In museums, collections are key. They are the resource that we rely on to drive our exhibitions, research, outreach, educational activities and even our marketing. We use this resource sustainably, ensuring it will be available for future generations. Our policies and standards protect them, keeping them safe by providing an appropriate environment and managing access – and while this is not always easy, at least we have control. Continue reading
‘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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL. It’s here! The job I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for. Just make sure you get your applications in by 3rd August 2015!
Interpretation Producer, Kew Gardens. Closing date: 5th July 2015.
Conservation and Documentation Manager, Bristol Museums, Archives and Galleries. Closing date: 19th July 2015.
See the job page of the NatSCA website for more exciting opportunities!
The deadline for submissions to the next issue of the Journal of Natural Science Collections is 15th July 2015. Get writing! Guidelines for authors are available online, and please send your submission and any queries to Jan Freedman (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Around the Web
Donna Young of Liverpool Museums has been busy digitising Brendel plant models.
North America’s herbarium collections are under threat due to funding cuts. The article is also a nice piece of collections advocacy for herbaria.
New research from the American Museum of Natural History shows that the teeth of Smilodon fatalis grew rapdily, but took years to mature.
The rise and fall of the barbary lion. Could it help to save other species from beyond the grave?
Bone Collections: Using, conserving and understanding osteology in museums.
Tuesday, 8th September 2015
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.
- 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
Please send your abstracts and any queries to:
T 07786 023709
When I say I’m going to a fossil festival, the reaction of friends who aren’t natural history geeks is often somewhat quizzical. It’s not exactly Glastonbury, is it? But I would argue that those of us who care passionately about museum collections, and return to Lyme Regis every year, are just as rock ‘n’ roll as the line-up at Glastonbury.
Lyme Regis Fossil Festival is one of the most successful examples of collections advocacy that I have seen, and it meets a wide variety of audiences over four days, working with Primary and Secondary schools and the general public. The fossil festival this year celebrated its 10th anniversary, and I wanted to share some examples of the good practice I’ve seen.
Museums are just history, right?
Luanne Meehitiya from Birmingham Museums reminded us, in her collections advocacy summary at the 2014 NatSCA conference, that the public may perceive museums as places of history, not as custodians of scientifically and culturally important collections. The surge in social media and targeted events means visitors are increasingly aware of the scientific research that takes place in museums. The Natural History Museum (NHM) and other regional museums presenting at Lyme Regis can engage audiences who don’t visit them regularly, or who see museums as simply about preserving history.
Prof. Paul Smith from Oxford University Museums also emphasised that natural science and historical collections can and should contribute to 21st century debates within society. The fossil festival doesn’t just celebrate palaeontology, and the Life Sciences team have a strong presence at Lyme, actively engaging the public with research that contributes to debates around climate change, invasive species, and the loss of biodiversity.
Myself and colleagues from the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity spent time talking about a new citizen science project called ‘Orchid Observers’, which inspires visitors to look for 29 of the 56 species of orchids in the UK. By encouraging the public to record their sightings, we hope to build a dataset to see how orchids are adapting to climate change, and how this is affecting flowering times. Using original herbarium sheets, we explained how the problems of over-collecting and environmental degradation have contributed to the decline of orchids.
What do people in museums actually do?
The fossil festival is great at highlighting the amazing work of curators, researchers and scientists, and promotes careers in the museum sector. An excellent example this year was Luanne and Isla Gladstone’s ‘Be A Curator’ activity, where visitors chose a specimen and then had to label it with the age, locality, date, and scientific name. Not only do young people get to meet real curators, they gain an understanding of their work too!
How can we learn more about museum specimens?
Alex Ball from the Imaging and Analysis Centre at NHM probably has the coolest job I know. He spends his days using chemical, CT, and other scanning technologies to explore natural history specimens. Alex is a continual presence at the festival, and this year he was using a structured light 3D scanner to scan museum specimens for visitors. It scans the object with several cameras and constructs a 3D model that can be examined from different angles.
CT-scanned museum objects were also displayed on screens for visitors to investigate. This technology has enabled conservators to better conserve the beautiful Blaschka glass models, because they can understand how they were made. Researchers can also learn a wealth of information – from the morphology of mummified cats to the structure of meteorites – in a way that is non-invasive and keeps the specimen intact.
These are just some of the examples from a fossil festival that places museum collections, curators, and scientists at the forefront of the visitors’ experience. The festival clearly exposes the past, present, and future use of collections and current scientific research. It also continues to remind us of the amazing scientific discoveries of people like Mary Anning and William Smith, to inspire future generations of scientists, geologists, naturalists, and artists. Long may it continue!
Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, NHM
With the theme of last week’s 2015 NatSCA Conference being sharing collections through social media, there was much discussion about Twitter and the many natural science-related hashtags that abound. So we thought we should compile a list, to make it easier for people wanting to get involved to know what’s out there!
For those new to Twitter, a few pointers:
- It doesn’t matter how you write hashtags (some capitalisation/all lower case), but capitalising the first letter of each word can make them easier to read, and removes the risk of embarrassing unintended meanings (remember #susanalbumparty?).
- If you’re starting a new hashtag, search for it first on Twitter to see if it already exists and if so, how it’s used. Also don’t make it too long. It will eat up your 140 characters, and other people will be less likely to use it.
- When tweeting about an event, find out if there is an official hashtag. If you’re the organiser, communicate what it is! There were so many variations used for International Museum Day this year that it was confusing. This also dilutes the pool of tweets that people will see if they’re following one of several hashtags for the same event, and makes it more difficult to compile them in Storify.
There are many hashtags based on days of the week:
There are lots of other natural science and museum-related hashtags out there, for use any time!
#CreaturesFBTS – Creatures from behind the scenes. Share images of amazing specimens from your stored collections.
#NatSciFashion – Natural science fashion. A new one to come out of this year’s NatSCA conference! Share images of your fabulous natural science-related wardrobe/bags/accessories!
#SciArt and #BioArt – Share your scientific artworks.
#MuseumDocumentation – Explain what documentation work you’re doing, and why it’s important, in only 140 characters (120 once you’ve added the hashtag). Try it, it’s quite a challenge!
#MuseumSelfie – Share selfies in your museum or with your specimens! There is also a Museum Selfie Day. The next one is on 20th Jan 2016.
#MuseumShelfie – What’s on your museum shelves?
And there are many, many more! Museum Week, organised by @CultureThemes, is also a really good event to get involved with on Twitter. It features seven different themed hashtags over seven days, and is now an international affair. A great way to reach new audiences and share your collections! It ran in March 2015, and will be back for 2016. Culture Themes also organise special museum-related hashtags throughout the year, so keep an eye on their site for upcoming days.
Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered suggestions! What have I missed? What are your favourites?
Rachel Jennings, NatSCA Blog Editor
In November 2015, the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL launched one of the most ambitious conservation projects undertaken at the museum, and our first ever public fundraising campaign, generously supported by NatSCA’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award.
Bone Idols: Protecting our iconic skeletons aims to secure the long-term future of 39 of our rarest and most significant skeletons, some of which have been on display in the museum for 180 years. This includes what can be considered the rarest skeleton in the world: our extinct quagga – an unusual half-striped zebra.
Preserving the uncollectable
It is the only mounted quagga skeleton in the UK, and no more than seven quagga skeletons survive globally. In April the quagga returned to the museum, having been treated by natural history conservator Nigel Larkin. The work involved completely dismantling and chemically cleaning the irreplaceable skeleton, and then remounting it on a modified skeleton-friendly frame in a more anatomically correct position.
This major treatment has also been given to the Museum’s largest skeleton – that of a (hornless) one-horned rhino. This has been on open display since 1911, in a room once lit by oil lamps. The particulate pollutants that were removed as part of the project had significantly discoloured the bone. The rhino now stands in a more rhino-like pose, with its legs on the ground and its limbs meeting their sockets – all steps that will safeguard the impressive skeleton for hopefully centuries to come. More about the rhino’s treatment can be read on the museum’s blog.
Curing the quagga
A condition assessment of the museum’s most famous object had uncovered a wealth of problems. The sternum was oozing a black, sticky fat deposit; the femur was far from the pelvis, which is both unsightly and left the skeleton unstable; the neck vertebrae were on upside-down (a feature I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t spotted, despite being a mammal nerd who has worked with this skeleton for ten years); the spine was held unnaturally straight by a horizontal rod; and much of the iron frame was rusting.
These ills, and many others, have been remedied. Although the specimen is the only one of the Bone Idols that has not been on open display, nor had it been regularly handled, the bone had still accrued a shocking amount of dirt and grime. This has been cleaned off using an alcohol ethoxylate (Synperonic A7) in distilled water.
A more detailed account of the quagga’s work appears on the Grant Museum’s blog.
Conservation in the public eye
Another aim of the Bone Idols project was to bring as much of the conservation work as possible to the gallery, allowing the public to engage in this critical work, which normally takes place behind the scenes.
Nigel Larkin is working on 13 of the 39 skeletons (those that require complex metal work), while the remaining 26 are being treated by UCL Museums Conservators. Days were set aside to prepare the large specimens for transport. We scheduled the work so that nearly all of it took place during opening hours (except that which involved dangerous equipment), at the heart of the museum. Staff and Nigel were on hand to explain what was happening.
For the in-house specimens, we have been advertising when this work is going on in the gallery, and even giving visitors a chance to take part in cleaning the skeletons themselves.
I’ll be talking more about the public aspect of the Bone Idols project at NatSCA’s Bone Collections event in September.
We are very grateful to the support of NatSCA and the Arts Council England’s Museum Development Fund for this project, as well as the thousands of pounds of public donations we have received. The work is ongoing, and will cost in excess of £30,000 to complete. If you would like to support the campaign you can make a donation on our online giving page, use this postal donation form (.docx, 63kB), or visit us in person in the museum.
Collectively each small gift will make this project possible, preserving these irreplaceable skeletons for the long-term future.
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL