Clean as a new pin

The spiky customer above has enjoyed a serious spruce-up from Stefani Cavazos, our current intern from UCL’s MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. Stefani tells us how she got this Spot-fin Porcupinefish looking shipshape, without receiving any serious injuries.

So far at the Museum I have been working on a range of specimens, from taxidermy and wet specimens to cleaning the whales, but my favourite project so far has been the conservation of this Spot-fin Porcupinefish from the displays. It is part of what is known as the Christ Church Collection, which came to the Museum in 1860. This makes the Porcupinefish at least 150 years old.

The specimen itself was covered in dust and all five of its fins were backed with deteriorating cardboard pieces. These were most likely attached to give some support during a previous restoration attempt. Unfortunately, cardboard is not a conservation grade material because over time it becomes acidic. Temperature and humidity changes in the Museum have caused it to bend forward, pulling the fins out of shape, so we felt it should be removed to prevent further damage.

The Spot-fin Porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix) before conservation treatment (left images), and close ups of the cardboard backings on the left pectoral fin (right images), where staining and bending are visible. The red arrow indicates where the paper has separated from the fin, and how thin the fins are.

The first step in the treatment was to clean the surface of the Porcupinefish using warm water and a cotton swab. This allowed me to get into the nooks and crannies of the body whilst (mostly) avoiding being poked by its spines. Next, the cardboard backings were softened with water vapor, causing them to break apart so they could be removed easily using tweezers and a scalpel blade.

Conservation can feel like detective work since we often uncover interesting information about specimens as we work on them. In this case, as we removed the cardboard pieces, we found writing on the underside. It appears to be from a shoe box! Though unexpected, it wasn’t entirely surprising. Preparators in the past used whatever materials were available to them at the time.

(Left) The cardboard was carefully removed from the caudal (tail) fin. (Right) The cardboard once removed from the fin, it appears to be from a shoe label.

After detaching the cardboard from all the fins, the remaining ink and adhesive residues were removed using a 50/50 alcohol and water mixture applied with a cotton swab. The edges of the fins were then coated with two thin layers of an acrylic adhesive to prevent any further breakage and to offer some support to the weakest areas. Cleaned, and free of damaging materials, this Porcupinefish is now ready to go back on display!

Photos of the Spot-fin Porcupinefish after treatment was completed. Without the cardboard backings, the fins are somewhat translucent.

Stefani takes her finished work out to one of our regular Spotlight Specimen sessions, giving visitors the chance to get a closer look and ask questions.

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