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.


Is it real? – Skeletons and bones

One of the most common questions asked about our specimens, from visitors of all ages, is ‘Is it real?’. This seemingly simple question is actually many questions in one and hides a complexity of answers. 

In this FAQ mini-series we’ll unpack the ‘Is it real?’ conundrum by looking at different types of natural history specimens in turn. We’ll ask ‘Is it a real animal?’, ‘Is it real biological remains?’, ‘Is it a model?’ and many more reality-check questions.

This time: Skeletons and bones, by Mark Carnall

Them bones, them bones… They are all over the place in most museums of natural history: suspended above you, parading around you, or towering menacingly over you in the case of the attention-grabbing Tyrannosaurus rex. When it comes to skeletons you might think the ‘Is it real?’ question is pretty easy to answer; the bones are there, tangibly real, right?

The articulated skeleton of a Barn Owl

Bones are only found in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Other animals possess hard parts which can confusingly be named using similar language, such as the cuttlebone of cuttlefish, or the ‘skeletons’ of corals. These hard parts may resemble bone but are formed in different ways to true bone like the ones we possess.

Unlike taxidermy, discussed in the previous instalment, on the face of it bones are less easy to manipulate and so less likely to be subjectively represented. But individual bones did not exist individually in life, and articulated skeletons, where bones have been attached together, have been manually reassembled to illustrate the shape of the whole animal. The accuracy of an articulated skeleton can depend on a number of things, including the skill and knowledge of the person doing the assembly, the completeness of the bone material, and even the preparation of the bones themselves.

The skeleton of an Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, on display in the Museum

In life, the skeletons of the bony animals are also supported by hard but spongy cartilage and tendons which are not so easily preserved after death. Yet it is the support of the cartilage and tendons, and the form of the surrounding muscle tissue, which gives an animal its natural appearance.

Some articulated skeletons do not account for this non-bony connective tissue. For example, all of the vertebrae in an articulated backbone may be touching each other, whereas in life there would actually be a disc in between each vertebra. Articulated skeletons are often positioned so that parts of the skeleton can be easily seen and accessed, even if the positioning is not realistic or even physiologically possible.

The Museum’s parade of articulated mammal skeletons – no cartilage or tendons in sight…

There are also lots of smaller bones which often aren’t preserved as they are too fragile or don’t attach to other bones in life. Examples include clavicles, or collar bones, penis bones, and the hyoid, a bony structure in the neck that supports the tongue. Some skeletons are composite specimens, so they may be made up of bones from multiple individuals to replace missing or damaged parts. Other parts of skeletons on display in museums may have been reconstructed with plaster or filler.

The way that a specimen is ‘skeletonised’ – the processes used to prepare a skeleton from a carcass – can also have a huge effect on the size and shape of bones, altering the size by up to 10 per cent, which can introduce errors in bone measurement, especially for small-boned bats, rodents, lizards, frogs, and fish.

So while there’s a tendency to assume that skeletons are more ‘real’ than other kinds of preserved specimens, they too have their biases. The next time you look at a skeleton try to imagine what is natural and unnatural about its construction, and ask yourself – is it real?

Next time… Fossils
Last time… Taxidermy