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Learning new tricks

Posted on 05-11-2018 by Becky Desjardins

The Caring for Collections Conference

Recently two of my coworkers and I traveled to Oxford in England to attend a conference called 'Caring for Natural Science Collections'. It was about museum specimen conservation projects and included topics ranging from the challenges of conserving fossilized wood in the forests of Thailand to repairing and restoring a large mounted tortoise. As a bonus it was hosted by the stunning Oxford Museum of Natural Sciences, who’s whale project a few years back was the inspiration for the one we are doing in Naturalis.


The talks covered subjects including pests in a museum storage area to broken invertebrate models made of glass (and other materials, as it turns out). Collection digitization was touched on, as well as a brief debate between the benefits of wooden geology cabinets versus metal (spoiler: they both have pros and cons) and a lesson in different book spine constructions. Much of it was new to me, even though I have been working in museums for a long time.


My favorite talk explained the use of needle felting to add hair to bald taxidermy specimens. Old mounted animals often develop bald patches, either through insect infestations, or too much petting by museum visitors. It is challenging  to add new hair and have it look natural, so I was totally impressed with this method of felting merino wool and using it to cover the bald patch. The result looked great! Another talk I found fascinating presented a method for repairing broken feather tips using Japanese paper. Japanese paper is a long fibered paper made from mulberry plants. It is lightweight and extremely versatile. The paper can be pulled apart to repair small areas (say repairing a tear in a tiny bat wing) or, in this case, painted and treated to replace the missing tip of a bird flight feather. The talk was cleverly done, in that the speaker had made a close up video of her work and then narrated it to us (here is this, here is how I chose the paint, etc). It was a great presentation.


Conferences are a great opportunity to chat with other people and in this case, I was happy to talk to some whale experts.  Bethany Palumbo of Oxford is the brains behind the whale restoration project which was the inspiration for ours, and it was great to see her beautifully cared for cetaceans in hanging on exhibit and hear about how they are doing a few years after the project ended! Nigel Larkin, another talented conservator, had a poster about the cleaning and mounting of a recently dead whale which was also interesting. He used horse manure instead of water to remove the flesh and degrease the bones, a technique which I would love to try on our next specimen.  

Conferences like this are always great to attend. I learned new techniques, network with other folks who face the same projects I do, and it is just great to get these new ideas. I come back inspired and cannot wait to get to work fixing up an old beat up specimen.

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