A whale of a time

Well the big Saturday on the 9th of Feb was very busy and many of those who visited enjoyed the conservation cleaning activity. The comments were very positive and many of you enjoyed learning about the damage that can be caused by household cleaning products and how as conservators we carefully choose the cleaning products that we use to effectively remove dirt but without damaging the objects. See http://events.manchester.ac.uk/event/event:mp-haaxth71-msxqzl/big-saturday-discover-archaeology for info on future Big Saturday’s and other events.

Back in the lab we are continuing to prepare for the Nature’s Library and the existing display cases are having a complete overhaul. As the whale skeleton is the only object left on display in the gallery and we are unable to move it for protection we have covered it over to protect it from all the dust which will be generated whilst the display cases are being renovated.

Whale skeleton with tyvek dust cover

Whale skeleton with tyvek dust cover

Big Saturday

We are looking forward to this coming Saturday (Feb 9th) because we will be participating in the museum’s Big Saturday with an activity about the difference between conservation cleaning and home cleaning. Preparation has led to a few unusual activities, like burying crockery in the museum’s allotment.

Broken plates being buried in the museum's allotment

To find out why we were burying plates you will have to come and see us Saturday!

We have hit the ground running at the conservation lab in the new year with a steady stream of objects coming out of the stores in preparation for their display on the new Nature’s Library Galleries due to open in April.

Many of the objects have been hidden in the stores for many years and are finally getting their chance to shine, some of them quite literally once we remove the years of dust! 

My project for the week has been giving some much-needed TLC to a selection of the botany department’s Brendel models. These models were made during the 1800’s by the famous father and son team and were designed as teaching models for students. Often the magnified plants have removable parts revealing the detailed modelling of the plant’s internal structure and were purposefully meant to be handled and used by the students themselves. The models were often made from a variety of materials including papier-mache, wood, metals, glass beads and even gelatine.

Two models of the meadow saffron on a black base. The left model is the flower in bloom with lilac petals and the right is a cross-section of the seed pod.

The enlarged model of the meadow saffron.

The enlarged model of a pansy in yellow and blue

Pansy (Viola Tricolor) front view

The cross section through a pansy in bloom showing the internal modelling of the flower

Pansy (Viola Tricolor) side view

The years of use and handling have taken their toll on these beautiful objects, all needed a fair amount of cleaning but a few also needed repairs.  Come and see the results when the Nature’s Library gallery opens in April.

*From:  Lewis Carroll’s: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The last week or so I have been working on a dwarf crocodile that will be included in the new Nature’s Library gallery. 

Dwarf crocodile specimen before treatment

Dwarf crocodile specimen before treatment

Although there were a variety of problems the main treatment emphasis was on damage to the specimen’s tail. This included treatment to re-secure a section which had broken off.

Dwarf crocodile tail which has become broken

The section of the tail which had become detached

 First, stainless steel wire supports were inserted in the broken section and the main crocodile body. These helped attach the tail section to its original place.

 Secondly, the interior was padded out with wood fibre because the specimen had lost some of its original straw stuffing. This added structural stability to the damaged section.

Dwarf crocodile tail segment after reattaching and padding

Tail after stuffing

Lastly, long fibre Japanese paper was adhered to the exterior surface and painted to match. Long fibre papers are very useful because of their strength and flexibility. The paper both added support and helped the repaired section to blend in with the tail.

Repaired section of dwarf crocodile tail after being covered in Japanese paper and painted.

                      Tail after treatment.                                Can you tell where the break was?

How do you clean a whale skeleton? How can lasers help clean stone sculpture? How do you clean mummy wrappings? All these questions were answered for the TV filming crew from ‘Dirty Britain’ who are currently filming for the new series of the show.

Sperm whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling of the living worlds gallery.

The sperm whale skeleton

The crew, consisting of a camera-man and interviewer, turned up for the day to see behind the scenes of the conservation department and filmed both the Senior conservator/Collections care manager Sam Sportun and Conservator Jenny Discombe carrying out some of our more exciting activities in the lab. Of course the important day-to-day activities were also filmed with us interns demonstrating basic cleaning techniques for the background and filler shots.

As for the answers to the questions at the beginning of the post, you will have to wait to watch the programme when it airs in the spring (exact date still to be confirmed).

The Birds and the Beetles

Conservation work on Manchester Museum’s next gallery redevelopment, called Nature’s Library, is already well underway here at the lab. One of the first stages of these preparations has been the removal of the objects that were on display in the gallery. These were almost all taxidermy bird specimens.

Bird skeletons and other objects in the process of being removed from their galleryBird skeletons and other objects in the process of being removed from their galleryBird galleries in the process of having specimens removed

 Packing away the birds

Museum objects which are made of natural materials like feathers, leather, skin, or plant fibre are vulnerable to attack from a variety of insects that like to eat these substances. As a preventative measure our birds were treated to kill any possible pests before they were put into storage. There is a beetle, not native to England, called a Reesa Vespulae living in the building where the birds were kept. It arrived in the 80’s, probably in a crate holding a live animal for the museum’s vivarium, and has appeared at various times since then. The museum wanted to be sure there was no risk of spreading the beetle, which will eat plant or insect specimens if it has the chance, to other areas of the museum and so all the specimens were treated.

Dead Reesa Vespulae beetle viewed from the top  Dead Reesa Vespulae beetle viewed from the side

Top and side view of a Reesa Vespulae beetle

The Thermo Lignum® process was used to treat the birds. The process increases the temperature of an area containing objects over several hours to a level which will kill any insect present. At the same time the relative humidity of the space is kept constant which prevents physical damage to the treated specimens.

The Thermo Lignum van with boxes full of birds inside    Objects being loaded into the Thermo Lignum van

Packing the birds into the treatment chamber

Some of our birds are very large and moving them from the museum to the van was a bit tricky. We discovered that the answer to the proverbial question, “How many conservators does it take to transport a peacock” is four: one to carry the bird, one to make sure there is sufficient clearance around the width of its tail, another to check the same for its height, and a fourth to open doors.

 Conservator transporting a taxidermy peacock to a thermal chamber    Conservators placing a taxidermy peacock into the thermal chamber

The peacock being placed into the treatment chamber

After the excitement of the opening of the new Ancient Worlds galleries the conservation labs have been taking a well deserved break. As interns this has given us the opportunity to explore the stores and the museum in the search for objects which will provide a challenging but rewarding project.

For me the anthropology stores were calling and I emerged with a rather sorry looking Norwegian bridal crown, described in the catalogue as “an elaborate headdress; a bead-embroidered cloth on a wire frame with a variety of wire attachments and lengths of embroidered cloth and ornaments hanging from it.”

Bridal crown with beaded headband and lengths of silk laid out behind. The metal frame is detached and lies next to the headband.

Norwegian bridal crown

The bridal crown is a signifier of the in-between status of the bride, no-longer a maiden but not quite a wife. An expensive object glittering with silver or gold the crown would have been a family heirloom, worn by the females in every generation for their special day. I look forward to returning the object to its original form.

Of course the real work never stops and despite a quiet week work has already begun cleaning objects for Nature’s Library. 12 dog skulls down, 40 to go…

Cleaning a Statue

We had a satisfying project this week in the conservation lab. A large marble statue was quite dirty and needed to be cleaned before it could be put out on exhibit in the new Ancient Worlds galleries.

Reddish coloured marble statue as it appeared before steam cleaning An reddish coloured marble statue, as it appeared before steam cleaning

Close up of hyroglyphic writing on stone statue before steam cleaning

Pictures of the statue surface before it was steam cleaned

To clean this statue we used a steam cleaner. The steam cleaner used both water vapor and heated water to remove dirt and old discoloured coating material from the statue.

Intern using steam cleaner on the top of the statue

Gabby using the steam cleaner

Cleaning started at the top and then continually moved downward so that the dirt removed from the surface always washed away from areas that were already clean. On this statue the dirt lifted fairly easily which left a markedly cleaner surface, something that does not always happen in conservation cleaning but which makes for a satisfying finish.

Statue after steam cleaning Close up of cleaned hyroglyphic writing

The steam cleaned statue

Image of a stone statue showing a portion of the statue that has been steam cleaned and not steam cleaned

Here you can see the effect of the steam cleaning. The left side of the stone has not been cleaned and the right has. Look at the difference!

Having just arrived as interns in the conservation department the work on the new Ancient Worlds galleries had already progressed so far we had not expected there would be anything left for us to do except help with installation. But, to our delight two Roman ceramic objects, recently recovered from a dig in Manchester, landed on our desk all trussed up like Christmas presents.


The pots in bags as they arrived in the conservation  lab with each sherd wrapped up in bubble wrap

Pots on arrival

On e of these was a Samian ware bowl. The bowl needed to be reconstructed before it could go on display. However the edges had become very worn and almost completely smooth which meant there were large gaps between the sherds.

image of the large space between two ajoining sherd edges

Gap between sherds

When there are gaps this large there is insufficient support to create strong stable joins. In order to give the necessary strength to the reconstruction, adhesive material mixed with bulking agents was added to the gaps. The filling material was also coloured with pigments so that it would blend in with the ceramic material, creating visual cohesion.

Image of reconstructed Samian bowl including colourmatched gap fills

The finished bowl

The terracotta flagon presented different challenges as there were missing areas requiring in-fills of plaster to provide structural strength to the finished reconstruction. The largest of these fills had to be completed after the pot was fully put together, but as a closed pot there was no access to the back of the fill area. Support was provided from a balloon held in place whilst the reconstruction was finished.

Image showing the lower half of the pot stuffed with packing beans and a balloon against the missing area of pot to provide support for the plaster fill

Balloon used as backing for fill

Image showing the missing are of pot now filled with white plaster

Plaster infill with balloon still inside pot

Once the plaster fill was dry the balloon could be popped and removed though the top of the pot. The fills were then colour matched and the pot was finally complete.

image of terracotta flagon with gaps filled but still visible so that the individual sherds are noticable in the finished object

The finished flagon

We look forward to seeing the first objects of our internship in their new home and on display to the public.

For another perspective on this project and other information about the Ancient Worlds galleries see: http://ancientworldsmanchester.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/going-potty-for-ancient-worlds/

With difficulty – but it can be done, with planning, experienced staff and the help of a professional heavy lifting company.

We have been asked to look at the possibility of turning the whale skeleton in the Mammal’s gallery as part of the redevelopment of the new Living Planet gallery,  so that visitors might get the best view of it as they enter the new gallery space.

It is such an important exhibit in our mammal’s gallery, however the majority of visitors are greeted by the end of it’s tail and only see the splendour of its full length from above.

Suspended whale

Bird's eye view

It is orientated towards the original 1885 entrance however this door is no longer in use.

The first problem is that the skeleton is 3 floors up and has been there for some considerable time.  It has substantial fixings throughout its length and these are attached to the joists in the ceiling – these all add to the weight of the skeleton which is surprisingly heavy – so it is a long way up, very long and “quite” heavy and to add to the difficulty there are also some very fragile small sections of bone in the skull which would need extra protection throughout the process.

The whale is also too long to turn in the space on the floor in the gallery, so we would also have to partly dismantle it along the armature that runs through the length of the spine once it was down.

So with the help of experienced scaffolders the whole process of scaffolding, rigging, dismantling, re-attaching (with the same process in reverse as it goes back up) would take a week at least and for now we are going to have to leave it.

There will be little time over the next couple of months in a very busy building schedule for us to take over the entire space!

This might be something that has to happen in the second phase after the gallery is finished.