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.

We Brought Our Electric Ray Specimens Into The Lab…What Happened Next Will Shock You!

Written by Claire Smith, Project Officer at the Cole Museum of Zoology.

If you’ve been following the Cole Museum of Zoology on Twitter, you’ll know that the museum is closed at the moment – not only because of the COVID-19 lockdown, but also because we’re preparing our collections for their move into a brand new Life Sciences building. While the new museum may not be ready to open until 2021, we have plenty of work to do behind the scenes in the meantime.

Along with a team of staff and volunteers, I work on the fluid-preserved collections at the Cole Museum. As well as the ongoing task of keeping all of the wet specimens in good condition, we’re also putting some into safe storage, and getting others ready to go out on display. As part of my fluid-preservation Twitter, I share weekly threads about the kinds of tasks that the team takes on.

When specimens come into the lab needing work, we identify them from an abridged version of the museum’s catalogue. This gives us basic information such as the specimen’s accession number, its species, and what kind of fluid it’s preserved in. The majority of the Cole Museum’s specimens are fairly new, by museum standards – they’re mostly around 60 to 100 years old. Many of them have been re-sealed, re-mounted or been housed in new jars during this time, but every now and then we come across one which appears untouched. Continue reading

Chill Out: A Cautionary Note On The Use Of Aqueous Treatments On Taxidermy

Written by Lu Allington-Jones, Senior Conservator at the Natural History Museum, London.

Whilst trying (not very successfully) to find a “cure” for fat burn (Figure 1), I made an unwelcome discovery: sometimes the shrinkage temperature of deteriorated skin is actually lower than room temperature. This means that the skin will irreversibly shrink as soon as any water-based treatments are applied.

Figure 1. Fat burn can cause skin to rip and specimens fall apart

Shrinkage temperature (Ts) is commonly used in leather conservation to determine the level of deterioration, and the effectiveness of treatments. Ts is the temperature at which 2 corian fibres immersed in water show simultaneous and continuous shrinkage activity. It shows the level of deterioration because it indicates destabilisation of collagen fibres. Ts of fresh skin is 65oC and in deteriorated leather this can be reduced to 30oC (Florian, 2006). Ts is measured by immersing samples of leather (or skin) in water and gradually increasing temperature until shrinkage activity is observed under a microscope (Larsen et al. 1996; Vest & Larsen, 1999). Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest – January

Compiled by Lily Nadine Wilkes. NatSCA Volunteer.

Welcome to the January 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.

News from the Sector 

Decolonising Natural Science Collections

Our blog has some fascinating videos from the Decolonising Natural Collections online conference. Each post includes a recording of the talk alongside the abstract and information about the author(s). Learn about how a taxidermied gorilla can tell us so much more in this presentation by Rebecca Machin. What words we use to represent Australian animals are challenged in this presentation by Jack Ashby. Decolonising the Powell-Cotton Museum is the topic of this presentation by Rachel Jennings.

All of the conference talks will eventually be published by the end of this week, so do keep an eye on our blog page for each of these posts: https://natsca.blog, and remember, you can also access all the talks directly by going to our

Continue reading