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Re-homing the Slow Loris

Another blog post from the Conservation Department today, as Conservator Charlotte lets us know how she went about re-homing one of the fluid-preserved specimens from the Natural History Collection.

Part of our work in Collections Conservation and Care is to preserve the museums fluid specimen collection. 

This slow loris needed a better home; its original jar was much too small for it. Our curator Paolo wanted the loris in a larger jar with its arms spread further out so that we could get a better view of its face.

The specimen had to be rehydrated in a solution of detergent and water - at a warm temperature - to allow me to manipulate its arms. The loris’s limbs were gently massaged while resting in this warmed solution and gradually its arms opened up.

The loris was then placed in a vacuum pump to remove air bubbles...

As the specimen was a small dense mammal I decided to re-fix it in formalin. Formalin is a chemical that reacts with the proteins in the body, 'cross-linking' them, which stops the specimens from decomposing.

I gently tied the loris to a glass backing plate so that it could be presented better in the jar and gradually 'stepped' the specimen up in alcohol. Fluid specimens are kept in a preserving solution of 80% alcohol in water but they have to be stepped up to this percentage. If the specimen goes from a weak solution of alcohol to a strong solution of alcohol its cells can swell and this damages the tissue.

We felt that the jar for the slow loris was too heavy to be transported with the specimen and the fluid inside, so we decided to complete the treatment at our museum store. Our loris was wrapped in polyfelt soaked in the high alcohol solution. For transportation a container was created using two photographers development trays sealed together with cling film. This container was then placed in a crate for added protection. The loris’s new glass jar was transported separately.

At the store we finally repositioned the slow loris in his new jar and topped it up with 80% IMS in water.

Our slow loris is now housed in a large ground glass jar in fresh alcohol. It has more space, fresh alcohol and it is much more visible – all in all, a much happier specimen!

Read more about the work of our Conservation team in our Conservation Case Studies.

Keeping Food in our Collections

Many of the objects in our Anthropology Collections are actually made of food. You might have already seen some of the cheese or bread figures shared on Tumblr.

Conservator Bronwen has been working with the food in our stores for the Collections People Stories project, and stopped by to answer some of the pressing questions we've been getting about these unusual objects.

Why does it survive?

The food used in objects in our collections is different to the food you eat. It’s mostly dried out when it’s made. This prevents micro-organisms from eating it, and causing it to rot. This means that objects, such as the cheese horse, survive much longer than you would expect.

Could you still eat it?

Possibly, but you wouldn’t want to. Although they’re made of food, they were not supposed to be eaten and were mostly for decoration. Objects like the bread chicken are so dry they would be difficult to eat. They would also taste horrible, although they may not make you ill.

Why doesn’t it go mouldy?

We control the temperature and humidity (the amount of water in the air) in our collection stores and exhibition galleries. We can prevent mould growth by stopping the environment from being too damp. Because most of our food objects are dried out, they’re less likely to go mouldy than the food we eat. We keep food objects that were meant to be eaten, such as chocolate skulls, in a fridge with silica gel (which removes water from the air) to prevent mould growth.

How come we have food in collections when you are not allowed to eat in the museum?

This is because eating in the museum encourages insects that eat our collections, whereas, objects made of food don’t. There are several reasons for this:

  • Insects can survive once they get into the museum if there are crumbs or drink spills around for them to eat.
  • Insects are not able to get to the food in our collections because of the way we control what comes into areas where museum objects are.
  • The food we eat is very tasty to insects but usually, the food in our collections isn’t.

How do we preserve food in our collections?

We use preventive conservation to ensure our objects last as long as possible. We monitor and control the environment (light, temperature and humidity) and only use stable materials in storage and displays. We also carry out research and testing on materials. In 2010 we acquired votive offerings made of rice paste from Bali; sacrificial pieces were also acquired and tested to find the best way to conserve them.

  • Sacrificial pieces of rice paste being tested, close up of some colourful pieces of rice paste in a box
    , close up of some colourful pieces of rice paste in a box

How long will they last?

It’s difficult to predict how long objects will last. Ideally, we want our objects to survive indefinitely, for future generations to enjoy and learn from. To do this, we’re always trying to learn more about our objects, and we use this knowledge to decide how best to conserve them.

Taxidermy Treatments

Some of our taxidermy specimens have been getting some special treatment ahead of our upcoming Amazon Adventure exhibition.

Charlotte, our conservator, has been working with our Scarlet Macaw and Toucan specimens, to get them looking their best.

  • Scarlet Macaw Conservation, Read our Conservation Case Studies to find out why (and how) we've been giving our Macaw a wash and blowdry, Photo by Charlotte Ridley
    Read our Conservation Case Studies to find out why (and how) we've been giving our Macaw a wash and blowdry, Photo by Charlotte Ridley

Even when objects have already been on display in the main galleries, moving them gives our Conservation team the perfect chance to check them over. Our Macaw and Toucan needed a bit of a spring clean and a few repairs before they were ready for their next public appearance.

  • Scarlet Macaw Conservation, Our Macaw gets a blowdry in preparation for its appearance in Amazon Adventure.
    Our Macaw gets a blowdry in preparation for its appearance in Amazon Adventure.

These two beautiful birds are now preened, prepared and ready for their reappearance in our latest temporary exhibition.

  • Amazon Toucan after conservation, Our Toucan is repaired and ready for display.
    Our Toucan is repaired and ready for display.

Charlotte's also written some Conservation Case Studies, so you can find out more about how the Scarlet Macaw and Toucan were treated (and when it's appropriate to give a Macaw a blowdry).

Training Week at our Study Collections Centre

Before embarking on Phase 2 of the Collections People Stories project, over 20 Horniman staff members took part in a week long training programme at our Study Collections Centre.

For some participants this week presented a whole new set of skills and for others it was a helpful refresher.

Each morning we began with a dose of data management, with training on our collections database, called MIMSY.

It may seem easy to describe an object, but each object has so many elements to it, all which need to be documented thoroughly:. where it is from; what it is made of; who collected it; whether or not it has been conserved or indeed if it could be hazardous to your health!

The training week was also packed full of hands on training, skills that will be applied by our teams throughout the Collections Review.

We were shown how to pack the ideal box - who would have known that there are 4 legitimate ways to scrunch up that perfect paper wodge?

We also learned how to pack flat art for transport and storage and how to make our own Corex boxes for oversized objects.

Our Conservation staff held a session on textiles outlining the special care that needs to be taken when packing and storing costumes.

At other times during the week, we learnt how to accurately mark and measure objects. Physically marking stored collections is essential so objects can be tracked if they were to lose their attached labels. Accurate measurements are of course a must when planning for museum displays.

Although all Horniman staff pride themselves in always being on high alert for insects in the cases and cabinets around the museum, conservation staff gave us a Pest Control Refresher to keep us one step ahead of the critters.

One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that we will be taking photographs of every reviewed object. Our museum photographer did a sterling job in setting up the cameras and tents so that we can take excellent photographs. We learned simple tricks to improve the light, focus and texture when taking pictures of museum objects.

On the last of day of training our packing skills were put to the ultimate test in the all-important Egg Tossing Challenge. Eggs packed in a variety of materials found themselves being hurled with force through the stairwells. If the egg didn’t break, it was packed well!

I am happy to announce that only 2 out of 15 eggs did not survive the journey! 

Pest Day

Nobody wants pests in their homes, but museums more than anywhere have reason to keep insects and rodents at bay.

Last week, a dozen Horniman staff took part in a Pest Awareness Day, led by our Conservation Department and pest control expert David Pinniger.
We spent the day learning about insects, learning how to identify which insect is which. There are more than 20,000 species of insect in Britain - although only about a dozen species can pose a threat to museum collections.
  • Pest Identification Day, Examining insect specimen under microscope
    Examining insect specimen under microscope
  • Pest Identification Day, Insect specimen
    Insect specimen
We also saw the damage that pests can cause, and learnt how to identify and deal with them when they do occur. Most of all, pests love food! So this is why we can't allow eating and drinking in our galleries.
  • Pest Identification Day, Damage caused by pests
    Damage caused by pests
  • Pest Identification Day, Frass - the scientific name for insect waste - in a case
    Frass - the scientific name for insect waste - in a case
The day culminated in a quiz and scavenger hunt, so we could put what we learnt into practice.
  • Pest Identification Day, Quiz to test what we've learned
    Quiz to test what we've learned
  • Pest Identification Day, Scavenger hunt to put into practice what we learned
    Scavenger hunt to put into practice what we learned
  • Pest Identification Day, Scavenger hunt to put into practice what we learned
    Scavenger hunt to put into practice what we learned

Getting under the skin of the mysterious Merman

If you have visited the Centenary Gallery over the past few months, you may have noticed that our Merman took up residence in a special display.

Our Collections Conservation & Care team are regularly asked what the Merman is made from, but answering that question is difficult without taking the specimen apart to investigate. We recently had the chance to find out what the Merman was actually made of - closely examining it using photography, microscopy, magnifying equipment, X-radiography and CT scans.
The Merman, which is now back in its usual display, looks like it has the head of a monkey and the body of a fish. But is that the case? 
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