Taxidermy and the Country House: Information Needed!

birdpic

Today we would like to share a research request from historic taxidermy expert Pat Morris. Pat says:

I have been commissioned by the National Trust (NT) and English Heritage (EH) to write a book about ‘Taxidermy and the Country House’. I know about collections in houses managed by NT and EH, but finding out what’s where in privately owned mansions is proving difficult. I have been checking 19th century literature (county avifaunas particularly) for references to past collections, and I am trying to find out how many are still extant. I have also been asking around, which is what I’m doing now. If you know of any old collections of birds or hunting trophies in major country houses, I would be glad to know where, please. Many of the big houses, especially in East Anglia and in Shropshire, had substantial taxidermy collections that ended up in local museums, having been donated when no longer wanted at the Big House. If you know of any of these collections, who collected them and the house in which they were previously displayed, I would be grateful for your assistance.

If you have any information that could help in this matter, please contact Pat Morris at: pat.morris5@outlook.com

Understanding Museum Taxidermy: Construction, Care and Commissioning

Taxidermy, the art and science of preserving an animal by placing the skin around an artificial body, has always been an important part of natural history collections. During the Victorian era, explorers would bring large and exotic animals back from their long voyages: the mounted skins would be displayed, enthralling the Victorian public, who had never seen creatures such as gorillas and giraffes before. While we thankfully no longer hunt and kill animals for display in museums, taxidermy is still as important as ever for teaching about the natural world – probably more so now as more and more species are threatened with extinction. While there has been a resurgence in the popularity of taxidermy, it is still the case that the number of experts capable of producing and preserving taxidermy is dwindling (in the UK, at least). With this in mind NatSCA, in association with Lancashire Conservation Studios, ran a day of talks and hands-on sessions, entitled ‘Understanding Museum Taxidermy: Construction, Care and Commissioning’, on the 1st April.

The day was led by Lucie Graham, Natural History Conservator at Lancashire Museums. Lucie began by demonstrating how taxidermy can be prepared using a wide variety of different methods, with internal moulds being formed from wood wool, balsam carvings, plaster and more. Taxidermy is an art, and each artist has their own methods. Lucie then went on to discuss how taxidermy can fall into disrepair if not properly cared for or prepared in the first place. We were able to get a close look an assortment of suffering taxidermy from Lancashire Museums, and discuss how we might treat each one to allow it to be better used and conserved. We had an adorable fox cub on our table, which had suffered from some fading, surface dirt and some loose digits on one paw. A bit of a clean and some adhesive to fix the paws, and this little cub could be looking much better!

taxidermy day3

Next we went through to the conservation lab for some cleaning demonstrations, where many of us were amazed to find out that simple cosmetic sponges get thick dirt off taxidermy effortlessly! We were also shown how to preen and straighten the feathers of a taxidermy bird, using steam to ease the process.

taxidermy day2

Finally were talks from a couple of the country’s leading taxidermists. James Dickinson discussed how museums can go about commissioning taxidermy. The Guild of Taxidermists can offer lists of accredited practitioners, ensuring that museums are able to make informed decisions and seek the services of the best person for the job. Jack Fishwick, judge at international taxidermy competitions, showed us a sample of his vast collection of bird photographs, which he uses for inspiration and feel for a bird’s shape and movement in life – vital for producing realistic taxidermy. The day finished with passionate discussion about the shrinking pool of skilled taxidermists – Jack and James warn that we may have no dedicated taxidermists left within the next two decades, which could be a disaster for museums wishing to expand and preserve their collections.

Glenn Roadley
Natural Science Curatorial Trainee

100 Years Aboard the Ark…

By Dr. Ebony Andrews
Calderdale Museums

Left: An 'escapee' taxidermied grey wolf on the fringe of the 'Living Planet' gallery, Great North Museum: Hancock (2010). © Image by the author; Right: 'Abel's Ark', Hancock Museum (c.2004). © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock.

Left: An ‘escapee’ taxidermied grey wolf on the fringe of the ‘Living Planet’ gallery, Great North Museum: Hancock (2010). © Image by the author; Right: ‘Abel’s Ark’, Hancock Museum (c.2004). © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock.

For the past four years I have been researching changes in the use, display and interpretation of taxidermy in three regional museums in the North of England. These museums are: Leeds City Museum, Museums Sheffield: Weston Park (more commonly known as ‘Weston Park Museum’), and the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle, (previously the Hancock Museum). The culmination of this research is the completion of my PhD thesis, entitled: Interpreting Nature: Shifts in the Presentation and Display of Taxidermy in Contemporary Museums in Northern England (2013).

In the study, I mapped out some of the wider trends in changes to the display and interpretation of museum taxidermy spanning roughly the last century across all three of the case study museums, but with a particular emphasis on the more recent display histories (from 1950-2013).One of the primary aims of my research was to challenge the idea that the unpopularity of museum taxidermy displays at different points in history, but particularly following the rise of the conservation movement in the UK, was exclusively related to the ‘controversial’ materials of taxidermy’s construction (ie. the use of animal derivatives). Rather, I proposed that much of the perceived ‘problem’ with taxidermy, both public and institutional in the latter part of the twentieth century, could be attributed not only to what was being presented, but also to a significant degree, to how it was being presented. In other words, how and through what mechanisms, public museums were interpreting their taxidermy collections for their public audiences.

Left: The 'Bird Room', Hancock Museum (c.1966) © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock; Right: 'Bio-Wall' display (detail) featuring 'Sparkie' the budgerigar (centre bottom), from 'Living Planet', Great North Museum: Hancock (2011). © Image by the author.

Left: The ‘Bird Room’, Hancock Museum (c.1966) © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock; Right: ‘Bio-Wall’ display (detail) featuring ‘Sparkie’ the budgerigar (centre bottom), from ‘Living Planet’, Great North Museum: Hancock (2011). © Image by the author.

In a period where museum taxidermy is once again being afforded a considerable amount of attention, my research investigates some of questions that are now being asked about recent shifts in the use of taxidermy in museums along with some of the issues now facing museums in regard to the presentation of historical collections. My thesis is available through White Rose eTheses Online, see: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/6637/ or simply go to http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/ and search the database by author or publication title to gain access to the complete document. Access to this resource is free, and you are not required to register your details to use it. With full colour illustrations and an extensive bibliography, I hope my thesis may be of use to those interested in the history of the display and interpretation of taxidermy, the impact of shifting cultural and ethical positions on the popularity of taxidermy, and the fascinating politics of both past and present approaches to the display of taxidermy in regional museums.

NatSCA Digital Digest

Welcome to the fortnightly digest of posts from around the web with relevance to natural science collections. We hope you find this useful and if you have any articles that you feel would be of interest, please contact us at blog@natsca.org

1. Blog: Night at the Museum, Uni Week

Synopsis

The next wave of young scientists have been on their feet this week showing us all their exciting research. Yours truly went down to the Natural History Museum, London to see how collections are being used right now.

Night at the Museum, Uni Week

2. Conference: NatSCA / SPNHC / GCG Conference, Cardiff 2014

22-28 June 2014

Synopsis

Time is running out to book your place for the Cardiff conference. If your team can spare you for that long it’s going to be a great week. You can book your place here.

3. Training: Taxidermy Seminar

18 July 2014
UCL Room G10, Chandler House, 2 Wakefield Street, London, WC1N 1PF

Synopsis

For folks that can get into London next month we have a great seminar lined up for you with seven speakers spanning a number of taxidermy-related disciplines. Book fast, spaces are limited.

TaxidermySeminar

4. Lecture: Indefatigable Naturalists. Wallace and Darwin on the Evolutionary Trail

30 July 2014
Flett Events Theatre, Natural History Museum, South Kensington, London

Synopsis

Professor of Biology Dr. Jim Costa discusses the life and works of naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. The annual Wallace lecture is organised by the NHM’s Wallace Correspondence Project.

How to book

Compiled by Samuel Barnett, NatSCA Blog Editor

New loose taxidermy storage at Canterbury Museums

The following is a review by Philip Hadland, of a storage project undertaken by the Canterbury Museums:

Introduction

Much of Canterbury Museums taxidermy collection is loose taxidermy and is stored in shelved cupboards without any additional physical protection from handling, movement, or insect pest damage. A pilot project was carried out in 2013/14 to develop a new storage system for this section of the taxidermy collection to improve its care and management.

 

Aims of the Project

  1. Improve storage conditions and long term care
  2. Improve the management of the collection
  3. Free up storage space

 

Evaluation of Potential Storage Methods

To get a feel for what might work in practice I sent an email to the NATSCA Mailing List asking for ideas on what works well and what works not so well. Based on the plentiful feedback I received, I evaluated the advantages and disadvantages of the methods suggested.

From this initial research it is clear that there is no single method that can satisfy the needs of the great variety of sizes and shapes of taxidermy that exist in museum collections. Some methods are of course better than others in satisfying similar aims but cost is also an issue.

It was decided that a method based on Really Useful boxes was the best solution. The main reasons were the amount of time needed to prepare each box was minimal, there were very good offers available to acquire the boxes cheaply at the time and the sizes available matched up very well to the storage cupboards.

 

Method

2014-06-03_birds

Plastazote was first cut to fit the boxes. Then the bases of specimens were drawn around in pen with the specimen number written alongside and orientation to enable easy identification of what goes where. A list was also kept of the contents of each box.

2014-06-03_cut-foam

The foam was cut using a Stanley knife and affixed to the bottom of the box using masking tape.
The birds were then carefully slotted into place and the boxes were labelled and the location documentation was updated.

Before

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After

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Resource breakdown and cost

Really useful boxes x 10 £110
Approximate cost of Plastazote used £20
Fixings and adhesives £1
Mothballs £4
Total material cost £135
Curatorial time (including planning) £300
Volunteer time (for photography and documentation 10 hours
Total cost £435

 

Summary

127 items of taxidermy have been rehoused and are well supported in robust, waterproof and conservation standard materials that are easily moved without the birds toppling and they are transportable. This will limit damage to the collections through preventing unnecessary handling, toppling, and pest attack – increasing their long term care. Each specimen now has a specific box location linked to the database so that it can be found easily when required.

 

I’d like to thank my colleagues and the NatSCA community for their help with this project.

Bill Pettit Memorial Project – Conservation of historic Taxidermy

Ann Ainsworth (Colchester and Ipswich Museums)

Hannah Clarke (Freelance Conservator)

Ipswich Museum has an important historic collection which dates back to its opening in 1847. A recognised strength of the natural history collection is the historically important Victorian and Edwardian taxidermy of animals from across the globe.

The taxidermy collection is stored in an old building which used to be an old coach depot and later a garage. The space had become very dusty and dirty and a significant mould problem had developed.

one

We followed a very simple methodology of light dusting with soft brushes using a vacuum containing a HEPA filter. This was followed by swabbing with an alcohol/water solution to remove the mould and kill the spores. Where possible specimens were covered or wrapped in polythene to act as a protective cover to protect from dust, provide an external surface for mould to grow on, and to prevent pest damage which is also a potential problem within the stores.

two

The variety of conservation problems, meant that many different treatment processes needed to be used by Hannah. Some of the processes included dry cleaning, wet cleaning, re-adhering, colour matching, re-inserting feathers, removing old varnish with solvents, mitring, sealing with brown gum tape, and applying and buffing wax. New panels of glass and sections of beading had to be sourced and cut to size.

The top panel of the pike case had warped and bowed, as the glass side panels had been broken previously. There were no structural supports on the front inside edges of the case either, meaning that the top of the case was unsupported from the front. The existing beadings on the rear inside edges were not secure, and the metal tacks used to hold the mitred sections of wood in place were very loose. New beading was sourced to match as close to the original as possible and was then colour matched and held in place using new tacks.

Cygnet before conservation

Cygnet before conservation

Cygnet after conservation

Cygnet after conservation

The Bill Pettit Memorial funding went towards payment for the freelance Conservator in terms of time and travel expenses and the purchase of replacement glass and beading for the cases where broken or damaged.

It was agreed that conserved cases would not be returned to store until the planned repair work had been successfully completed. As many of the conserved cases as possible were put on public display in the museum galleries. This has enabled part of the collection not normally seen by visitors to be on display. It has also helped to present a strong message of the Museum Services’ wish to improve the condition of specimens and its storage facilities and helped to raise the profile of the project.

Spicer platypus case after conservation

Spicer platypus case after conservation

 

NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM BINGO!

This article is reposted from the UCL Museums blog.

By Mark Carnall, Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

My colleague Jack Ashby alluded to the Natural History Bingo Card in a recent blog post so I thought I’d take the time to present it to the wide world! Natural history museums are funny places. Despite the millions of species of animals and the enormous variation within species between broods, sexes, life stage, populations and seasonal variations you’d expect that you could visit every natural history museum in the World (finances allowing) and never see the same thing twice. You might think that, but the truth is many natural history museums have the same stuff on display whether you’re at the Grant Museum, the Natural History Museum London or in Paris, New York, Prague or Plymouth.

In fact, some specimens are so common, you can go around a natural history museum with this handy NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM BINGO* and nine times out of ten you’ll have seen most of these specimens before you get to the gift shop. So what gives?

Natural History Bingo Card
Click to embiggernate & cut out and Keep! Natural History Bingo modified from the version in Carnall, M.A (2011): Completely Rethinking the Organisation of Natural History Museums: A Taxonomically Arranged National Collection. NatSCA News:21

I originally published the above figure in a paper looking at why natural history museums are all the same and what, if anything, could be for natural history museums to make the best use of their vast collections. You can tell from this Microsoft Paint produced chart that tongue was firmly in cheek but why does the Bingo hold true (go ahead and try it next time you are museuming)? It’s partly because, unlike other kinds of museums, natural history museums by and large have the same remit and are collecting and presenting the same thing (the natural world). But with so many different species and shapes of organisms why are the same specimens used as the public face of biology (specifically zoology) here? Continue reading