From pin to paper

Katherine Child, image technician in the Museum’s Life collections, doesn’t just use photography to capture the beauty of specimens. She is also an artist and has been trying out innovative techniques for her paintings. You may remember her amazing moth illustrations created with deposits of verdigris on pinned insects and she’s now using that technique to explore Museum staff’s favourite insect specimens.

Verdigris is a green corrosion often found on old pins within entomology collections (as well as elsewhere, on things like statues and copper pipes). Last year, after learning that the substance was once used as a pigment, I decided to try and make my own paint.

A clearwing moth before conservation, showing verdigris spreading where metal reacts with insect fats, or lipids.

Verdigris forms when copper or a copper alloy reacts with water, oxygen, carbon dioxide or sulphur. While a beautiful shade of green, the substance is damaging in natural history collections, where it can actually develop inside specimens and if left, split them irreversibly. So as part of the conservation of the Hope Entomological Collections, verdigris is removed.

I started to collect up the substance as it was cleaned from specimens and after about three years (you only get a little bit per pin) I was ready to make my paint! After my first moth project, the only question was, what to paint next…?

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Byctiscus populi or ‘The Attelabid that changed my life’, chosen by Zoë (collections manager) who said ‘I saw a pink version of this species in the Natural History Museum in London and that’s when I decided I wanted to study entomology’.

With an estimated 6 million insects and arachnids in the entomology collections, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. You can pull open any one of thousands of draws and find astonishing specimens. While I have favourites, my first inclinations as to what to paint still felt a little arbitrary. After mulling over various possibilities, I decided to get help!

Chosen by DPhil student Leonidas, Agalmatium bilobum is a little bug which lays its eggs on tree bark, then covers them with mud to protect them.

I asked my co-workers what their favourite insects were, then opened the question out to regular volunteers and visitors of the Life collections. I loved finding out why people chose the things they did. Answers varied from ‘It was the first spider I ever looked at under a microscope aged 12’ to ‘Because they’re cool’ to ‘Because they have an ingenious way of manipulating spiders!’

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One of arachnologist Russell’s favourite spiders: Nuctenea umbratica. Though common in the UK, umbratica is Latin for “living in the shadows”, and it often hides away during the day. The slight transparency of the paint lends itself to a spider’s glittering eyes.

 

Painting this live African Mantis Sphodromantis lineola (chosen by conservator Jackie) was made slightly more challenging by the fact that the subject thought Katherine’s pencil might be tasty.

Most of the subjects I painted were based on specimens from the Museum’s collections or specimens individuals had brought in from their own collections, but one favourite was a live African Mantis, housed in the department to help with education and outreach. When I began to draw her she was intrigued by the movement of my pencil and came to the front of the tank, to follow every mark I made with her intimidating gaze.

A detail from the final painting
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Katherine’s fabulous finished painting, which will be framed and displayed in the Life collections department.

Though time consuming, the painting was loads of fun to research and do. It’s fantastic to be surrounded not only by extremely knowledgeable people, but also by people with a genuine passion for what they do and a love for the insects (and spiders) they study.

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.

Cathedral to nature

To mark National Poetry Day 2017, former Museum poet-in-residence Kelley Swain writes about her residency, getting to know the Museum, and the Guests of Time anthology.  

Throughout 2016, I was one of three fortunate writers to be invited into the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s first poetry residency. It was our task to engage how we wished with the collections, curators, history and architecture of the Museum, and produce seven new poems each in the first third of the year. The next two-thirds comprised editing and publishing the residency anthology, Guests of Time, and running poetry engagement events.

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Kelley Swain reading from the Guests of Time anthology at the launch event  – December 2016

But this wasn’t the first time poets were inspired by the Museum. The building opened in 1860, an exemplary Victorian ‘cathedral to nature,’ heavily influenced by art critic John Ruskin who involved Pre-Raphaelite artists in its design and decoration.

Guests of Time
Guests of Time anthology

Guests of Time includes new work from the resident poets (myself, John Barnie, and Steven Matthews,) as well as contemporary Victorian poetry related to the Museum. This includes ‘The Lay of the Trilobite’ by May Kendall, a student at Somerville College, Oxford, and ‘A Year and a Day’ by Lizzie Siddal, who was invited to contribute designs for decorative carvings in the building (though, ultimately, decorative work was cut short due to lack of funds).

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Continuing to spend time getting to know the building and its contents, I’ve been able to more fully appreciate the astonishing attention to detail throughout, and the sometimes seemingly ‘superfluous’ garnishes in which the architects indulged, such as this decorative ironwork on one of the Museum towers.

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Decorative ironwork on one of the Museum towers

It is not a weathervane; it is not, of course, any kind of antennae. It is beautiful, seemingly unnecessary, yet somehow integral. It was the Victorians (Darwin, always, is a good example,) who began to understand that many things in nature considered ‘superfluous,’ (such as the blue decoration of a male bowerbird’s bower,)  had in fact evolved through mate preference (sexual selection) or another competitive advantage (camouflage, fitness).

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Blue decoration of a male bowerbird’s bower

Oxford University held an architecture competition to choose a design for the building. The winning team included architect Benjamin Woodward, iron-master Francis Skidmore, and sculptors James and John O’Shea. The Victorians were striving, in Ruskin’s words, towards ‘truth to nature’. They were selecting for what Darwin called ‘grandeur in this view of life’. We do well to remember that no attention to detail, however small, is superfluous: in nature, in architecture, in poetry. On a grander scale, the arts are as essential to humankind as is blue to a bowerbird.

 

 

Brain washing

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Our next exhibition – Brain Diaries: Modern Neuroscience in Action – opens on 10 March and in preparation we have indulged in a little bit of brain-washing… This article contains an image of a preserved human brain.

One of the first displays visitors will encounter is a ‘wall’ of 23 fluid-preserved mammal brains – from a Short-nosed Bandicoot to cow. The style of jar, with its black bitumen and paint backing, tells us that these were once used for display so it is exciting to put them in the public galleries again. Museum conservator, Jacqueline Chapman-Gray, runs us through the meticulous process she undertook to ensure these brains will look their best for their return to the limelight.

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Cow brain before conservation treatment
A number of the brains had become dehydrated over time as the level of fluid – alcohol – had dropped. These needed to go through a rehydration programme to ensure their long-term preservation. This is more complex than simply adding more fluid to the jar. Instead the alcohol level needs to be increased gradually to avoid damaging the tissues.

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Brains soaking in alcohol
Others had started to detach from their glass mounts, or anatomy labels that marked each of the different areas or sections of the brain had come loose. These were carefully remounted using specialist conservation-grade materials and a steady hand! Three brains had become completely detached and were repaired using a polyester monofilament thread, otherwise known as fishing line.

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Repairing a human brain with a beading needle

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Labels found detached at the bottom of the jar
For the smallest of the brains a normal sewing needle was enough to pass through the tissues but for the larger two either a flexible 10cm beading needle or large 25cm mattress needle was needed. The original threading points were reused wherever possible though in one case this proved to be too difficult, as the tissue was soft and susceptible to breaking. With precision and patience I was able to gently stitch them back into place on the backing plate so they look as good as new.

All of the jars were given a thorough clean to ensure that seals were tight fitting and that the contents were shown off to their best. They were then filled with fluid to 4/5ths from the rim and the brains gently placed back inside.

Lids were sealed with clear silicone and each jar was topped up with a syringe through a small hole in the lid that is there for this very purpose – once full, this hole is also sealed.

Lastly, after the seals had dried, for the final finishing flourish black paint was reapplied to the backs and tops of the jars to provide a contrasting backdrop.

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Ta-dah… the cow brain after conservation treatment
Brain Diaries opens on Friday 10 March and runs until Monday 1 January 2018. Take a look at the website to find out more about the exhibition and accompanying programme of events at braindiaries.org

1683 and all that…

16836Just a quick post to say that things are pressing ahead with our Natural Histories exhibition, which is being hosted and co-curated by the Museum of the History of Science in Broad Street.

Jewson delivery

This morning, as I arrived at the MHS, Jewson had just delivered the pre-cut MDF boards that we will use to make various plinths and structures for many of the specimens in the exhibition.

But along with this delivery came a sweet little coincidence; perhaps even a good omen. On one of the Jewson boards the order number had been written in black marker pen and the number, which you can see above, was 16836, tantalisingly close to 1683, the year this building was founded by Elias Ashmole as the original Ashmolean Museum. The ‘6’ is even written just a little bit smaller than the ‘year’.

Given that Natural Histories is partly about a temporary return of Oxford University‘s natural history collections to their original home in the building in Broad Street, this is an unusually apposite order reference.

I don’t know when in 1683 the building opened, but I really hope it was June.

Cheryl helps bring the boards into the Museum of the History of Science

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator