In many old dioramas, material mysteries abound. As a Curatorial Assistant at Tullie House, I’ve encountered a tree trunk made from a Robinson’s fruit juice box, a fake roof that contained fibrous signs of asbestos, and a hodgepodge of unidentifiable paints and old plastics. The museum’s new-in-post Biodiversity Curator discovered pests thriving amongst the real vegetation and a 30-year-old slice of bread in a garden scene.
Dioramas aim to create the illusion of real habitats for their taxidermy inhabitants, and they use a huge range of materials to do so. After decades of neglect and destruction there is now wider recognition that habitat dioramas can instil a sense of wonder in visitors that no amount of digital wizardry can replace. Through my dissertation research for an MA in Preventive Conservation at Northumbria University, I wanted to find out more about what materials have been used in dioramas over time, how these might impact the preservation of specimens, and what we can do to better protect the dioramas that remain. I put a call out to ask, ‘What’s in your dioramas?’ through an online survey and received 30 responses from people with experience in a range of different sized institutions and private practice.
In my opinion there isn’t one system to do things correctly in taxidermy, every museum or taxidermist may have their own preferences and strategies already in place. This is simply a guideline that works for me, and I hope it can help others to mitigate some of the problems I encounter when working with skins that have been frozen in a way that has accelerated freezer burn. Following this advice might get more time out of frozen specimens and give you a greater chance that they can be mounted once the budget or staff time is there to pay for taxidermy or processing cabinet skins.
What is freezer burn?
Freezer burn happens when the moisture is evaporated out of the animal’s skin and muscles over time in the freezer. Most specimens even if they are well packed in the freezer will still get some freezer burn over a long period of time but it will be much worse if the specimen is poorly packaged or has something absorbent (like a paper label) inside the bag with it.
You can tell if a specimen has freezer burn because it will look white and dry in areas such as the feet, hands, around the eyes, ears, and mouth. And when you start skinning the skin will be yellowed and hard to remove rather than red, fleshy, and easy to peel away.
Firstly, I advise to always freeze your specimens before handling or skinning them. At a minimum you could record the specimen’s weight before freezing as this measurement is affected slightly after freezing. I personally would not take any other measurements until after they have been thoroughly frozen (unless you want to collect live parasites). As the animal dies, any parasites on the skin of the animal will leave the body as it cools and hop onto the next willing subject which will be you or any living creature in your lab! A note that fleas are not killed over night, if you freeze a fox for example leave it in there for at least two weeks before defrosting. It completely depends on the temperature of your freezer however so if you start to defrost an animal the fleas will defrost first, so if there is movement you know to refreeze! Obviously very large animals may need to be skinned straight away, so in this case my advice is wear appropriate PPE.
This blog explores conservation work and public engagement activities focused on a natural history specimen found in an unlikely museum setting, made possible thanks to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award 2020.
Brunel’s SS Great Britain is a museum and visitor attraction on the harbour side in Bristol. The site centres around the Steamship Great Britain, which sits within the drydock she was originally built in and launched from on the 19th July 1843. The famous Victorian Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, acted as her Chief Engineer. She returned to the same drydock on the 19th July, 1970 – a gap of 127 years during when she steamed or sailed to every continent in the world, excluding the Antarctic, and circumnavigated the globe 32 times. The site also includes two museums – the Dockyard Museum, which tells the story of the SS Great Britain from construction to her return to Bristol, and the Being Brunel Museum, which explored the life and works of IK Brunel. The Trusts Collections were Designated in 2014.
In March 2020 the SS Great Britain Trust applied for funding as part of the Bill Pettit Memorial Award.
Written by Dr Victoria Purewal ACR), Business founder and Director, Connect-Conserve/Cyswllt-Cadwraeth Cymru.
I own a natural science conservation company called ‘Pure Conservation’, however after Covid, I felt differently about working on my own and for myself. Covid has impacted so many people, it has made us revaluate our lifestyle and our relationships, and affected every aspect of our home and working lives. At the end of the last lockdown, I decided to change and improve my working life, to move in a different direction, and be more sustainable and inclusive.
I started seeking out fellow local conservators in Wales, meeting for coffee, and visiting each other’s workspaces. Being able to talk about our lives and businesses was invigorating, and a great relationship developed. However, I realised that when Covid fully retreated and normal working practice resumed, we could be in competition with each other. Every one of us had struggled in some way during lockdown and it would be better to work together, then we could be more supportive and stronger as a team.
These conversations also highlighted that collections had suffered during lockdown. Limited access to collections for staff meant that spaces and specimens had begun to moulder. For most institutions, finding the financial support or workforce to help remedy this is possible, but for many collection owning community groups, it just isn’t an option, and so that is what inspired me to set up this initiative.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
In case you missed it, the NatSCA 2021 Conference: Environmental Breakdown and Natural Science Collections, which took place in May, is now freely available to view online, through our website or YouTube channel. This year’s conference focussed on how we can address global issues such as climate change and habitat loss with our collections, and featured some amazing talks and fascinating tours from across the sector. All talks, tours and Q&A sessions have captions available.