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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: workshop (4)

Rehydrating specimens

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
25 March 2014
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Recent workshops brought together natural sciences collection managers and conservators from far and wide to learn techniques for preserving wet specimens – those preserved in fluids like ethanol and formalin.

Fluid preservation workshops Fluid preservation workshops underway at Melbourne Museum's conservation lab.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The workshops, hosted at Melbourne Museum, were supported by the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) and taught by UK natural history conservator Simon Moore. Dani Measday, MV's Natural Sciences Conservator, says "you can’t learn easily natural sciences conservation in Australia, so people are really jumping on the chance to build skills in that area." With participants from Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and even New Zealand, it was also a rare opportunity to meet others working in the field. “Museum people love to talk shop," says Dani, who toured the visitors around MV's collection stores. "There was definitely a lot of discussion about what people were doing in their museums. It's great to build up a network of people you can call on when you get stuck.”

Over four days, the workshops addressed some of the major problems of wet collections, one of which is dehydration as the preserving fluid evaporates. “The ones that were really dehydrated tended to come out of jars with rubber gaskets in the lids, which can perish quite quickly," says Dani. "Or they can get twisted and end up with a really poor seal.” A highlight of the workshop was seeing dehydrated specimens returned to full size under Simon's guidance.

Workshop participants cleaning Workshop participants cleaning perished rubber gaskets from mammal specimens.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

During the workshop, Dani worked on a juvenile koala specimen affectionately nicknamed Drinky Bill. This koala was originally collected from French Island and came to the museum in 1957 via the Healesville Sanctuary. In the intervening years, poor Bill lost all of his alcohol and was a dry fist-sized husk rattling around an empty jar.

The process of rehydration, explains Dani, begins with placing the specimen in warm water with a surfactant. "It's basically a detergent to break down surface tension to help water penetrate into the specimen." The cells expand as they take in water, and the specimen returns to its original shape and weight over several hours.

 

Next, the specimen is re-fixed in formalin to stop the decay. Then it's back to ethanol in a series of baths of increasing strengths. "You need to move it through several different concentrations of ethanol gradually. If you go straight from water, it's a big change in pressure for the specimen." Dani's koala spent a few hours in each of 10, 30 and 60 per cent before the end point of 70 per cent. To remove any air bubbles and to make sure the koala was submerged, Dani used a vacuum chamber conveniently housed next door in the preparation department. "The preparators use it to remove bubbles when they’re casting in resin."

Koala specimen before (left) and after (right) rehydration treatment. Koala specimen before (left) and after (right) rehydration treatment.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The resulting transformation is amazing. At the workshop's conclusion, some specimens in very poor condition were returned to near original state. Restoring the animal's natural size is particularly useful, as skins and skeletons can't tell us this information. It leads to some truly amazing applications; Senior Curator of Mammals Kevin Rowe says a researcher recently contacted him to find out the dimensions of a bandicoot. "He was designing radio tracking vests for bandicoots which don’t have necks suitable for collars. The best way to figure out the dimensions of a bandicoot is to look at a fluid specimen." This is because wet specimens "preserve internal soft tissue better than skins and skeletons. They also preserve the anatomical features of sperm, stomach contents, parasites–essentially everything in and on a specimen." 

Taxidermy conservation workshop

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
18 March 2014
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It’s clear that the old penguin specimen needs a lot of work. Age or accident has detached the bird’s head from its body, and preparator Steven Sparrey is carefully working PVA glue into the break in the neck. This will consolidate the edge and provide a sound surface for reattachment. Eventually, preened feathers will conceal the join and the penguin will be whole again.

Damaged taxidermied penguin Detail of damaged taxidermied penguin specimen.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We’re at a workshop for people in the business of preserving natural history specimens – collection managers, preparators and conservators – led by visiting UK expert Simon Moore. The museum’s conservation laboratory is busy with people transforming elderly and damaged collection objects into exhibition-ready specimens, using specialist techniques that are very rarely taught in this country.

Taxidermy workshop Taxidermy conservation workshop in the conservation lab at Melbourne Museum.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Sometimes the damage occurs from wear and tear, especially where specimens have done time in the museum’s interpretive collection. Other times it’s inadequate preparation at time of taxidermy – overstuffed specimens tend to split as the skin shrinks with age. Simon explains, “many of the specimens are decades old, and materials just become more brittle with time. “A small bump when handling can have drastic results on a fragile specimen, and the head is often the first to go.
We turn back to Steven’s penguin. “The skin on birds in particular is very thin and vulnerable to tearing,” says Simon. “In this case, the neck was overstuffed. As the skin dries out and retracts back onto the underlying material, it starts to split.” 

The penguin also needs a wing reattached, so Steven drills a fine hole for a galvanised steel rod to hold the wing on a natural angle. Next to him, Michael Pennell is finishing work on a mounted Regent Bowerbird, freshly reunited with its tail and perch. “He’s a little bit cleaner than he was this morning and I’ve filled a few little holes and splits.”

Man and bird specimen Preparator Michael Pennell working on a Regent Bowerbird mount.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Elsewhere in the room, people are creating supporting armature for rabbit ears, cleaning feathers and mending tears in batwings with Japanese tissue. This tissue, says conservator Dani Measday, has unusually long fibres and resists tearing. “It means that it’s really strong and you can do all kinds of things with it. We use it to repair paper and books , but you can use it as fill, to strengthen and replicate fibres , or as a consolidating surface. What we’re doing with it here is making replacement skin. With adhesive, it has a tightness and tautness just like skin.”

repair to bat specimen Careful repairs to a bat specimen using Japanese tissue.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Karen Roberts and Brendon Taylor are restoring tiny bat specimens. It's painstaking work; they have pinned out the fragile wing membranes and patched the holes with Japanese tissue. The purpose of the specimen dictates the treatment from here. “A scientific collection item can have warts and all, with minimal intervention,” says Simon. “Here we could put a gentle lacquer to hide the tissue, but obviously for display you’ve got to colour them in.” The extent of treatment for exhibition work can be deceptive, as the conservation treatments aim to draw the eye away from repairs so the specimen can be read as a whole.

Two men with penguin specimen L-R: Preparator Dean Smith with Simon Moore, looking at a damaged King Penguin mount.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Simon’s own knowledge comes from decades of experimentation and consulting with natural history collections around the globe. “I’ve learned lots myself throughout the years and I’m trying to advance the technology, giving credit where it’s due. There aren’t many people doing taxidermy conservation and they keep trade secrets.” The techniques that Simon shares in workshops like this will help keep scientific and display specimens in good nick for study, research and exhibitions in years to come.

Big weekend for the bells

Author
by Susan Bamford-Caleo
Publish date
20 February 2014
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Susan manages the Federation Handbells lending program.

8 and 9 February will be remembered as a grand weekend for the Federation Handbells with their participation in two very important events in Melbourne.
 
The Federation Handbells and Museum Victoria have an exciting partnership with the Melbourne Recital Centre this year. The first part of this project took place last week with two composition workshops leading to a performance that opened the Melbourne Recital Centre’s 5th Birthday Celebrations on Saturday 8 February. The performance was called Birthday Bells.

Federation Handbells procession The Federation Handbells, after a procession down St Kilda Road to launch the festivities at the Melbourne Recital Centre, lead the way to the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall.
Source: Melbourne Recital Centre
 

The workshops were led by composer Steve Falk and me, with participation from percussionists Eugene Ughetti and Leah Scholes. Those enrolled in the workshops had responded to a general call-out and included people ranging widely in age and background. Over the days that we spent together, playing and creating with the Federation Handbells, a genuine sense of group identity was created, so much so that the participants have asked if we can form a Federation Handbells Players group and suggested that we call it Clang!

The excitement and enthusiasm of the participants and the connection that developed with each other and with the bells was a perfect example of the Federation Handbells fulfilling their commission. Wonderful! 

We very much appreciated the generous assistance and support of Kirsten and the Melbourne Recital Centre staff and can’t wait to get back there for the second part of our joint project, the Federation Handbells Residency (April to September, 2014). 

The other very significant event at which the Federation Handbells appeared that weekend was the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Fifth Anniversary Remembrance Event on Sunday 9 February. The handbells were played in a performance of Risen From The Flame by The Blacksmith’s Tree Youth Choir, a choir consisting of children from fire-affected communities. The children sang and played their composition led by Bridget Muir, a youth worker from Nillumbik Council. The piece was originally written by Bridget and the children for the launch of the Blacksmith’s Tree in Whittlesea in November, 2013.  You can view the performance in this YouTube video:

 

The Federation Handbells have contributed strongly to community involvement in a number of commemorations for the 2009 bushfires over the last five years and it highlights their importance as significant ceremonial instruments for Victorians.
 
We are looking forward to more big weekends with the Federation Handbells as they continue their important role in Victoria and beyond.

First Peoples' Cultural Workshops

Author
by John Patten
Publish date
20 September 2012
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John Patten is a Bundjalung / Yorta Yorta man on his father's side, and a descendant of First Fleet convicts via his mother. An educator and artist, he takes great joy in sharing knowledge with visitors to Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre.

In preparation for an upcoming series of cultural workshops to be held at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum, I recently ventured into the field with John Duggan to collect a range of materials required to run the workshops.

Man on a beach John Duggan searching the beach for suitable rocks.
Image: John Patten
Source: Museum Victoria
 

John is a Gamilaroi man and the Assistant Collections Manager for Australian Collections in MV's Humanities Department. Together we travelled to south western Victoria to collect flint for making traditional stone knapped spear points and blades, Pomaderris shafts for the production of spears, Xanthorrhoea (Grass Tree) resin for making a traditional glue, and several varieties of timber for carving traditional tools and weapons, including shields, digging sticks, clubs and boomerangs.

John Patten with rocks John Patten selecting beach rocks for the workshops
Image: John Duggan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Man holding rock John Duggan selecting rocks suitable for making traditional knapped spear points and blades.
Image: John Patten
Source: Museum Victoria
 

During our journey we encountered a wide variety of flora and fauna, ranging from herds of emus and large mobs of kangaroos, to wombats and echidna. We also facilitated a special intervention, where John Duggan removed a dozen or more bush ticks from the body of a Shingleback lizard. Traditional food and medicinal plants that we encountered included Pig Face, Kangaroo Apple, Salt Bush and Red Fruit Saw Sedge.

wombat A baby wombat among bracken encountered during the trip.
Image: John Patten
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Stars in the night sky The night sky above south western Victoria during the trip.
Image: John Patten
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The First Peoples' Cultural Workshops, which will become a regular part of Bunjilaka's programming, are part of an aim to build a central knowledge base for Koorie artists, to equip them with the necessary resources to pass along a range of traditional skills and knowledge to their own communities across Victoria and beyond.

The first workshop will be delivered by John Duggan, who is acknowledged as a skilled artist and creator of traditional stone tools.

Stone Knapping Workshop
Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre
Friday 5 October, 10:30am – 3:00pm
For further information or to book your place in the Cultural Workshop series, please contact John Patten on 03 8341 7352

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.

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