Taxidermy conservation workshop

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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.

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Sandra Tobias 2 April, 2014 18:36
Hi Kate One of my year Pascoe Vale Girls College 12 students would like to visit the conservation (taxidermy) department to sketch in preparation for her folio-theme Birds. Is it possible for her to arrange a visit?If so would you be able to email me the direct contact and I will get her to contact them? Any links of suggestions are welcome Thank you Sandra Tobias
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Discovery Centre 4 April, 2014 10:30
Hi Sandra, unfortunately access to mounted vertebrate specimens is closed at the moment due to collection management projects. I will email you with more information.  
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