Bee beautiful

Our conservator Bethany Palumbo tells us how she restored a beautiful 19th-century papier-mâché model of a honeybee hive, created by master model-maker and anatomist Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux

Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux

Although the Museum’s collections are mostly of organic specimens, we also hold a fascinating collection of scientific models made to represent the natural world, made from all types of materials, from wax and cardboard to plaster and paint.

We are lucky enough to own a model made by esteemed French anatomist Louis Auzoux (1797-1880), who in the late 19th century developed a method of building strong yet light papier-mâché models that could be taken apart and rebuilt, allowing internal elements such as tissues and organs to be studied in detail.

Model of a honeybee hive in box with six bees, by Louis Auzoux

While Auzoux made many models demonstrating human anatomy, he later expanded his business to include magnified models of plants and insects. The model we have is of a honeybee hive, containing six beautiful bees.

The hive, painted with a protein-based paint and varnished with gelatine, is large enough to allow the viewer to see the fine details of the hive, including individual chambers containing tiny larvae.

As you can see in the image at the top of the article, the bees themselves are also intricately painted, with rabbit hair used to simulate their natural fuzz, and delicate wings constructed from metal wire.

While there was much to admire about this model, it was in received in poor condition. Previous restoration attempts had introduced many materials that were now failing. There were fills, constructed of paper, applied to areas in an attempt to hide cracks in the original model. These were covered in oil paint, which was dripping over the original paintwork and had become brittle and discoloured.

Oil paint layers were peeling from the model

The whole hive was coated in a layer of cellulose nitrate film, a popular coating in the mid-20th century which was used as protection and to create a gloss finish. This coating doesn’t age well, resulting in peeling. It had also been applied to the bees themselves, clumping together the bee ‘fuzz’ and disguising the paintwork underneath.

The priority for treatment was to return the model to its original form while stabilising it for the future.

I undertook treatment in several stages over the course of six months. First, the cellulose nitrate film was removed from all areas using acetone, which could be applied with a cotton bud and fortunately didn’t affect the paint layer beneath.

Fill material used to cover previous damage had become discoloured

The next stage was to remove the discoloured oil paint from the hive. This was done manually using metal and wooden tools lubricated with white spirit, which were used to gently scrape the surface under magnification. This revealed old fills on the hive, made from a combination of plastic tape, paper and old adhesives which also needed to be removed. They were easily softened with water and gently peeled away.

Once all unstable introduced materials were removed, work began to stabilise the original model. The bees were suffering from paint cracking and peeling, as seen in the magnified photograph below.

Peeling paint at 6x magnification

We decided to consolidate this using gelatine as it would be in keeping with the original construction and could easily be reversed if necessary. Gelatine was mixed in water and warmed to make it a thin consistency, and then applied with a paintbrush. Once the paint flakes had softened they could be gently pressed down. Gelatine was also used with acid-free tissue to stabilise the cracks and areas of surface loss on the hive.

With the hive and bees now clean and stable, the quality of this piece and its incredible paintwork can really be admired. We hope to put it on display soon for all our visitors to enjoy!

Dinosaur WLTM friendly new carers

DSC_8255 small

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.