Mammoth tusks and cocktail sticks

By Pete Brown, Move Project Assistant

As part of the Museum of Natural History Move Project Team I have helped move and repackage tens of thousands of specimens since 2017, removing boxes filled at any time over the last 150 years from their old storage location in a deconsecrated church building near Oxford.

At our new facility we have been documenting and repacking the contents in new, clean containers and placing them in environmentally stable, safe warehouses specially adapted for museum storage.

Some objects are trickier to store than others. Things that are long, heavy, curvy and fragile are tricky. Mammoth tusks are long, heavy, curvy, and fragile. This means:

  1. They’re not going to fit in a normal box.
  2. They’re going to be difficult to move around.
  3. That beautiful curve will mean that all the weight of the tusk may be bearing down on just two small contact points where the tusk meets the storage surface.
  4. Because those points are fragile, they’re likely to get damaged.
A lot of weight can rest on small areas of the tusk, putting strain on the specimen and potentially causing damage

The tusk in this article is a prime example. The area nearest the camera in the photo above provided just a tiny point of contact with the floor and was very loose, almost to the point of detaching. It needed to be repaired, and stored in such a way that it wouldn’t get damaged again.

Pete Brown carries out delicate conservation work on the mammoth tusk

I filled some of the missing areas around the fragile area with an easily removable fine acrylic putty to prevent further movement and loss of the original material. A cotton tape sling helped to suspend the fragment in place during the work.

Thick plastazote provided a sturdy, slightly yielding bed for the tusk to lie on in storage, but to prevent the tusk from getting damaged again more needed be done to reduce the pressure on the points of contact.

The dark grey foam material, plastazote, is often used as a cushioned support for museum objects

I cut depressions into the plastazote where the tusk naturally lay to increase the total surface area supporting the weight of the tusk, and fixed plastazote wedges and supports in place with cocktail sticks to again increase the contact area and prevent movement. Cotton fabric ties, fed through slits in the plastazote, also helped to guard against unwanted movement.

Cocktail sticks: not just for cheese and pineapple

The repaired end of the tusk is now only supporting a fraction of the weight it used to, and once the tusk and the plastazote bed are placed into their new custom-made crate it will be ready for long-term, safe, damage-free storage!

The end of the tusk after treatment

To keep up with all the move project action, follow the museum hashtag #storiesfromthestore on Twitter @morethanadodo.

 

Seasonal sights

The Museum’s collections are on the move. For decades, a deconsecrated church has been used to house material from our Earth collections, but we now have a new and improved off-site space, and between now and the end of 2018 a huge project is underway to sort and shift these objects. You can find out more about all this in our Stories from the Stores article. 

Chantelle Dollimore, Move Project Assistant, recently emigrated from Australia and has been experiencing her first British autumn. Here she shares a glimpse of the natural encounters the collections move has offered so far.

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As the project team for the collections move settles into the daily hustle and bustle of work there are extraordinary things happening outside. Winter is coming; we have already wound our clocks back for that extra hour of sleep. Leading up to that time, creatures great and small have been preparing themselves for seasonal changes.

Autumn leaves litter the footpath to the store

Something truly blissful in an English autumn is the deciduous trees shedding their leaves as the days grow shorter and chillier. The crunching underfoot of hues of browns, reds, yellows and oranges adds charm as we make the rounds of our 19th-century church workspace.

A Red Kite soars above the Museum’s offsite collections store

Driving from the Museum to the off-site store, we’re likely to see at least one Red Kite. Less than 30 years ago Red Kites were nearly extinct, but through conservation efforts they have flourished in the Oxfordshire countryside. Their distinct calls and unique silhouette, with long narrow wings and forked tail, are a haunting yet beautiful addition to the skyline.

A Red Kite (Milvus milvus) on display in the Museum

The move project team have also been visited by a different ‘bird’ altogether; the ladybird! At this time of year, when you find one you will most likely see many more close by. When a ladybird finds the perfect place to hibernate for spring it excretes a pheromone to attract more to the area. For some, the perfect place seems to be inside the church itself!

(Lady)birds of a feather flock together

Grey Squirrels and deer are also making appearances throughout the day while we’re working. One cannot help but watch as the bushy tail of the squirrel peeks through the hedges as it forages for food and admire the deer as they stroll through the fields happily unaware of our activities some 50 metres away.

Although it’s great to admire the specimens on display in the Museum, I love that my job allows me to get out and about to appreciate the wildlife of the Oxfordshire countryside. There’s always something unexpected… like a butterfly choosing its resting place on some disassembled storage shelves.

A butterfly (Nymphalidae sp.) in torpor finds shelter from the impending cold

To keep up with all the move project action, follow the museum hashtag #storiesfromthestore on Twitter @morethanadodo.

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.

Rehoming a dinosaur

Last summer we ran an unusual competition: finding a new residence for our four metre-long model of Utahraptor ostrommaysorum. It had been hibernating in one of our off-site stores for a while, but following a reorganisation of collections we needed to find a new place for it to live. The competition to rehome the dinosaur was fierce, with 200 venues across the world vying to become the Utahraptor‘s new keeper…

It’s taken some time, thanks to logistics and admin, but one year later we are really delighted to reveal that the Utahraptor has now been installed at the Children’s Hospital at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

The bid to take in the Cretaceous creature came from Sarah Fletcher, who now works at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. Sarah nominated the Children’s Hospital so that the dinosaur could amaze and inspire the young patients.

The idea of having a model Utahraptor in the hospital seemed like a lot of fun. Having been through the Children’s Hospital with my family, I knew that it would make such a difference to everyone who walks through those doors. But I never thought in a million years that we would win it – I am thrilled!
– Sarah Fletcher

The Children’s Hospital team celebrate the arrival of their new ‘pet’

The model has been installed in the main entrance of the hospital, complete with new shadow-casting lighting, thanks to support from Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Charitable Funds.

The team are now looking to develop new arts projects for young patients, themed around the dinosaur, including an all-important naming competition. We all hope it will bring pleasure to patients, provide a welcome distraction, and make their hospital visit a little more fun.

Patients, staff and visitors can peer at the dino on the way to the wards

A moving story

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For the past nine months there has been a lot of moving going on around here. Imagine moving house endlessly for weeks on end, but where your house is full of bones, insects, fossils, rocks, and weird and wonderful taxidermy. And the location of everything has to be precisely recorded. The museum move project was a bit like that.

Project assistant Hannah Allum explains…

The museums are migrating, we declared in May 2016. And so they have. The first major stage of the stores project has been completed. After we had created inventories for the largely unknown collections held in two offsite stores, the next stage was to pack them safely and transport them to a new home nearer the museum, a job which demanded almost 70 individual van trips! We now have over 15,000 specimens sitting in vastly improved storage conditions in a new facility.

A miscellany of boxes for a collection of shells
A miscellany of boxes for a collection of shells

Let’s revel in some numbers. All in all there were over 1,000 boxes of archive material, mostly reprints of earth sciences and entomological research papers; over 1,300 specimens of mammal osteology (bones); and more than 1,000 boxes and 650 drawers of petrological and palaeontological material (rocks and fossils).

Some of the more memorable specimens include old tobacco tins and chocolate boxes filled with fossils and shells; a beautifully illustrated copy of the ‘Report on the Deep-Sea Keratosa’ from the HMS Challenger by German naturalist Ernst Haeckel; and the skull of a Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), complete with armour-plated scute carapace.

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The skull and carapace of a Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus)

There were also a few objects that have moved on to more unusual homes. A 4.5 m long cast of Attenborosaurus conybeari (yep, named after Sir David) was too large to fit in our new store and so made its way to another facility along with a cornucopia of old museum furniture. A set of dinosaur footprint casts, identical to those on the Museum’s lawn, have been gifted to the Botanical Gardens for use at the Harcourt Arboretum in Oxford.

And last but not least, a model of a Utahraptor received a whopping 200 applications from prospective owners in our bid to find it a suitable home. After a difficult shortlisting process it was offered to the John Radcliffe Children’s Hospital and following a quarantine period should soon be on display in their West Wing.

Footprint casts, attributed to Megalosaurus, queuing for a lift to Harcourt Arboretum. Credit: Hannah Allum
Casts of footprints by made Megalosaurus, queuing for a lift to Harcourt Arboretum. Image: Hannah Allum

Fittingly, the final specimen I placed on the shelf in the new store was the very same one that had been part of my interview for this job: The skeleton of a female leopard with a sad story. It apparently belonged to William Batty’s circus and died of birthing complications whilst in labour to a litter of lion-leopard hybrids before ending up in the Museum’s collections in 1860.

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The sad story of a performing leopard

Though the moving part of this project is now complete there is still plenty of work to do. We are now updating and improving a lot of the documentation held in our databases, and conservation work is ongoing. The new store will also become a shared space – the first joint collections store for the University Museums, complete by April 2018.

To see more, follow the hashtag #storiesfromthestores on Twitter @morethanadodo and see what the team at Pitt Rivers Museum are up to by following @Pitt_Stores.

Dinosaur WLTM friendly new carers

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It’s not often that one of our residents flees the roost to take up home elsewhere: usually once you’re in the Museum that’s it, accessioned for life (or, more accurately, death). However, one of our former dinosaur aisle characters is now looking for a new home…

The four-metre long Utahraptor model has been with the Museum since 2000, during which time it escaped to take up temporary residence in Blackwell’s book shop in Oxford city centre as part of the award-winning Goes to Town project. This time, however, the Utahraptor will be leaving us for the last time as part of a reorganisation of the Museum’s offsite store, where the model is currently residing.

The Utahraptor model in Blackwell's bookshop as part of the Goes to Town project. Photo: Mike Peckett
The Utahraptor model in Blackwell’s bookshop as part of the Goes to Town project. Photo: Mike Peckett

But rather than just ditch this Cretaceous creature unceremoniously we’d like to offer it out to new keepers, ideally somewhere with a public space where the model can be enjoyed by others. So, fancy yourself as a dinosaur owner? If so, check out our selection form for details of what it takes to keep such a pet.

We’re asking people to make a case for the Utahraptor to move to their venue and we will donate the model free of charge to whoever is selected. The closing date for submissions is 5 August and the selected venue will be announced by 12 August. We need to deliver the model to its new home on or before 23 September.

Get me outta this place!
“Get me outta this place!” – the Utahraptor is currently in the Museum’s offsite storage

At this point you probably want some Utahraptor facts to help with your decision, right? Well, here you go:

Utahraptor means ‘Utah’s predator’ and the animal is known from fragmentary fossils found only in Utah in the United States. There is just one known species, Utahraptor ostrommaysorum, which was alive in the early Cretaceous period, around 125 million years ago.

It is thought that like most dinosaurs of its type (dromaeosaurids) the Utahraptor was feathered, although no direct evidence has yet been found. The Museum’s model, made by Crawley Creatures, does not represent a feathered example of this species. It’s likely the beast was not bright orange too, but who knows?

We looking forward to reading your submissions…

www.bit.ly/utahraptor

For more information email communications@oum.ox.ac.uk.