Rehydrating specimens

by Kate C
Publish date
25 March 2014
Comments (1)

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." 

Comments (1)

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bec 26 March, 2014 10:09
Fab story Kate C. Thanks for taking us behind the scenes and into such an interesting and important part of Museum work.
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