A conservator cleans Chi-Chi the panda's fur with a white sponge

Claire uses a cosmetic sponge to clean Chi-Chi's fur in the conservation lab. Photo by Tammana Begum.

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A new look for Chi-Chi the panda

Chi-Chi, Britain's favourite panda, has undergone conservation work. Since arriving at the Museum in 1972, she has awed millions of visitors with her immortalised happy and playful persona.

Born in the wild, Chi-Chi was caught as a cub in China in1957. She briefly lived in several other zoos until 1958, when she came to the UK and made London Zoo her home. There, she brought smiles to the faces of countless visitors, many of whom had never seen an endangered giant panda before.

Claire Kelly, a remedial conservator at the Museum, says, 'Chi-Chi is such a rare and iconic specimen in the Museum's collections. I remember hearing about her as a child; I never expected to be face to face with her.'

Chi-Chi is also the inspiration behind the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) logo. The organisation's founder and logo designer, Sir Peter Scott, wanted something 'beautiful, rare and loved by many', that was also a strong and recognisable symbol. The WWF logo has since become an emblem for conservation movements.

Chi-Chi was donated to the Museum after her natural death in 1972. Aged about 15, she was thought to be the first giant panda to have lived so long in captivity.

Having rarely been touched since her arrival in the Museum, Chi-Chi had been in need of some conservation work.

The taxidermy of Chi-Chi in 1972

Why does Chi-Chi need conservation work?

'Chi-Chi had been noticeably dirty for a while now,' says Claire. 'There'd been some surface contamination, just general settling of dirt and dust on the fur.'

Conservators need to check specimens regularly for pest infestations, particularly clothes moths and beetles.

'The moths lay their eggs in the base of the fur,' adds Claire. 'They burrow down, and when they pupate, they eat through the base of the fur and detach it. That's really difficult to detect until you inspect the specimens carefully.'

As the damage is at the base of the fur, the fur can still remain in place and won't fall apart until it is disturbed.

'The presence of one or two moths in a case doesn't mean there's an infestation. These things have to be carefully monitored over time.'

In the past, a product called dichlorvos was always used in the Museum cases to prevent possible pest infestations. However, this has proven to be carcinogenic and is now banned in the European Union.

Claire carries out monthly visual inspections as part of a wider Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme for the galleries.

One way of reducing the possibility of infestation is making sure the public consume food and drinks in designated areas only. 'Food remains, however minute, can attract mice and that in turn attracts a chain of other pests,' she says.

Chi-Chi did not mate nor have any offspring, despite attempts made by zoo staff. Photo by Tammana Begum.

Conserving Chi-Chi

Chi-Chi was put in a wooden support frame and wrapped in polythene. She was then put in a quarantine freezer for 72 hours to prevent any possible infestation.

After that, Chi-Chi was dry-cleaned. This involved sweeping the fur with a soft brush and vacuuming with a specialised vacuum.

Lastly, a second surface cleaning was carried out with a cosmetic sponge.While most of the dirt was removed through dry-cleaning, there was still some surface discoloration left. This could only be removed by wet-cleaning with a mix of ethanol and deionised water.

Small sections of the fur were separated and then swabbed with this solvent and some blotting paper. Once a section was completed, it was left to dry and the process was repeated on another area.

'Each specimen comes with its own challenges and requires plenty of team work,' says Claire. 'But it's so rewarding seeing the specimen returned to display and knowing your work has helped to maintain the collections for everyone.'

Claire has been working at the Museum for over 19 years. Her other work includes the well-loved blue whale in Hintze Hall and Guy the gorilla. Photo by Tammana Begum.

In addition to Chi-Chi's cleaning, her case and lighting have been updated. The case has new light fittings in accordance with modern conservation guidelines. Cracks and holes that have occurred over time have also been filled and repaired.

'We have also added an environmental monitor inside,' says Claire. 'All of these will help with the long-term preservation of Chi-Chi.'

The beloved has returned to her upgraded home to continue delighting the mass of visitors filing through the doors to see her.