Recently, I was lucky enough to attend another course with Simon Moore of Natural History Conservation, this time covering the conservation of taxidermy specimens. Having previously participated in the ‘Conservation of Wet Specimens’ I knew I was in for three days of informative, fun and practical training and I wasn’t disappointed.
The course was hosted by Boston Castle, Rotherham, where a wide range of taxidermy specimens with a variety of issues, had been supplied for treatment during the course. Included were birds, mammals and fish in both cased and open display mounts. After an introductory lecture from Simon, we got straight down to practical projects and I chose a fairly raggedy one-legged chaffinch with a number of problems. The cosmetic concerns included minor pest damage, a number of loose and detached feathers and a damaged bill sheath. The structural concerns were two partially detached wings and the aforementioned missing leg.
Although a little daunting as a first project, I felt that this chaffinch was suffering from many of the same issues as the diorama specimens, requiring both structural and cosmetic treatments. Also, as a conservator, I love a good before and after transformation and was curious to see how much of an aesthetic improvement was possible.
Many of the specimens had been in storage for a long time and required a good surface clean. The fragile nature of the chaffinch meant that the specimen needed to be stabilised before any cleaning was undertaken to avoid further damage occurring. I first set about securing the loose and detached feathers, before they became lost or disassociated from their original position, with a tiny dab of neutral PH PVA* adhesive on the lower umbilicus or pointy end of the feather quill.
*Poly-vinyl alcohol adhesive, not to be confused with the white school glue we all know and love as PVA, poly vinyl acetate, which can yellow and cross-link over time.
The loose leg was secured with a stainless steel pin and spot glued with a little PVA while the wings were similarly adhered to the top edge of the armature wires, which were protruding from the body on either side.
Whilst the chaffinch was left to one side to dry, I began work on my second project, a very filthy hummingbird. I have tentatively identified this specimen as a Green violetear, either Colibri thalassinus or Colibri cyanotus, in which case the yellow glass eyes are pure fiction, but please correct me if this ID is equally fanciful! Aside from a small missing section of the upper bill sheath, this little hummingbird was structurally sound and only required a good surface clean with cotton swabs and IMS. There are a number of dry cleaning methods for plumage including Document Cleaning Powder (DCP) massaged into the feathers or dry brush and gentle vacuum. The tiny size of the hummingbird made the DCP method impractical but an 80% solution of IMS worked well and revived the iridescence of the plumage very effectively. Any solvent cleaning methods can reduce the natural oils and abrasive methods could be damaging to embrittled feathers so as always, a small test is wise.
With the hummingbird complete, it was back to the chaffinch. Having the opportunity to make a prosthetic leg for a chaffinch was too good to pass up so I took on the challenge of replicating the existing leg using the conservation grade materials on hand. Using galvanised wire, 10gsm Japanese gampi tissue and more neutral PH PVA, I set about modelling a replacement leg. The extremely fine but robust nature of the Gampi tissue meant that I could essentially papier-mâché skin and claws onto the wire armature. When dry, the Japanese tissue ‘skin’ could be further pared with a scalpel to create as accurate a profile as possible. The new leg was then coloured with acrylic paints and I adhered a couple of the detached downy feathers to the upper thigh to help blend the prosthetic leg into the plumage of the body. Once complete, I filed a point onto the end of the protruding leg wire and pushed it into the body of the chaffinch where it was spot glued with PVA.
Top tip: If the taxidermy form isn’t firm enough to securely hold additional pins or replacement armature wires, a 10% solution of Paraloid B72 can first be injected into the form to consolidate this localised area.
There were a few finishing touches needed before the chaffinch was complete and these included snipping off a small piece of wire, which was protruding from the beak and causing a cross-bill appearance. I also used more Japanese tissue and PVA to build up the broken lower bill sheath and in-painted the fill with gouache paints. Finally, a little primping and preening improved the raggedy appearance of the feathers and encouraged the dishevelled barbs and barbules to realign. Although I don’t think this chap will be winning beauty contests anytime soon, I was surprised and pleased by the level of transformation possible within a relatively short timescale.
The third project of the week was this gorgeous case of mice containing a common mouse, dormouse and a wood mouse mounted in a realistic diorama setting. The issues facing this case of specimens were largely cosmetic. The glass was held in place with wide strips of masking tape, the unsightly appearance of which had prevented it from being on display. The back panel of the case had also shrunk slightly and caused a long rip in the left-hand edge of the paper backdrop. The common mouse had a badly kinked tail, which was making contact with the glass, but the other mice appeared to be in good condition. I was keen to tackle some mammalian specimens and also address some of the problems inherent in cases of this type such as timber shrinkage, damaged or discoloured paper backdrops and scenery.
Top tip: When removing glass, first carefully run a finger around the edge of the rebate to feel for pins that may be holding the glass in place. They are small and easy to miss and will crack the glass if not removed!
After taking out the glass, with the aid of small suction cups, it was apparent that there were a few areas of minor pest damage. The common mouse had a shed larvae case lodged behind one ear and the pest munching had led to some tufts of fur becoming dislodged. The dormouse also had a tuft of loose fur on the neck, possibly also as a result of pest infestation.
After first removing the larvae case, I gathered the loose fur into a little swatch and was able to re-adhere it with a tiny dab of PVA. Once dry, the fur swatch could be groomed and blended back into the rest of the neck fur.
Another problem that needed to be addressed was the kinked tail of the common mouse. Fine tissues such as ears and tails can become desiccated and embrittled over time and so attempting to re-shape them can result in serious damage. In order to rehydrate these tissues, we used a product called Bollman’s Ultra Soft which is a soap based relaxer for taxidermy skins. The Bollman’s was applied with a cotton bud to the ears and tails and left overnight to work its magic. The next day the ears were visibly less ‘crispy’ in appearance and the tail far more flexible. After swabbing off any excess Bollman’s, I carefully manipulated the tail into a more life-like position and worked out the major kinks by massaging and straightening them simultaneously. Although still a little bent in places, the tail looked better and was no longer jammed up against the front of the glass.
While the mice were ‘relaxing’ I could remedy the cosmetic problems in the diorama. Much of the gravel on the floor was no longer adhered and was swilling around the bottom of the case. Similarly, an area of sand in the middle of the habitat had thinned, exposing an odd stripe of bright green paint. These problems could be fixed easily with PVA to re-adhere the gravel and a few bits of loose grass. A little in-painting with gouache paints improved the green paint streak. I was a little more concerned about touching the backdrop as I didn’t want to damage the delicate paper further. The solution turned out to be simpler than I thought however, as a lightweight filler, of the sort used by painter / decorators, could be applied with a spatula to fill the crack without having to touch the paper itself. Once dry, this filler could be coloured to match with chalk pastels.
The finishing touches included ‘dressing’ the fur of the mice, for a more realistic look, by gently backcombing the fur with a soft brush and then lightly brushing back in the right direction. The glass could then be replaced and secured with brown gum tape, which was painted with matt black emulsion. The result was a generally smarter case that could potentially be displayed and stable specimens that had been treated before any major damage or fur loss had occurred.
This three-day course was fascinating and informative and the variety of specimens supplied meant that a range of treatments, in addition to those described here, were covered. Several bats required Japanese tissue repairs on fragile wings, a balding grey squirrel was re-furred and a couple of tiny birds had eye transplants, to name but a few! Many thanks to Simon and our hosts at Boston Castle and also my fellow conservators who were generous in sharing their work and experiences.