A Supreme, Dream Team: The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Museums (SPNHC) Conference 2021

Written by Bethany Palumbo, ACR, Founder and Owner of Palumbo Conservation Services

As a Natural History conservator, I was thrilled to learn that the 2021 SPNHC conference would be a joint conference with the AIC. These two large US organizations have very different priorities and committees, but many collaborative interests. I had waited a long time for this collaboration! The theme of the conference was ‘Transformation’ seeking ideas to not only transform museums, but discuss how museums can transform the world for the better. A fitting theme for a year of massive upheaval and dramatic change.

The conference was originally due to be held in Jacksonville Florida, but the on-going pandemic meant it was moved online at the last minute. Though disappointed to not see colleagues physically, holding the conference online did allow for truly international participation and I could catch up on talks as and when I was able!

The majority of sessions were collaborative with talks from both members of AIC and the SPNHC. They were spread over 6 weeks, allowing for many more sessions than could normally be accommodated in a 5-day conference. The sessions were varied, covering not only the conservation of objects but digitization and data management, using Natural History as an educational tool, collaborating with stakeholder communities and storage and display.

I was invited to present a talk for one of the objects focused sessions. My paper titled ‘Natural History 101: Considerations for Conservators’ was an introduction to Natural History materials, aimed specifically at conservators who may only occasionally come into contact with these unique collections. It covered health and safety risks, CITES legislation and discussed the scientific value of Natural History specimens, something that isn’t usually considered with other collection types.

I was especially excited to hear updates from the on-going feather conservation project at the American Museum of Natural History. This 3-year effort is systematically evaluating the impacts of cleaning, pesticide use, and restoration of colour on feathers, foremost in taxidermy. The talk focused on the cleaning element of this research, presenting experiments undertaken to soil and then clean feathers. In order to replicate dust, conservators made a ‘dust-sebum’ emulsion which was applied to feathers, making the quality and quantity of the ‘dust’ consistent for all experiments. The next step is to test cleaning methods for effectiveness and examine the specimens under the microscope. The results of this will be shared on the project blog: https://intheirtruecolors.wordpress.com/

While the talks can only be accessed by registrants, both the SPNHC and AIC have various videos shared on their YouTube channels, including a excellent selection of collections tours such as the new Yale Peabody Museum and the Burke Museum of Natural History at the University of Washington. The SPNHC Committee meetings can also be freely accessed through this channel.

Many attendants were hyped for the coming 2022 SPNHC conference in Edinburgh, which will be a joint effort between NatSCA and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). There is a promotional video for this event which you can find at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYZBrykvguA. Hope to see you there!

Size Matters: Pesticides in Large Mounted Vertebrate Specimens

Written by Becky Desjardins (Senior Museum Preparator & Conservator), Georgia Kay & Kim König (MSc students Museums & Collections – Leiden University; Naturalis Interns), Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

Back in 2013, Naturalis conducted a research project about arsenic in the museums’ specimens. The goal was to determine if arsenic was spreading from the collection areas into staff and or public areas of the museum. We tested many specimens with an XRF but also tested the elevators, door handles, floors, shelves, keyboards, etc. From this testing we developed protocols about handling specimens and how we use the spaces in the collection. You can read all about that project over here.

What didn’t get tested were the large mounted vertebrates. Back in 2013 the Naturalis collections were spread over a number of warehouses around Leiden. Because these external buildings were considered depots only (meaning no offices/canteens in these spaces) there was less concern about arsenic contamination in non-collection areas. The large vertebrates were considered to be high risk specimens (so very toxic), and were handled as such, they never had their moment with the XRF.

Fast forward to 2021 and after a massive renovation to our main building, nearly all the collections are under one roof and we have time to do some conservation and restoration work. We identified 25 specimens in need of stabilization and restoration. These include: ocean sunfish, hippopotamus, a gavial/gharial, a few different types of buffalo, an elephant, and mounted Cetacea skins, among others. The majority of these specimens are between 100 and 200 years old. In anticipation of this restoration work, we wanted to find out just how much arsenic, lead and mercury these specimens contained. 

As was done in 2013, we used the XRF to look for arsenic, lead and mercury. Each specimen was tested in multiple places: eyes, ears, around the mouth, along the belly seam, any cracks in the skin, and the feet/hooves. Each of the specimens was tested in as few as 3 and as many as 9 places; as it is essential to test several areas because negative test results can be obtained, even if a specimen is contaminated. This time we recorded consistently high arsenic levels, which was not a surprise, what was a surprise was how much mercury and lead was found compared with 2013. Back then we’d found high levels of lead (higher than 600ppm) in only 5 of the 36 specimens that we tested, and the 2013 testing turned up no detectable levels of mercury in any of the tested specimens. What was going on?

In short, we think that size makes the difference, our testing indicates larger specimens received larger amounts of pesticides. Arsenic and mercury (mercury chloride) were used as pesticides in taxidermy throughout history until the 1980’s and there are records of many taxidermists liberally using toxic cocktails for preservation. Perhaps thicker skins, such as that of an elephant or hippopotamus received more pesticides than a sparrow hawk or blackbird (species tested in 2013) would have gotten.

The variation in high amounts of lead is not so easy to explain. Lead was used as lead paint on the soft parts of mounted animals and sometimes was used to model cartilage (in ears, for example) of mounted animals. In general we found if a specimen had a lot of lead, then it had a lot of lead everywhere. Perhaps hides of animals with sparse or no hair were painted with lead paint: for example, we did find more lead in the cape buffalo and ocean sunfish, and less in the zebu. This was different for the arsenic and mercury; which were mostly present in the soft tissue parts of the bodies: around the eyes, mouths, ears and genitals. However, it was unexpected that the arsenic was also very heavily present around the horns.

The next step is to create a protocol of how to handle these specimens when they are undergoing restoration. One of the challenges we are currently facing is that Naturalis does not have a dedicated work space for large restoration projects and we are trying to figure out where this work could be safely done. The specimens are in a depot but we are nervous about cross contaminating nearby specimens, however, due to their large size, just moving these objects out of the depot door is a challenge. One option would be purchasing a sort of party tent so that we can keep the dust contained. We welcome suggestions from readers who have experience in the area of large specimens/pesticides/restoration or want to join us in our biohazard party tent.

References

Contaminated Collections: Preservation, Access, and Use. Shepherdstown: Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, 2001.

Desjardins, Rebecca. (2016). Arsenic and pre-1970s museum specimens: using a hand-held XRF analyzer to determine the prevalence of arsenic at Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Collection Forum, 10.14351/2015.02.15.

Marte, Fernando, Amandine Péquignot, and David W. Von Endt. “Arsenic in taxidermy collections: history, detection, and management.” Collection Forum 21, no. 1-2 (2006), 143-150.

NatSCA Digital Digest – July

Compiled by Lily Nadine Wilkes, NatSCA Volunteer.

Welcome to the July 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 exhibition launches, conferences (live or virtual) and webinars, and new or interesting online content. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

What To See & Do

The ‘Insectarium: Fascination and Fear’ exhibition present artwork on the feelings that insects inspire in us. If you can’t make it to Aberlady, Scotland, you can view the art online here.

If you’re looking for something crafty to do there are plenty of online workshops to take part in. With the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on 14th July at 8pm participate and enjoy ‘Drawn to Nature: Conservation’. In this online event you will hear about the art of conservation before taking a chance to draw some natural history specimens. The Natural History Museum are offering making sessions where you can create a crochet dinosaur or make your own plant pot.

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Book Review: Managing Natural Science Collections.

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth.

Working with natural science collections is quite a unique role. The specimens we care for, the stories they tell, the research we carry out or help facilitate, and the engagement with the public, are just a few rewarding jobs that we carry out daily. Sometimes there are barriers between those working with natural science collections and those at a higher management level. This is mainly due to a lack of understanding of the importance of these types of collections. “Why are there so many flies?“, “It’s just taxidermy, bring it out for people to stroke“, “It’s just a rock”. Just a few of things many of us have heard being said about natural science collections.

Whilst we can respond to these kinds of comments, some of us may find it more difficult to respond in a strategic way: in a language that makes sense to high level managers or funders. I have in the past, and I’ve found that frustrating, because I know the importance of the collections I look after. I was very pleased to be asked to review a new book about management of collections, focusing on strategy and development, Managing Natural Science Collections: A guide to strategy, planning and resourcing which was released this year and it couldn’t have come at a better time. A time when the country is recovering from an economic slump after the Covid pandemic. A time when cuts to the museum sector are inevitable.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – May 2021

Compiled by Glenn Roadley, NatSCA Committee Member, Curator of Natural Science at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Welcome to the May 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.

NatSCA Conference 2021: Environmental Breakdown and Natural Science Collections

The NatSCA 2021 conference and AGM will take place on 27th and 28th May, online via Zoom. 9.50am-4pm BST (UTC +1). The #NatSCA2021 conference will explore the role of natural science collections in addressing or engaging with one of the planet’s biggest issues – environmental breakdown; as well as sharing other exciting developments from the sector.

The conference will include an engaging range of keynotes, presentations, panel discussions, quick-fire ideas lightning talks and virtual tours.

Tickets are now available, and all are welcome. This event is free for NatSCA members. Of course, new members are welcome, and Personal Membership costs £20 per year (which is the same as the conference registration fee for non-members).
You can join up here: http://www.natsca.org/membership
NatSCA has also made a small number of free tickets available for unwaged non-members who might not otherwise be able to attend.

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