Caring for specimens at the Museum
For the Fantastic Beasts™: The Wonder of Nature exhibition, the Museum's conservation team treated more than 100 specimens, including a Caspian tiger, a Chinese alligator, an American manatee, a giant oarfish and a young giraffe.
Take a behind-the-scenes look at some of their work.
Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata)
The fur was carefully stroked with brushes and chemical sponges, which removed dust. The next job was to replicate some missing whiskers. Sometimes conservators must be creative in the way they work, so for this job, false whiskers were created by inserting a thick nylon thread into catheter tubing. A heated spatula was then used to flatten them and make the whisker shape andt hey were cut to various lengths with a scalpel.
The last step was to paint the whiskers so that they looked like the real thing. Using a magnifying glass, it was easy to see the small holes where the original whiskers would have been. Each new whisker was gently fixed into place using a special adhesive.
Young giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)
This juvenile taxidermy giraffe was in a poor condition: an ear was very damaged, the front right leg had significant damage inside and to the surrounding skin, the skin preparation seams were detaching and the specimen was on a unsteady base.
The ear was mended with acrylic putty with pieces of skin adhered to it. The preparation seams were strengthened and repaired using special paper and adhesive.
The skin on the front leg was carefully pulled away to expose the damaged fibreglass internal support. This was repaired using a strong resin and synthetic plasters. The skin was then reapplied to the support with a reversible adhesive.
To stabilise the specimen, a new base was built. The giraffe could be adjusted on the base to remove weight from the fragile front leg and an external metal mount gives extra strength. The repairs were painted with acrylic paints to blend with the colours of the giraffe.
Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis)
The alligator was already fixed to a wooden base. A piece of internal supporting metal was showing from inside the tail, so this was carefully removed with pliers. The eyes and claws were dry cleaned with a chemical sponge and then wet cleaned with ethanol, which is a special type of alcohol.
Damaged areas of the eyes were repaired and strengthened using a conservation-grade resin, which was applied with paintbrushes and a syringe. Missing claws were reconstructed using an epoxy filler and then painted using acrylic paint. Damage to the specimen's surface and tail was carefully fixed using layers of tinted Japanese tissue, a popular material among conservators everywhere as it is very stable and strong.
American manatee (Trichechus manatus)
The manatee skeleton was coated with a fine layer of dust, which was dry cleaned using soft brushes and a special vacuum. Stains and stubborn dirt were removed using small, ethanol-soaked cotton buds. It's important to protect the specimen's DNA, and cleaning with ethanol means the specimen can be used in future sampling and scientific research. After cleaning, delicate areas of the skull were fixed together using a special adhesive.
The replica plaster sternum was treated in the same way, with gaps filled to strengthen and improve the appearance. Some parts of the skeleton were missing and had to be reconstructed. The flippers, pelvis and tail were reconstructed using an epoxy filler and painted using acrylic paint to look like the original bone. The shape and colour of replicated pieces need to be different to the original so that future researchers will see where the original bone is compared to reconstructed parts.
Changes were also made to the way the skeleton was mounted. The skeleton had been mounted on a wooden plinth, which was not original and did not support the main body of the skeleton. This was replaced with a longer metal plinth made by the Museum's engineers to provide extra support for the tail. It was also discovered that the flippers had been attached incorrectly in the past, so they were repositioned on the new metal mounting frame.
Giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne)
This awe-inspiring, four-metre-long skeleton is very fragile. It is tied to a metal frame and mounted in an historic wood and glass display case. The team had to work with Museum carpenters to take off the back of the case so the skeleton could be removed.
The bones were then carefully cleaned with a dry sponge and cleaning putty.
Some of the bones had detached from the main skeleton including the eye socket, which had to be re-adhered. Other bones were strengthened with Japanese tissue paper and adhesive and painted with acrylic paint to match. Some of the thread holding the skeleton was replaced with bookbinding cotton thread.
The historic display case was dirty and splattered with paint. To remove the paint spots from the delicate glass, light pressure was applied with a flat metal blade. The wood was polished with fine steel wool and coated with solvent to refresh the varnish. Finally, a new coat of shellac was applied to areas where the varnish had rubbed off, and the glass was resealed with a replica seal using a special adhesive.
The case was brushed and vacuumed, including the blue velvet padded interior. It was important not to over-clean it as it would be irreversible and change the character of the historic case.
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