High time for a check up

by Bethany Palumbo, life collections conservator

This month marks three years since the completion of our ‘Once in a Whale’ project. The initial conservation undertaken in 2013 focused on the cleaning and stabilisation of five whale skeletons, which had hung from the roof of the Museum for over 100 years.

The skeletons were lowered into a special conservation space, where the team were able to work up close with the specimens. As well as the cleaning, they improved incorrect skeletal anatomy, replacing old corroded wiring with new stainless steel. For final display, the specimens were put into size order and rigged using new steel wiring, with the larger specimens being lifted higher into the roof space to make them a more prominent display than previously. You can read all about the project on our blog, Once in a Whale.

Three years on, our conservation team felt it was a good time to check on the specimens to see how they’re coping, post-treatment, in the fluctuating museum environment.

Conservation intern Stefani Cavazos works on high to clean the Beaked Whale

It’s been wonderful to see the whales on display and their new position looks very impressive. However, when the time came for making this recent conservation assessment, the new height was greater than any of our ladders could reach. Specialist scaffolding was brought in to allow the conservators to access the specimens. Starting at the highest level, with our Beaked Whale, cleaning was completed using a vacuum and soft brush for delicate areas. This removed a thick layer of dust and particulate debris: especially satisfying work!

Dust gathered on the Beaked Whale fin

With cleaning complete, visual assessments could then be undertaken. These showed that while the specimens were still very stable, a few areas of bone have continued to deteriorate, visible in cracking and flaking of the surface. In other areas, the fatty secretions which we previously removed using ammonia had once again started to emerge. We had expected to see this though, because, in life these whales’ bodies contained a lot of fat, deep within the bones and this is notoriously impossible to completely remove.

Lubricant stain seen on a vertebra

It was also observed that the lubrication used on the new rigging bolts had melted and dripped down the wires. You can see in the photo above how this has become drawn into the vertebrae of the Orca and Common Dolphin, staining them yellow. While no conservation treatment was undertaken due to time restrictions, thorough photography was performed to document these changes and once time permits this can be carried out.

This shows how conservation work, especially with natural history specimens, is a gradual, ongoing process. With frequent check-ups and specialist attention, these whales will be able to continue their life as our beautiful display specimens.

The ancient mariner

Helen J. Bullard is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison whose research aims to tell the historical and cultural stories of the horseshoe crab. After visiting the museum, and reading the story of our Natural History After-School Club member’s horseshoe crab fossil find, Helen offered to write a guest post for the blog about these amazing, ancient mariners…

You’re reading this, so I’m guessing you like museums. But have you ever heard of living fossils? Animals such as sharks and crocodiles are often referred to as ‘living fossils’ because they appear pretty unchanged from their ancient fossilized relatives. Of course, by definition, you can’t be both alive and a fossil. But fossils allow us to become primary eyewitnesses to ancient life; we can literally see what life used to look like, how cool is that? They can also dole out some pretty valuable advice, if we just choose to listen.

This summer during a visit to England, I spent some time at the Museum studying another so-called living fossil, the horseshoe ‘crab’. The horseshoe crab is not actually a crab, but is instead more closely related to spiders, scorpions and ticks. In fact, they are the closest living relatives of the extinct trilobites. But unlike their famous trilobite cousins, horseshoe crabs have survived all five of Earth’s major mass extinction events. Today, as a direct result of their ability to survive, the four remaining species of horseshoe crab play a vital role in global medical safety.

The Museum’s fossil specimen of Mesolimulus walchi, from the Upper Jurassic (163-145 million years ago), Solnhofen Germany, shows how little the form of the horseshoe crab has changed since

Not only do living horseshoe crabs look very similar to their early relations, they are also able to survive surprisingly severe injuries that often leave them missing body parts. Being able to see, through fossil evidence, how little their form has changed over time has helped to uncover the answer to this secret superpower. It lies in a very special life-saving trick that the crabs have kept for millions of years: a coagulating blood protein.

Horseshoe crabs on display in the Museum may provide food for thought for visitors

The blood of the horseshoe crab is able to clot quickly if bacteria are introduced, preventing infection, and saving the crab’s life. Since this discovery in the 1970s, this life-saving protein has been extracted from horseshoe crab blood and used in human medicine to test the safety of vaccines, medical laboratories, intravenous drugs, implants, and much, much more. The chances are that you owe a great deal of gratitude to the horseshoe crab.

But after all that surviving, horseshoe crabs, like many species, are now struggling for survival. They are losing their spawning grounds because of coastal development, industry, housing, marinas and coastal defense structures; they are collected and killed by the millions for bait, and bloodlet in their hundreds of thousands for medical use every year. It is likely that horseshoe crabs will not survive much longer.

But don’t despair. Museums are critical because they hold collections that can unlock knowledge about environmental change, and we can use that knowledge to protect life. Of course, horseshoe crabs are not alone in telling their stories through the fossils they leave – natural history museums are full of stories in stone, bones, pollen, and other traces. If you want to learn about and protect biodiversity, visit your local museum, or support organisations like Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.

And to help the ancient horseshoe crab itself, join in with the efforts of the Ecological Research and Development Group – the crabs have saved us, so let’s return the favour.

 

Stories from the Stores

by Hannah Allum, Move Project Manager

Museums are space-hungry places. There’s rarely enough room to properly house the collections we currently hold, never mind finding space for new material. Roughly 90% of museum collections are not on public display, so many museums use storage beyond their main building, in offsite stores.

The Museum of Natural History has faced the same challenges and, for the past few decades, has found a solution in a somewhat surprising building. Where might you least expect to find a vast collection of rocks and fossils dating back millions of years? How about a nineteenth century church, complete with beautiful stained glass windows?!

Stained glass windows in the former church

As atmospheric as it is, this deconsecrated church is no place for good quality museum storage. To do the collections justice they need a monitored and controlled environment, suitable containers and pest prevention measures. Plus, it’s always a bonus to be able to access specimens without playing a very nerve-wracking game of Jenga or Tetris!

Carving detail in the former church

So, once again we are faced with the most terrifying and exciting of museum tasks; a collections move project! In 2016 we successfully relocated approximately 17,000 specimens from some of our old offsite stores and showed you some behind the scenes secrets along the way with the hashtag #storiesfromthestores. This time we have a team of eager beavers (also known as project assistants) who can’t wait to share glimpses of the project as we go, so make sure to keep an eye on @morethanadodo on Twitter.

An oats box made an unusual storage solution for Earth materials

After a much needed clean of the church, we’re starting to prepare the material to be moved. Alongside the specimens, we’re already coming across some interesting historical packaging. It seems that the mass consumption of Oxo cubes was a pre-requisite for collectors of old, as many specimens are stored in these retro tins. A few other repurposed boxes include; Quaker oats, Sharp’s toffee, Fry’s chocolates, marmalade, mustard oil and even wine crates. Quite the picnic!

A toffee tin for storing fossils – just one of the interesting choices for collections tins over the years.

Once removed from the church, the project team will be working on processing these collections in a dedicated space, as well as giving them some TLC and new homes (boxes). This will take place at a specialist heritage storage site until the end of 2018. Keep your eyes peeled for more on the treasures from this trove.

Paint it green

In the process of researching or conserving old pinned insects, it’s common to find a green deposit clustered around the pin. This is known as verdigris and is a natural patina created when the metal oxidizes over time. Katherine Child is Image Technician in the Museum’s Life collections and takes photos of insects for researchers, students, artists and publications. She is also an artist in her own right, so when she witnessed verdigris being removed during a conservation project, she came up with an inspired idea.

A clearwing moth before conservation, showing verdigris spreading where the metal and the insect fats, or lipids, react.

A few years ago I read a book called Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, by Victoria Finlay, and was interested to learn that verdigris was once used as a pigment. Verdigris, which I now know translates from French as ‘Green of Greece’, is a word that’s been in my vocabulary since I was small.  I loved its rich bright blue-green colour, which is often seen on old copper piping or copper statues.

Verdigris forms when copper or a copper alloy reacts with water, oxygen, carbon dioxide or sulphur.

L: Three years’ worth of verdigris, ground and ready to make into paint.
R: A second attempt at mixing the paint, this time using linseed oil.

As early as 5thcentury AD, it was used in paint-making, and until the late 19th century it was the most vibrant green pigment available. But it was unstable – Leonardo da Vinci warned that it ‘vanishes into thin air if not varnished quickly.’ These days synthetic pigments provide a more constant alternative.

Despite its past uses, verdigris is a big problem in pinned insect collections. Nowadays stainless steel pins are used, but pins containing copper still remain in old collections and these react with air and insect fats. The more fatty the insect, the more verdigris tends to form and, if left, it can damage a specimen irreparably.

Comprising around five million or so insects, the Hope Entomological Collections here in the Museum take quite a bit of looking after. A few years ago a project to catalogue and conserve many of its butterfly and moth specimens was undertaken and the removal of verdigris and repining of insects was part of this.

With paint-making in mind, I asked that the beautiful, but problematic, substance be saved.  About three years on I finally got around to using the pigment, which I had also been adding to while photographing the collections.

I chose a variety of differently shaped moths to paint (most of the verdigris came from moths, so moths seemed the most apt subject). To narrow my options further I went for green moths. Some of the specimens I chose had verdigris on their pin, so I was able to take pigment and use it to paint the very specimens from which it came!

Katherine tested out the newly made verdigris paint in her sketchbook.

After a first failed attempt to make watercolour paint (during which pigment and water remained stubbornly separate due to the greasy insect fats still present), I tried again, this time using linseed oil to make oil paint – and it worked! Traditionally a flat bottomed tool called a muller was used to press pigment into the water or oil. Not having one of these, I used the flat end of a pestle and a mortar which did the trick.

A Miscellany of Moths, the finished verdigris painting.

The paint went surprisingly far and, following on from the 14 green moths, I plan to use up the remainder to paint beetles.

Katherine’s Miscellany of Moths painting can be seen on display in the Museum’s Community Case until 18th October.

A rare beetles turns 21

by Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections

Many years ago, when re-identifying dung beetles in the collections of the British Entomological and Natural History Society, I found a specimen that I didn’t immediately recognise. So I borrowed it, and after a few hours of checking the European literature back in Oxford, I realised that I’d found a beetle that had not been recorded anywhere in Britain before.

The small black circles show the locations of known records for Melinopterus punctatosulcatus.

The dung beetle in question was Melinopterus punctatosulcatus, a species widely distributed across Europe but until this discovery unknown in Britain, despite its presence in the BENHS collection. This is because it had been misidentified as a different species: the beetle superficially looks like two closely-related species, and so had been overlooked by beetle collectors for over a hundred years.

Since that initial specimen, I have scoured numerous UK museum collections and to date have found a total of just 20 specimens, distributed across the World Museum in Liverpool, the National Museum Wales in Cardiff, and here in the Museum of Natural History in Oxford. All these specimens are from Deal, Kent and were caught between 1891 and 1910.

The last known record is of a single specimen from Ryarsh, Kent collected in 1938, which just happens to be the first specimen I found some 20 years ago in the BENHS collection.

The male genitalia of Melinopterus punctatosulcatus. The appearance of the genitalia is one of the best ways of identifying one species of beetle from another.

But this week, the 21st known specimen was discovered in our collections by Mary-Emma, a placement student who is with us from the University of Reading. She uncovered the beetle during the re-curation and identification of a collection made by A. J. Chitty. Thankfully the specimen was a male, so we were able to confirm the identification using the genitalia – one of the best ways of determining a species.

It seems that Mr Chitty had a knack for finding this particular species of dung beetle, since 14 of all the known specimens were caught by him at Deal. It’s just a shame that he didn’t realise his amazing discovery at the time.

Mary-Emma identifies Melinopterus punctatosulcatus by examining the dissected genitalia, visible on the right hand side of the monitor screen.

In the recent Conservation Status Review of dung beetles, Melinopterus punctatosulcatus was designated as Regionally Extinct in the UK because there have been no known sightings since that one in 1938. So this species possibly went extinct in Britain before we even realised that it was here. And were it not for museum collections we may never have known it once lived in Britain at all.

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.