Last week we were invited in to see Jazmine Miles-Long’s new exhibition Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy at the Horniman Museum. Her work exhibited is truly mesmerising. Taking inspiration from seldom seen specimens of taxidermy from within the museum’s collections, her pieces, displayed side by side with their muse, help to highlight the artistry and elegance of the mounted skins while demystifying the work of the taxidermist making it an engaging, informative and beautiful exhibition – Make sure you go and see it! – on till 1st May 2017
Over five months Nikki, Kay and Erica documented and conserved hundreds of individual specimens for the Natural History Museum’s current exhibition, Colour and Vision. From the world’s smallest fly (that we had to assess under a microscope) to a huge taxidermy giraffe in need of extensive remedial conservation.
Coverage in the Independent, indian hornbill eyelash replication, displays
We worked together on a wide range of natural history specimens including fossils, plants, insects, mammals, fish, reptiles, birds, spirit collections and much, much more. A specimen rich exhibition that is a feast for the eyes, now with less than a month left to run, make sure you pop in and take a look!
The Natural History Museum, London has won the IIC 2016 Keck Award for furthering public appreciation of conservation through its project to conserve a Blue Whale Skeleton, and it’s an exciting project we have all worked on over the past year!
We are often asked this question and the answer is that historically, there are many, many methods for treating the skins and for building the sculpted forms inside them. More often than not however, we find, the core structure and pose to be held with the use of metal wires (e.g. threaded though next to the bones on a birds leg and wings) and thicker metal structures and wood for larger specimens. The body of the specimen is often packed using fibres such as wood-wool, straw or cotton wool. Occasionally we find old newspapers (which often makes for interesting reading and can of course help to date specimens). Clay and fillers are also used for sculpting finer details, these areas can sometimes crumble and powder over time due to damage caused by environmental conditions and poor handling. More modern pieces may be set over pre-made forms of foam.
The mixtures used to preserve the skins have in the past contained harmful chemicals, such as arsenic and mercury, which is why when working on specimens (unless we can prove otherwise) we would always assume that those harmful substances are present and wear appropriate PPE.
So, with mask, gloves and overalls on, I dissected this very badly damaged mounted sparrow hawk to show you what happened to be inside it to give you an idea of what taxidermy can often look like on the inside.
The badly damaged mounted sparrow hawk
The stitching had burst and the stuffing for the body of the bird, fine coir fibres, were visible as soon as the breast feathers were parted.
Taxidermy bird specimens from Luton update….All cleaned, preened and looking for new homes.
It was clear that some of the birds had been the victims of historic pest infestations so as a precaution we wrapped and froze all the birds to ensure that any possible pests were neutralised. After removing any casings using tweezers, we then cleaned them using soft brushes and a museum vac. Following this, we preened and cleaned the feathers with torn cosmetic sponges (the sort you can buy in any chemists) They are an excellent tool for gently removing dirt and the pointed edges of them are perfect for softly realigning the feather barbs. A few needed a little more work, removing paint and adhesives from feathers as well as a little infilling with Japanese tissue, toned using acrylics, where pests had done their worst.
Left – Removal of carpet beetle casings. Right – Making mounts
As the old mounts were fairly tired looking and had been kept in damp conditions we decided to remount them all on matching book cloth covered wooden boards. Using the old foot wires we secured the specimens through holes drilled into the boards and set them in place using milliput.
Our birds being used as part of the drawing classes
One sunny Saturday earlier this month, Erica, Nikki and I, along with Gruff the trusty fossil hound were excited to be heading to Beachy Head in East Sussex. We had been lucky enough to be invited along to one of the Discovering Fossils public fossil hunts led by Roy Shepherd.
Erica and I recently attended a 5 day leather conservation course given by Theo Sturge, of the Sturge Conservation Studio. As well as presenting case studies of his work, from gilt leather conservation to car upholstery restoration, Theo taught us about the processing and deterioration mechanisms of leather, and he also introduced us to some leather working skills such as skiving and basic saddle stitching.
Back in 2013, along with Matt Wilde, I was asked to design and build a polar bear costume for British Sea Power. We had 3 weeks to make it, and we hadn’t done anything like that before…but by combining mount making skills, a bit of A-level textiles and a lot of hot glue, I think we did a pretty good job.
Here she is playing up to the crowds at Reading festival and having a bear fight at Shepherd’s Bush Empire with British Sea Power’s other bear, Ursine Ultra, who has been touring with them for many years.
Since then, both bears having been returning to me periodically to be repaired and cleaned.
Last weekend, Cheryl and I attended the ICON Ethnography group AGM and Japanese Tissue Showcase. Cheryl and I were both interested in learning how our fellow conservators are using this very versatile conservation material. Japanese tissue is most commonly created from the bark fibres of the kozo plant. The manufacture of these fibres creates a strong and flexible paper that can be used to support joins, replicate materials and gap-fill splits or cracks. After a long history of use in paper conservation, Japanese tissue has also begun to be used in natural history conservation as a replication material for skin, feathers and fur as well as a support for repairs.
I also attended the event with another purpose, to be officially voted onto the ICON Ethnography group’s committee. After weeks of organising and planning, of which my colleagues on the committee must take most of the credit, it was great to see such a large turnout and how successful the event turned out to be.
Conservation is often viewed as a lone pursuit, carried out by individuals working on their own in the basements of museums or in private studios. However, modern conservation practice is a collaborative and interactive process, during which conservators work alongside colleagues and other heritage specialists to stabilise, store and display objects.
With this ethos in mind, Cheryl, Erica and myself attended the International Mountmakers Forum UK Kick-start event held at the Natural History Museum. This exciting event brought together mountmakers from multiple institutions, including public museums and private practice, to discuss current practice and build support to host the 6th International Mountmakers Forum in London in 2017. This would be the first event of this kind in the UK and would be a wonderful opportunity to raise the profile of mountmaking and encourage debate between different heritage professionals.