bones and the feathers.”

2. How big is your collection today?


“My collection total stands at 70, but I am continuing to find new specimens constantly. This includes: Great Bustard, buzzard, owls, polecat, mink, African striped weasel and African pygmy hedgehog.”


“My collection at the moment consists of 45-47 skulls, 1-5 hundred feathers and all sorts. It’s still growing.”

3. What is the specimen that you are most pleased with and why?


“I don’t really have a single specimen to answer this question. But I have a collection of 4 owls inside (2x tawny, 1x barn, and 1x Eurasian scops) and they are by far my favourites. I also have a third tawny owl rotting at the moment. Owl skulls are especially interesting to me as I love owls when they are alive!”


“My favourite and most amazing cleaned specimen is my swallow skeleton. I’m incredibly pleased with it as i articulated it myself and the skull is very interesting in the way it is shaped.”

4. What are the top 3 on your wish list?


“The top three specimens on my wish list are all owls: a snowy, great grey, and an eagle owl; but any skulls are always welcome in my collection.”


“My top 3 specimens on my most wanted list would be a puffin, a green woodpecker, and a seal.”

5. What has been the best advice that you have been given so far?


“The best advice I have been given so far was from Jake McGowan Lowe, he has helped me loads with my collection, from a good way of documenting it, cleaning advice, identifying and even the legal side of things!”


“I think the best advice anyone has ever given me is to simply just ignore when people say that it’s morbid to collect dead animals”

Melanie's owl skulls.

Melanie’s owl skulls.

6. How do you document your specimens?


“I document my specimens by giving each of them a tag with their name, English specie name, date they came into my collection, ID number and who found it. Each specimen then has half of a A4 sheet of paper with all of its details on it. Occasionally if its a rare skull it has a full A4 page of information linked to it by its ID number.”


“I keep a record of all my skulls hand written in my notebook and digitally on a record list and a picture profile.”

7. Has a student or scientist wanted to study one of your specimens as part of their research?


“No-one has yet wanted to study one of my specimens for research. I wouldn’t mind them coming and handling my specimens at all and would find it a complement if they wanted to know more about something in my collection. I would be careful about who takes them though: they are my pride and joy after all!”


“If someone wanted to study one of my specimens i would be happy for them to study them and not only that but i would be honoured.”

8. Do you see this as a hobby or would you like to get a natural history-related job someday?


“I see it as a hobby but I also would love to become a zoologist or osteologist one day! So being able to have a collection of my own specimens is really useful and I really love doing it!”


“when im older i would like a natural history related job and this is not just a hobby its my way of learning more about nature.”

9. If someone were to question whether your specimens were collected ethically, what steps are you taking to demonstrate that they are?


“The measures I take to prove that my specimens were ethically acquired are: take photos if I can of any injures to prove that it was not shot; write down where it was found/who I bought it from, and where it came from. I keep documents linked to all my specimens with all of this info on it, and also try to acquire only car killed or naturally found specimens. I have one grey squirrel that was shot, and have kept the bullet with it and taken notes about it. Its really important to keep all of this written down and have it to hand so that if I needed to I could prove how it died. I also do lots of research into whether or not I need any licences to be able to keep that particular skull.”


“Well I take photos of where they are found and keep them a folder that shows where it was found sometimes who was there and proof of the death from the bones.”

So you can see there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the subject material, which should always be encouraged. The idea As long as amateur collectors are informed and guided by the subject specialists towards conscientious and ethical collecting this can only be a positive thing. If you would like to learn more about these young collectors and their collections, they are very active on Twitter and Sam’s collection has it’s own blog at Nature Based.