In the December meeting, we were also shown around the Conservation Department by Irit Narkiss. Conservation of museum specimens is, as Irit told us, essentially trying to manage the effects of entropy. As over time, things will always become more disordered over time, conservation tries to prevent this as far as possible. However, you cannot fight against entropy, so conservators don’t try to make objects look like they have just been newly made. Instead they try to work with entropy to keep the object in a good condition, but also to make sure it still looks as old or as used as it is, as often the ways in which an object is worn or damaged is relevant to knowing about how the object was used.
By being in a public space, objects on display in a museum often get damaged and dirty.
Bone can become dirty easily, as if there is still a fatty residue in the bones then dirt can attach to the surface, and must be removed. We were shown a whale skull that had been brought off the displays to be cleaned, as you can see the bone is completely brown in parts!
Therefore, this dirt needs to be removed. And what a better way of doing this than using a laser gun to laser off the dirt!
Another problem with objects on public display is insects. Clothes moths, which can arrive through an open window or door, can lay their eggs in the fur of taxidermied specimens, and the larvae can eat the base of each hair, causing the hair to fall out. The brown bear that arrived as part of the Siberia exhibition, and was last on display in the reception area, was colonised by clothes moths larvae, the adults of which would have flown in through the main entrance. To kill off these insects, smaller taxidermied specimens can be put in the freezer. But the bear is too big for a freezer, therefore it has to be put in a vaccum sealed bag to starve the larvae of oxygen and kill them this way. Luckily, the brown bear does not have any visible bald patches, so once the larvae are killed it will be able to go back on display!
Irit also kindly gave us an opportunity to brush up our Object Handling skills with some of the archaeological specimens. We were given specimens to examine and figure our what they were based on what we could see, like visitors would be encouraged to do. We were also reminded about how to handle to objects safely, without damaging the objects by crumbling the stone or metal being eroded by the acid in the sweat on visitors’ hands. It is often hard to remember that sort of damage that repeated handling can have on objects, and being aware of this is key to keeping the objects in the best condition to continue being handled.