Taxidermy Conservation

on Tuesday, 02 July 2019. Posted in Conservation

Having reached the milestone of 10 years in my current place of work, I have been reflecting on the development of my career. I think my greatest fear as a conservator is stagnation: for my work to have lost its vibrancy and draw, for my relationship with my career to have become stale.

Thankfully, even after a decade I still find daily challenges and opportunities to develop and thrive within the sector. The importance of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is emphasised within the conservation arena; viewed as integral to the maintenance of professional standards by organisations such as ICON, the Institute of Conservation.

Being an accredited conservator (ACR), maintaining CPD is essential to retaining my accredited status. 

The CPD format encouraged by ICON allows conservators to reflect on where they have come from, focusing their aims for the future. Through a candid analysis of the strengths and weaknesses within both my team and my own armoury I was able to identify a need to improve specialist knowledge of the care of natural history specimens.

The generous award of a True Vue professional development grant allowed me to secure a place on an intensive 3 day course focusing on the care and conservation of vertebrate taxidermy specimens with Simon Moore, a subject specialist with 50 years experience.

Conservator at work

The 3 day course kindly hosted by Reading Museum allowed experience of a broad range of materials and techniques. From the art of opening historic glazed cases, without which you’d never access the specimens; to the cleaning of feathers, repair and replication of birds toes and the creation of hair plugs for a balding otter!

Otter before conservation work
Otter after conservation work

The course created a relaxed welcoming environment in which I felt able to voice my previous anxieties about tackling such materials from the risk of shattering historic glass to fears of using the wrong materials and my work ending in a terrible taxidermy publication!

The natural history collection at Reading Museum is extensive and allowed course attendees the irreplaceable opportunity to put theory into practice.

Bird before conservation work
Bird after conservation work

Cleaning of mould and pest affected specimens allowed me to dovetail my existing knowledge of mould treatments with an understanding of the effects of freezing, solvents and pesticides on sensitive materials such as feathers where disturbing the delicate balance of oils can lead to damage and eventually loss.

Mould on specimen before cleaning
Specimen after cleaning

Repairs and stabilisation treatments were applied sensitively, considering the least interventive approach first:

Reattach: could loose material such as feathers of split skin be secured in situ with localised application of adhesive and/ or additional support materials such as Japanese tissue swatches. See the fiddly securing of toes on bird specimens.

Replace : could loose material within the display be appropriately repurposed to disguise areas of loss? As in the case of the balding otter where loose insulation and guard hairs were collected, sorted to colour match, layered and reapplied in swatches.

Replicate: could sympathetic inpainting or replica materials be used to tone down/ disguise areas of loss or damage? The use of felting to replicate fur was a revelation!

Felting technique

Through the course I became more aware of the strong knowledge and skill base I already had, thrilled to learn many of the methods and materials were transferrable to this new medium. The course allowed me to refine my understanding of the material and learn from others experiences whilst sharing my own.

Beth Baker, Senior Conservator


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