What big teeth you have…

Not many summer placements involve being face to face with a grey wolf. The latest intern getting her hands dirty in the Life Collections Conservation Lab is Kathryn Schronk, from the BSc Conservation of Objects in Museums at Cardiff University. Here she tells us a little bit about herself and what she’s been working on during her time at the Museum…

Desiring a bit of a respite from broken pottery and rusty metal, I came to the Museum of Natural History to gain some experience with different objects and materials: namely taxidermy. I mean, why not? The possibility of getting up close and personal with wild animals was tempting, and I wouldn’t get a limb gnawed off or an eye poked out either, as might be the case with live creatures. A win-win situation!

Kathryn airbrushing synthetic hair in the Conservation Lab

Natural history specimens were always off in some strange yet fascinating realm I knew nothing about until a few weeks ago. Curiosity got the better of me, and here I am, surrounded by dead things and not the least bit freaked out. Except for the spiders; they’re still creepy, dead or alive.

The wolf who cried for help, before treatment.

My first project was a taxidermy grey wolf (Canis lupis). After many years on display, the skin has dried out and become brittle, causing it to crack and tear. These tears were visible around each hind legs, the neck, and at the tail, actually separating it from the body.

Some of the filthy cotton pads

I first cleaned it to remove dust and dirt; using a museum vacuum followed by 50:50 alcohol and water on large cotton pads for the more stubborn, ingrained dirt.

My attention was then turned to the tears at the legs. While quite long in length, there was not much of a gap between the two pieces of skin, which would make a repair easier to undertake. These were repaired with adhesive film and polyester cloth as a support material, which I slid underneath the skin and behind both sides. This was done to reduce the stress upon the brittle, dry skin and prevent the tears from increasing.

The tear around the left leg, before (left) and after (right) repair

There were massive cracks inside the mouth, where the old fill material had failed. After some testing, I chose a fill material that was flexible and able to withstand a fluctuating museum environment. This was an EVA adhesive, coloured with pigments to match the surrounding gum.

The muzzle needed substantial retouching, due to fur loss around the nose and eyes. Using conservation grade acrylic paints, I layered the colours, matching the various shades of the wolf’s coat. A very fine bristled brush was used to create the natural texture, painting on each hair practically one by one.

Lastly, I created a synthetic patch of fur made out of polyester teddy bear stuffing to combat the bald patches in front of the legs. The fibres were airbrushed with acrylic paints to match the coat and then felted onto a backing material which was adhered to the wolf using EVA adhesive. These repairs made the tears less noticeable and the wolf more aesthetically pleasing and realistic.

The wolf after conservation treatment

The wolf has now returned to the museum display, looking much livelier. Let’s hope he attracts a wolf whistle or two.

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More than a Dodo

I'm Public Engagement Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I look after permanent displays and other interpretation. I do a bit of social media on the side, too.

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