Wet Recovery of Taxidermy
Sheena D. Simmons: Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for joining us for today’s webinar presented by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation and the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. This program is being recorded and will be available to reference later today. My name is Sheena Simmons, I’m a research associate at the NCPTT and I’m moderating today. Before we begin the presentation, I’d like to share a couple of technical notes. On your screen, you’ll see several boxes including one labeled chat on the left hand side. You can use the chat box to say hello, ask questions and share information. If you post a question in the chat box, you’ll receive a response from me. Any questions will be noted and I will verbally ask them to our presenters toward the end of the program. At the bottom of your screen is a box labeled web links, you can click on the title to highlight it in blue and then click the browse to button and it will take them directly to the site.
Now, I’m very pleased to introduce you to our presenters, Fran Ritchie and Julia Sybalsky. Fran Ritchie is an assistant conservator in anthropology objects conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. Prior to that, she worked in the museum’s natural science collections conservation lab as a project conservator for an IMLS grant funded project researching materials used to conserve historic taxidermy. Her work expands upon previous experiences preserving specimens across the United States from Alaska and Wyoming to Ohio and Illinois. She is a graduate of the Art Conservation Program at the State University College at Buffalo, holds a Master of arts in museum anthropology from Columbia University and a Bachelors of Arts in both art conservation in anthropology from the University of Delaware. She is a professional associate of FAIC.
Julia Sybalsky is a senior associate conservator of Natural Science Collections at the American Museum of Natural History where she began working in January 2000. Her present efforts support the ongoing care of museums scientific collections, habitat dioramas and other science materials on exhibit including risk assessment and new research of special importance to natural history materials. Julie received her undergraduate degrees in fine art and anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master of art in art history and conservation, the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University where she and Fran co-taught an advanced conservation graduate course in conservation strategies for natural science collections. Prior to working at the American Museum of Natural History, Julie interned at various museums including the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the New Bedford Whaling Museum. With that, I’d like to turn things over to Fran and Julia.
Fran Ritchie: All right, thank you so much. This is Fran, I will be presenting first and then I will hand over the mic to Julia. We have a lot to cover today, I think this is a pretty rich topic and we’re excited to be talking about it. We’ve divided the webinar into three different sections. The first one is going to be a general taxidermy background, and then preventive measures you can take to protect your collection from water damage. And then finally, what to do if disaster does strike and you need to recover your specimens. I want to give a general taxidermy background because you need to know how taxidermy is constructed in order to understand its weaknesses and the special considerations that they require. The thing that confuses people the most when I talk to them about taxidermy, about what I do is that they don’t understand what’s inside of it and how it’s made. It’s been surprising to me even my hunter friends who get their own animals mounted don’t even know what goes into creating a mount, I think it’s really important.
The different types of mounts that you usually encounter are shoulder and trophy mounts that you can see here. You see that lovely bison mounted on the wall at Sagamore Hill, Teddy Roosevelt’s historic home. And you can see in the photos on the left, the specimens sometimes they have a wooden panel display board behind them like on the moose and sometimes they don’t like the ram. And these are full body mounts and they are mounted to different bases. The one on the left is a plane display base that’s just nice and fancy and some collections. These are historic mounts that were made many years ago in the last century. And then other times you’ll see them attached to display bases that are supposed to replicate their habitat where they came from. And in the top one, that one, that branch looks like perhaps it was de-installed from a diorama or from an exhibit at some point. But the mallard on the bottom, that habitat base was created on its own just to have a habitat base for its display.
And then this black footed ferret is a full-body mount that was removed from a diorama so it has no display base at all. And you can see the internal wires that are protruding out of the legs in the blue circle. Those are used to attach it to the base, in this case is the diorama. But sometimes you can then use that to attach it to a display base or the habitat bases like we saw in the previous photo. And you’ll note in the top photo that when it was removed from the diorama, it was then inserted into foam supports, which are an easy way to create a temporary base when you’re having to work on these specimens. But how are they made? Taxidermy is defined as preserved skin that’s mounted or attached to an internal support that poses it in a lifelike position. The internal support is often referred to as the mannequin and there are many, many different ways that taxidermist and even kind of want to be taxidermist have attempted to construct these mannequins throughout the centuries. You never quite know what you’re going to encounter.
The first two techniques that you see on this very rudimentary timeline were not super successful. The wooden frame, you see the horse and then stuffing methods like the walrus. And the walrus is actually a really great story as you can tell the taxidermist who mounted that had never seen a walrus in life before. That specimen was brought back during an expedition so he didn’t know how much to stuff it and he just stuffed it until the skin completely stretched-out. It’s not indicative of what the species looks like in real life, but the Museum in the UK has not changed this mount because it kind of shows the history of it. But the stuffing method is when taxidermist would just kind of gather up anything that they had lying around and stuff out the skin until it was full. As you can see, it does not produce a very good result. The three most common techniques that we see in museums are these last three. And you also find these in private collections.
I’m going to focus on those today. And then I want to point out too that this timeline represents approximate dates that are different techniques that were used, but they continue to be used past the dates on the timeline. Some of these, you still might see today such as stuffing or the binding. The first one is probably the most common because it’s a very accessible way to make a mount, and many birds and small mammals are still constructed in this way. This is the binding and wrapping method. In this one, you create the muscles of the animal by binding or wrapping loose material over an internal frame that’s constructed of metal or wood or bone or a combination of all of those. And a very common material that you’ll find is called excelsior or wood wool or a variety of different names. And those are really fine slippers or fine shavings of wood. and you can see in the photos on the left, there’s a lot of loose material as well as a bound mannequin that represents the carcass of a bird.
And the photo right below that one indeed has the bird carcass sitting right below its mannequin that was formed using the binding method. But you can also construct larger animals out of this. And the image on the right is a little rat that I made during a rogue taxidermy class. And you can see that there’s a metal rod sticking out of my little wood wool bound popsicle, the rod helps create the frame that the loose material is bound over. Mounts that are constructed in this way can be very successful if you’re good at binding to create those muscles. But they can be very heavy and there are many components to the mount. They may respond differently to changes in the environment. And if you think about it, a big form that’s full of condensed wood wool, if that gets soaked, it will take a very long time to dry out and can cause problems. The next one is what commercial taxidermist today are most likely to use, and these are polyurethane foam mannequins that are prefabricated by taxidermy supply companies.
And what you do is you measure your animal carcass and then you go online and you buy a form that’s similar to the size of your animal. And then once you receive it, you can make adjustments to fit your actual skin by carving the foam or by adding your own binding materials. And this can be very nice because it creates lighter mannequins and they might not soak up as much water because of the density of the polyurethane foam. But the foam itself will deteriorate over time especially if it’s not mixed well when it’s made. And a good example of this, if any of you have some old headsets that had foam components or outdoor furniture that had foam padding. If you had these for many decades, you’ll know that they deteriorate over time and they yellow and they just kind of crumble away. That can happen inside your taxidermy mount as well. I found this photo, this is from the White Memorial Conservation Center, a natural history museum. It’s a really great image of the two different techniques that I just talked about.
The one on the left is the bound method, you can see the wood wool body. But then they used cotton around the legs and the neck. You can see the wire that’s protruding out for the tail so they had their little wood wool popsicle just like the rat that I pointed out. And what’s great about this one is that they used the original skull of the animal and so you can see that was built on there. And there is a modeling clay type substance that’s in the eye socket and then they inserted a plastic or a glass eye to form the mount. But then in the center, you can see the difference between the bound one and the polyurethane foam. That’s the foam, and so, they didn’t include the original skull in this one. You can do that, they could have cut off the foam head and used the actual skull but they chose not to. But they still have that clay material with the eyes embedded inside. And they also still have that metal wire that’s protruding out that they would have added themselves drilling into it.
And then finally on the right, you see the squirrel as finished. And you can just barely make out in this photo, you can see little dots that are pins that are around the eyes and around the little paws. And that’s to hold the skin in place while it’s drying. And finally, what we have many times in museums is the hollow cast technique. This is what master taxidermist might still use today because it creates very realistic mounts. But it’s very time-consuming, which is why a lot of people will go with the polyurethane foam mounts. This technique was created during the heyday of natural history museums when lots of dioramas were being built and collecting taxidermy was more popular and more accessible. And it was a really great rise, it created more sculptural taxidermy mounts. The first thing you do then is you sculpt the animal form using the original bones and measurements of the animal. And then in photo number two, you make a mold of that sculpture. And then in number three, you cast that mold by building it up in a paper mache technique.
And the paper mache could be literally paper and different adhesives, but it could also be layers of things like burlap and plaster or plaster like substances. Sometimes you’re not exactly sure what was used. And the results are really great, not only is it sculptural like I said, but it also creates a really lightweight mannequin, which is especially good for really large mounds like elephants and giraffes or seals because the weight of the mannequin then won’t cause damage to the thin skin of the animal. But, of course, depending on what materials that were used to create that mache, it might be penetrable by water. If you use that paper versus that plaster like mixture, the paper will absorb water in a water event. And I’d like everyone to take note to the last photo, number six where they’re draping the skin to the mount over the form, to mount it over the form. This photo really illustrates why I’ve been referring to all of these as taxidermy mounts and not as stuffed animals.
If you call it a stuffed animal, then it really truly refers to the technique that we saw earlier on that walrus, which is not accurate to this art form. I get very offended when people call them stuffed animals when they’re actually these beautiful works of arts. And here’s a slide of some extras. I just mentioned the main categories, but people have used and continue to use a variety of materials. I’ve come across a leatherback turtle that had fiberglass as the stuffing on the inside as the bound material, you really never know. The boar that’s in the topper left corner that has a plaster like head but then a body covered in burlap, I didn’t really investigate it too much. But that was in a vintage antique store in Austin and was being sold for $200, which is really crazy. The giraffe right below it, you might be able to notice has a solid plaster mannequin, which makes it very heavy and very unwieldy. And that can cause damage just because it’s so heavy. And we’ve also come across solid wax forms that are also heavy.
I wanted to include the middle image, that back of a trophy mount because I often get asked what it looks like when you take a trophy mount off the wall. And you can see that whatever the internal support is inside of this one, it’s all attached to that wooden board. And then the preserved skin is then nailed across that board. And this board doesn’t extend out beyond the animal like that moose panel that I showed you earlier. And then the photo on the right of that primate, you can see pretty well the different finishing materials that are added by the taxidermist to create a more lifelike animal. In this particular one, there’s wax, there’s paint, the glass and plastic eyes kind of count in this. There could be real or fake teeth, this one was real. And then I’ve also come across things like rubber that was used to replace some of the skin in the feet of an orangutan. You really never know and you have to kind of look at them carefully to see what you have.
All right. Not only do the techniques vary, but also the way that people have prepared the skin to mount it over the mannequin. The reason why you want to have a skin preparation, why you want to preserve the skin is that you want to prevent it from rotting. You want to dry it out to prevent feather or hair loss and you want to help prevent against pest damage. To do this, you need to scrape the flesh side of the skin to remove all the soft tissues like fat or muscle or ligaments. And then you want to wash it out or maybe pickle it using chemicals to degrease it. And then you apply it once it’s ready, you apply a preservative or a tanning agent. I’ll talk about those in a second or right now. These range from simple preservatives that are basically things just to dry out the skin a little bit more. Chemical pickling, like I mentioned or using an arsenic soap or today it’s very common for small animals especially birds that you would just use borax and spread that on the inside of the skin.
And then it ranges to using semi tanning agents like alum thawing that help preserve the skin but they don’t have that long-term stability that comes from cross-linking in a full tan. The full tan that we’ve encountered has been vegetable tanning or chrome tan. And then there are just a variety of any other commercially available tanning agent that are available to taxidermists or for places that will tan it for you. And I have a big star by it because I just want to point out once you think about it, of course, in a water damage event or a water event, the amount of damage that you’ll have on an specimen probably will also depend on not only how it was mounted but how that skin was prepared. If it wasn’t a true tan, if it was just a pickle or you just used borax, it might really soak up all that water and reverse. And Julia will hit on that more.
Hopefully, all of you have heard about the hazards of arsenic and arsenical soap. Not only was this used as a skin preservative for the animals, but it also had the added bonus of deterring pests. The arsenic soap preparation was a guarded secret, all those recipes, but that was prior to 1803. At that time, then someone did finally publish it. And the soap was mixed in a variety of different ways, I’ve come across old recipe books that list about seven different ways that you can apply it or that you can mix it up. But it was always applied to the inside of the skins before mounting it. Arsenic is a heavy metal, so sometimes you might see it coming out of the seams or around the eyes or the mouth as white or gray particulates. But then again sometimes borax is also a white particulate. You kind of need to know the history of your taxidermy to know whether or not it’s arsenic or borax or you can use testing methods to find out. It’s poisonous to pests, but it’s also poisonous to humans. It can be a skin irritant, it’s carcinogenic.
It’s really not good for you. And people used to use it in the textile wallpaper and artificial flower industry in dye or pigment form. And they knew even at the time back in the day, you can see in this illustration that it was harmful for humans. But I guess that was before OSHA, and sometimes they just didn’t care. And, in fact, I even came across some advertisements for women and men to ingest it for youth and beauty. And I’m sorry, I’m not sure if the slides are all jumbled up on what you guys are seeing as well. Our screen is a wider screen than maybe what you’re seeing. If the words are jumbled, sorry about that. Then because of this arsenic, you want to protect yourself from the taxidermy. Oftentimes when you talk to collections managers and conservators, we always say, oh, you want to protect the object from you and the oils in your hands or if your hands are sweaty or whatever. And that’s certainly true, but in this case, you also need to protect yourself from the object.
When you’re handling taxidermy especially a historic collection because arsenic did eventually fall out of favor of being used because the health risks, but you never know. You want to assume that pesticides are present. And it’s not just arsenic I should say, there’s a long history of use of several different types of residual pesticides that could still be on your mounts even if they’re vapor based. The personal protective equipment that you would want to use, your PPE, always nitrile gloves, a lab coat or an apron so that you can take that off and wash it and you won’t be taking home arsenic particulate on yourself. You want to wear a respirator or a dusk mask. And since these are heavy metals, sometimes you know it’s okay just to wear a dusk mask because they’re not going to be necessarily floating up in the air. You don’t want to put your face in the fur, but the dust mask will help protect you. But if you were in an enclosed room or you’re handling lots of specimens, then, of course, it is better be safe than sorry and go ahead and wear a respirator.
You’ll also want to wear a respirator during a water event because you never really know what you’re going to be encountering. A Tyvek suit can also be really handy, you can throw that away if it does get contaminated so you don’t have to worry about washing it. And it can protect you everywhere. You want to label specimens that do test positive for pesticides or if you have suspicions that they have pesticides on them, go ahead and label them so people know. And you want to label the storage spaces as well, and this will help with future staff and visitors who are working in that area so that they know to be careful and to always wash their hands afterwards even if you’re wearing gloves. When you’re working with the pieces, besides wearing your PPE, you want to limit your working time in the spaces. If you’re treating them, then you want to treat them in a well-ventilated space or under a fume hood. You always want to use a HEPA vacuum because it doesn’t emit exhaust like other non HEPA vacuums so that everything is contained.
And you might want to use designated tools that you store and enclosed containers to prevent cross-contamination. When you display them, you want to keep this in mind as well. You don’t want to use the pesticide containing objects for your hands-on programming to help protect the public. And you want to store or display them out of public reach or ideally put them in enclosed cases. That’s how you protect yourself. Now, how do you protect the taxidermy? In general preparedness, we’re going to talk about how to handle taxidermy under normal circumstances but then we will also be touching on how to handle it when there has been a water event. For handling, it’s really important to examine the specimen before you move it. You want to identify any protruding components that might catch on things or be cumbersome if you’re moving it, especially long tails or really sharp claws or really big ears. Look for weak fragile or broken areas, areas where there’s already damage like if you see a really big split in a hide. And then locations where it should be supported.
If there’s already a display base, then you want to use that as long as the attachment to the display base is stable. Otherwise, as you see in this image, there aren’t display bases on these taxidermy pieces so she’s handling it by the torso, she’s not using the tail to hold it, she’s not some picking it up by the legs. And then before you move the specimen anywhere, you want to check for items on yourself that might knock the specimen such as a long necklace or large belt buckles. Back in the day, I used to tell people to watch out for walkie-talkies. If you’re still using those, watch out for that. You want to wear your PPE during handling as well such as this nitrile gloves. And you want to know your route so that you know that there are no obstructions or hazards because you could be walking down the hall and then whoops, actually someone has a chair there that you’ll need to move but you don’t have an extra set of hands. Make sure you know your route.
And also make sure you have a pre cleared space where you want to set down the specimen once you bring it to your location. And you might need to have materials around that are ready to support the specimen if it doesn’t have a display base or a handy way to set it down like in this photo. You’ll want to have things like foam pieces or weights or blankets to help pad it out. We’re going to have a video of some handling. Let’s see how this works. Here you see a cart full of mostly birds but there’s a small mammal on the tray as well. I’m going to speed this up just a little bit, it’s going to look a little stop animation like. But here, the small mammal was transported in a small tray. It doesn’t have a display base but it does rest pretty nicely on one side. That is mashing down the hairs a little bit, it would probably be better if we put something softer around it.
These birds on the branch, everything is pretty stable. That was taken off display and so they inserted the branch on a piece of foam. This is a custom tray that was built for this nest with a bird that helps you move it by the tray only. These are some bean bags or bags full of shot or sands that we can use. This bird is supported by individual pieces of foam since it doesn’t have a good resting point on it. And then finally, this one also does not have a super great resting point. By using that large beanbag, we’re able to make a little nestled crate for it or nestled spot for it and it can rest just on the wood alone and not mess up the feathers. And then we go back to the presentation, perfect.
All right. And then how to store it, You want to store your taxidermy ideally in enclosed cabinets. I know that’s not really possible for those of you from small places where you have everything on display or if you’re a private collector. But if you don’t have it on display, you want to store it enclosed somewhere to help protect it from water. You want to store it in its original position as in resting on the side that it’s supposed to rest on or supposed to be displayed on, which can be a little bit difficult if it’s really large. Use additional supports as we said. And then if they’re very large and they can’t be in a container, in an enclosed space, you could store it covered in plastic for extra protection. But you want to be aware that this could eventually crush any delicate areas like ears or hairs over the long term. Make sure that you see that.
And then shoulder mounts, those are good to store on a wall covered with protective sheeting as well. And then this is a picture from just enclosed storage cabinet as it was opened. And you can see that trophy mount even though ideally it’s better to have it on the wall. In this instance, we weren’t able to do that so we rested it on the easiest point for it to be rested on, which is the horns, the really heavy horns. And then the top of that display, the wooden display on the back. The full body mount, the deer in the middle that was taken from a diorama and so it just has metal wires protruding and they were stuck into foam pieces and then weighted with some weights to make sure that it didn’t topple over. And then the full body mount on the far right, that did have a habitat base and so that could just kind of be on the shelf as it is.
Ideally though, we would add an additional protective tray so that it wouldn’t knock into other things and cause damage on the habitat base. And how to display it, you want to avoid potentially wet areas. This is especially if you’re a homeowner and you want to display your taxidermy, you want to really think about where you want to put it in your house. You don’t want to have it on the basement floor in case there’s flooding. You don’t want to have it under a pipe that has water running through it or directly under a sprinkler. If you display it on an outside wall, sometimes that can form condensation depending on where you live. You don’t want to display it near windows or on window sills just in case you have those windows open and accidentally forget to close them when it’s raining outside. And you also don’t want to store them in or display them in the kitchen or the bathroom because of steam and other condensation that forms from those areas.
And something that I learned from one of my conservation mentors that I really like to tell people is don’t forget about grandma. Chances are if you’re storing or displaying your taxidermy and other family heirlooms or valuables in a place where you wouldn’t let your grandmother take a nap, then you need to move it. You wouldn’t put your grandmother under a pipe that’s known to leak or in a damp basement or a hot attic or whatever. You want to treat your special stuff in the same way that you would treat someone special in your family. It’s impossible to talk about wet recovery without talking a little bit about disaster planning and response in general. A basic aspect of disaster preparedness is that you should have a written response plan. I’m not going to go into detail, but there are plenty of resources available that can support you in drafting a plan that is appropriate to the scale and needs of your collection. That plan should involve the designation of someone who will lead a response effort and individuals who can support them in damage assessment and salvage efforts.
All these individuals need to understand their roles and be ready to respond. Also as a part of your plan, you should have identified materials that you are likely to need in the event of a disaster and have them gathered in a safe place or have identified a ready source where they can be acquired at short notice. Alongside your plan, you need to have collection inventory records. To respond effectively, you need to know what you have and where it is. And now, here’s Julia. A little mic transfer.
Julia Sybalsky: All right, this is Julia. I’m going to pick it up from here for a little bit and we’re going to talk about what happens when disaster strikes. You’ve done everything that Fran has suggested as far as preventive measures. But nevertheless, you come into work and as you walk through your collection storage area, you see that water is gushing down the wall and it’s four inches deep and rising fast. Now, what? Well, human safety is obviously always going to be our first priority. Depending on your situation, you may call 911 or you may contact your internal security or facility staff or someone else. But usually, those initial efforts are going to focus on stabilizing the environment, getting people to safety, shutting off any possible source of water if there is one that you can shut off, blocking the spread of water maybe using containers or plastic sheeting, sandbags or whatever else might be at hand.
Perhaps removing standing water and then inspecting the area for other hazards. And it’s after all of that that’s taken place that recovery activities can really take over. In the meantime, while all that’s going on, you can be planning and preparing. As Fran mentioned, assessment and salvage are really best driven by a recovery team that’s led by a designated leader. In the event of a water disaster, that leader should immediately alert the response team to the disaster and ask them to stand by for instructions. And then when it’s safe to access the affected area, that leader should probably walk through the area to get a sense of the extent of the damage. And that’s really your first opportunity to assess the space and the facility, think a little bit about what materials are going to be needed and sort out how you should allocate the support that you have or whether maybe you need to think about recruiting others.
And then when it’s appropriate to do so, leaders can pull together their team and together they can review health and safety considerations, your plan for assessing damage, assign roles, talk about a plan for salvage and then begin gathering up materials. Your damage assessment should really be a survey that allows you to efficiently identify your affected locations and taxidermy specimens. In our experience here, we’ve learned that if a large collection is affected a flagging system can be a really efficient way to move through a space and identify cabinets, shelves or mounts that have been checked and then mark those that have been affected by water for triage. We’ve used colored post-it notes to do that so that every location is examined and then marked with either a red or a green or maybe you have a third category. Note to indicate whether or not follow-up is needed or what kind of follow-up that might be.
An assessment sheet or a log can also be a good tool for recording this kind of information. And we recommend taking photographs as well. The process can take a little bit of time, but it’s really important to keep accurate records of the condition and the location of all your collection materials because it’ll allow you to be more strategic in planning your salvage and it also has legal and Insurance uses. When you begin your assessment, keep an eye on evidence from your environment. Obviously, if there’s water on, around or under a shelf or a storage cabinet, there’s a greater likelihood that the taxidermy specimens inside are going to be wet. Looking on, under, and inside of furniture for pooled water and splashes is obviously a good idea, but also looking for condensation, looking at absorbent materials like housing materials, boxes and trays, drop ceiling panels, carpets and wallboard where watermarks and stains may be visible. Notice any odd odors or even the appearance of mold blooms which can show up as black, white or gray.
This is an example of a case where water may be very obvious like this on the outside of a storage cabinet or in this display case that happened to be sealed but water still found its way inside. But here’s an example where there’s condensation on the underside of a drawer inside of a storage cabinet. Soaked materials like this may be really obvious such as the spalling wall and the carpet. This was a plumbing leak. But sometimes they’re less obvious, I think the housing materials on the right are soaked but maybe not calling out as loudly. In inspecting your taxidermy, you’re obviously looking for liquid water that may be visible or around a specimen, also check for dampness. And when you’re wearing gloves, it can be a little tricky to check for dampness so you can use a dry paper towel or a kimwipe that’s just gently pressed onto the fur to give you a visual indication of whether you have damp fur or feathers.
And again, odd odors can be a really important cue. And then when you encounter taxidermy that has been affected by water, we want to observe whether there’s any damage evident. Broadly speaking, there are generally four categories of damage that you’re likely to encounter. The first is a biological attack, mold is the most important example. Almost all of the materials that are used in the construction of taxidermy are susceptible to mold. In those, you’d be looking for a musty smell or evidence of mold blooms. Mold can begin to grow in as little as 24 to 48 hours. And then chemical attack is another category. Adhesives and other mannequin materials that are used in the construction of taxidermy may be water soluble themselves or they may be water sensitive. You may see hides beginning to detach, softening of mannequin or finishing materials like the materials used around the eyes and inside of ears.
And then collagen in the skin can degrade and turn into gelatin if it has prolonged immersion into water. You’d be looking for shrinkage, sometimes dramatic deformation and changes in texture, strength and flexibility. You may also see changes in color and darkening in the skin. I’ll show you an example of that. This is an example where the skin has really been badly gelatinized and misshapen after getting soaked with liquid water. You can see it’s dark in color and it’s pulled away from the mannequin. It’s also become really rigid and inflexible. And then structural failure, what skin is much weaker. You’ll see damage, it seems where seams have broken open or torn around the stitching. You may see new tears that form at the border between wet and dry areas in a skin or enlargement of existing splits and tears. You’ll see weakening in saturated mannequin materials, which may kind of present themselves as a physical instability or even a more dramatic collapse of a mount.
And then labels can also detach. In all collections but in research collections especially, it’s critically important to keep objects together with their labels. I think I also want to point out how mannequins that derive strength from absorbent materials that have been layered with adhesives and bound mannequins are really particularly vulnerable. And the last category here is distortion of fur and feathers or physical changes such as distortion of fur and feathers where you’ll see really damp matted fur, clumped and disengaged feathers. And you may see movement of dirt and colorant, that would manifest as tide lines, staining. You may see migration of paints or dyes that have been used. Here’s an example of an elephant foot where the seam has actually split open exacerbated by exposure to water. We have a couple of mammals here where the fur is clumped and matted. You can see some streaks, hopefully, you can see them on the kangaroo mount on the right and the kind of matted fur on the moose’s ear on the left.
Staining on a tusk. This tusk was in a flood and since this was an HVAC related leak, the dark materials are really likely to be compounds from inside the mount itself that were mobilized by the water. A rather sad bird on the right. And then this slide I just have here is a reminder that, of course, taxidermy is often incorporated into objects or dioramas that include other materials that are also susceptible to water damage. In this diorama, we had streaming water, saturating foreground materials. In some cases, the plants were affected structurally and the water turned soil into mud that then kind of flowed into the surrounding decking area. Once you have a basic understanding of the nature and extent of damage in your collection, you’re in a position to make decisions about how to approach salvage. The aim of wet salvage is really to stabilize collections through a process of control drying.
And as you’re doing that, it’s really important to come up with a clear and logical sequence for how you’re going to prioritize your salvage efforts. We recommend prioritizing based on value first. And that may not necessarily be monetary value, that may be historical value, scientific value, what are the treasures in your collection? And then from there, prioritize by vulnerability followed by condition. Taxidermy in general terms is just a highly vulnerable medium. But that said, some mounts are going to be more vulnerable than others. Here in this chart I’ve kind of broken that down a little bit. You can see that absorbent and bound mannequins are going to be more vulnerable than the newer foam mannequins that aren’t absorbent. Untanned and tod hides are more vulnerable than full tans. Ivory and teeth, which are very responsive to changes in humidity are particularly vulnerable. Hairless skins can be more vulnerable because intact hair and contour feathers sometimes have kind of a sheeting effect on water and prevent it from soaking down into the hide.
Weakened and embrittled tides are going to be much more susceptible to gelatinization and may really almost crumble and come apart if they’re fully immersed. And then damp housing materials clearly present an issue for whatever they contain. But whatever approach you take to control drying, it’s going to require handling your taxidermy specimens to some extent. I wanted to share some considerations to keep in mind and some guidelines for handling wet taxidermy. As I mentioned before, the wet materials are going to be weaker compared to when they’re dry and much more prone to deformation and other new structural damages. And saturated materials can also be much heavier than they look. As you would do when you are handling dry taxidermy, you need to assess the condition before picking up your mount, looking for old repairs. Whenever you can, it’s great to handle specimens indirectly using trays, boards or other supports and try not to move things any more often than you need to because every time an object is moved, that’s increasing risk.
Provide additional support during and after movement where needed. Locate the labels and any object fragments and try to keep them together with the specimen from the very beginning. Clear your pathway, handle heavy objects with help when it’s needed. You may want to salvage wet materials working from to bottom. And if it’s safe to do so, you can leave undamaged, unaffected objects in place.. Resist the urge to fix objects on the fly, you may see something that just bugs you and you want to fix it. But you want to keep moving ahead and not be manipulating objects on a one-off basis. And then, of course, don’t forget your PPE. It’s really important when you’re working in a salvage situation that everyone is protected from mold. That’s going to include your protective clothing, gloves, respiratory protection and goggle. We want to limit your exposure as much as possible and people who have allergies or asthma, it may be appropriate to give them different assignments in the response effort.
When you come across mounts where mold has formed, we want to quarantine those so that the spores aren’t spread to other objects. Moldy specimens can be air dried in an isolated space, preferably that space can be vented to the outdoors or maybe you can ventilate it using a HEPA filtered air scrubber. I’m going to outline three approaches to drying taxidermy collections, and all of them really aim to arrest mold growth while mitigating the other types of damage that I just described. And there are other variations on some of these methods, but I just want to point out that none of the methods I’m going to talk about involve heat. It’s important to avoid drying methods that involve warming the specimen or the ambient conditions above the normal range because it both increases the potential for mold growth when you have high humidity and it also increases the possibility of damage and distortions in your mounts.
I’m sorry that this is a little bit cut off. The first drying method is air drying in which wet taxidermy is basically laid out in a drying area that you’ve identified and have set up with fans and dehumidifiers. One of the first steps, you want to remove excess water from your mounts. You can spread them out on tables that you’ve covered with plastic and then absorbent materials like blotter, unprinted newsprint, white toweling. You don’t want to be introducing colorants. And then you can use those materials to gently blot damp skin and fur and even labels so that they have a better opportunity to dry flat. And then when those materials become dampened, you’ll want to change them out. As taxidermy is drying or as it becomes wet and then begins to dry, you will probably see deformations and distortions in the hide, places where the height is starting to delaminate or detach. If the taxidermy, if the hide drives that way and it’s unsupported, it’s likely to stay in that distorted position.
If hide is flexible, if you see those issues and the hide is still flexible, you should gently support the mount to try to retain the original form as it dries. And you can use clips like hair clips, barrettes, nose clips, gentle pressure that doesn’t dig in that you can use to manipulate. You may want to use small weights that don’t impede air flow or you can also use things like cotton twill tape. And then around your objects, you want to use fans and dehumidifiers to bring the temperature and relative humidity as close to normal room conditions, ideally kind of pulling dry air into the room and pushing humid air out. And you want to monitor the effectiveness of your efforts somehow. Psychrometers are a possibility or data loggers can also be used. We’ve also experimented here with using FLIR cameras if you happen to have one available.
Benefits to air drying is that it’s low cost and really requires little or no specialized equipment. But it’s only going to be an efficient method if the ambient humidity is pretty low. It can be space and labor intensive. It’s suitable for salvaging a smallish number of damp or slightly wet mounts but not for really heavily saturated mounts with absorbent mannequins. There’s still a risk of mold growth particularly in those wetter examples. This is just an image of an air drying situation. You can see some of the mounts could be better supported but there’s lots of space around all of the mounts. They’re not using absorbent materials in this image but there is plastic. Here’s another example of air drying using a dehumidifier and a fan. Ideally, you’d arrange the equipment to try to encourage a directional airflow.
A better option for taxidermy that’s moderately wet or has to be left in situ is sometimes drying with the humidified air or desiccant air drying. This involves a control drying enclosure that’s used to exhaust humid air and replace it with dry air with dehumidification equipment and fans or HEPA filtered air scrubbers. Setting this up usually requires partnering with an outside vendor that has access to the equipment and the supplies, although you can rent equipment and set it up yourself if you know how. This chamber can be constructed in situ around collections, for example, in a diorama situation or if you have something that is too large to move. But it can also be set up elsewhere on site or off if you do need or want to move those collections. Again, you’d want to remove excess water and provide physical support. The ceiling of the area is important to maintain a lower humidity that permits a more efficient air circulation than air drying alone.
Drying with dehumidified air is faster than air drying. And as I said, it’s suitable for objects that you may need to leave in place. It also may allow you to dry a larger quantity of wetter mounts. There is still risk of mold growth in mounts that are large or have absorbent materials or heavily saturated. And here’s a picture of what that might look like. You can see that the diorama in this example has been sealed off with plastic sheeting that’s taped all around the edge. Then the kind of taller dehumidifier in the foreground is feeding air into that space via the angled tube. And then the air is being exhausted by the, quite a more squat air scrubbers that are at either end of the diorama. And then the third approach that I’m going to talk about is vacuum freeze drying in which wet specimens are frozen and then later dried by means of sublimation.
Freeze drying requires partnering with one or more outside vendors. Wet specimens and their housings are frozen and then moved to a specialized vacuum freeze drying chamber where they’re placed under vacuum and the temperatures closely controlled to sublimate ice directly into gas. Freezing will arrest mold growth, this is an approach that is used when it’s really important to immediately stop the possibility of mold. But for taxidermy, there’s a much higher likelihood of damage to the collagen, to teeth and bone that may be preserved in the cranial and post cranial components that have been incorporated into the mannequin if there’s wood in the mannequin or other components that are partially or completely saturated. When other methods are not available or are unsuitable, freeze drying will reduce the potential for mold infestation. But I think it’s really important that those benefits are weighed against these potential damages. It wouldn’t be my first choice.
Julia Sybalsky: And now, I’m going to give it back to Fran who’s going to talk a little bit about cleaning.
Fran Ritchie: Yeah, thanks Julia. In our final few minutes that we have here, I’d like to talk about cleaning, some dry cleaning. We feel it’s important to talk about this because it’s a need that comes up in all taxidermy collections including those that have been subjected to water events. Right now, we’re mostly talking about things that haven’t gone through a disaster but if you’ve had had a small water event and everything feels dry, then you can also employ these techniques. Ideally, we’d always recommend that you consult with a conservator before executing a cleaning procedure because even the safest methods can cause irreversible damage in some cases. But we realized that particularly in smaller institutions and private collections, there may be financial or geographical barriers that make contracting a conservator difficult. We’re just going to touch on the dry cleaning methods which tend to be the safest.
Across the board, the best way to clean is to test in a small discreet location first. And you need to understand that not all parts of the mount will respond in the same way to your cleaning techniques. Of course, stop if you observe damage and then consult a specialist. In general, you will encounter three different types of dirt and some of these methods lend themselves better towards one type over the other. There’s the dusty dirt, there’s a greasy dirt and then there are dry films and stains especially after water. We always like to use as I mentioned earlier the HEPA filtered vacuum. And then we use a soft bristle brush and we brush the dirt and dust into the vacuum. You want to use your vacuum if it’s variable speed, you want to use it on the lower speed. And you will cover the nozzle with a screen or a cheesecloth just to make sure that it’s protected. You don’t want to suck up anything that you didn’t realize was loose.
And then there are other areas that some of the harder components of the taxidermy where you could use things like Webril cotton pads or electrostatic cloths or disposable rags, which are basically soft paper cleaning cloths to kind of wipe away that dust very gently. And, of course, as anywhere, you want to test first. But in these cases, you might risk pulling off slipping hairs or loose feathers or unstable fragments. We always like to use a brush to begin with. And there are different kinds of sponges that are available especially soft, white cosmetic sponges that you can buy and then soot sponges that are specifically for fire damage. These are much more aggressive obviously than the wipes and pads, but they can be very effective on greasy dirt. And they’re really good on the harder components. I saw there was a question about elephant tusks if you want to try to clean a superficial deposit on a hard surface like an elephant tusk, then you could try this sponge or the cosmetic sponges.
And in some cases, you might need to add water but we would rather that you talk to a conservator first before thinking about doing that. We have a video on cleaning some mammal mounts and a bird mount if Sarah can move the screen for me. I’m just sharing my screen, and then we’ll start this one. And once again, I’m going to speed it up so that we can fit in everything. You see I have all my supplies gathered, I have a pretend taxidermy mount, which is a coyote skin. Here’s my HEPA vacuum that I have on low setting. And then I’m going to come over and ventilate. I have my gloves on, let me slow it down a little bit again. There we go. Those are the cotton pads, I showed you the electrostatic cloth before this. There it is. There we go. There is the electrostatic cloth, it’s kind of thin. You can cut it to how you want. The Webril pads again, and that’s cotton, that’s very absorbent. We use that for cleaning a variety of different things.
The box of rags, they’re very soft. You can cut those to shape as well. And you can use those to help support your animals. Those are the soot sponges that you can cut to different sizes and these are the cosmetic sponges that you can also cut. We like to use a variety of different brushes, my personal favorite is the fan brush, just an artist brush that you can buy. And that’s because it kind of grooms the hair while you’re working on it. Here’s a piece of plastic screen that I’m putting over top and I always have hair bands so I just use those sometimes, you can use rubber bands to attach it on top. And I’m going to brush in the direction that the hair and the feathers grow. If the hair is stable, then you can do a little bit more grooming and you can brush in different directions, but just test that out. And you’ll notice that I’m brushing with the vacuum parallel to the surface. I’m not actually putting it on top of the specimen, on top of the hair.
There’s that guy, and then I am pulling over a piece of caribou hide and it has some hairs that are falling out, it’s a little bit more fragile. Instead, on this one, I’m going to take my plastic screen and gently place that on top and then kind of run the vacuum over top of that to get any loose dust that’s coming off of it. And then if you feel like you need a little bit more agitation, sometimes you can take a brush and go over top of it, but you’ll just have to test it out and see what works. And then I will show the final video that we have, which is this really quick one on bird cleaning. The same kind of thing, my vacuum is on a low suction setting. I’m holding it not directly on top of the feathers and I’m brushing in the direction that the feathers grow to get that dirt and dust off of it. And then as an added bonus, our favorite thing that we like to do when we’re cleaning taxidermy is to clean the eyeballs.
This is a wet technique that we will show you. I have my little glass of water on the side and some Q-tips or we call them cotton swabs. The first one, I’m going to dip into the water and then wipe off the excess and then gently rub it over top of the eye to get any dirt and grime that’s off of it. You move that around and go around the edge and then I can do kind of a final polish by taking a cotton swab that isn’t dipped in water. And we’ll go back to the presentation, perfect. And finally, once you call a conservator, you’ve had all this stuff happen, this is our don’t try this at home section when we give a warning. We don’t want you to try [vogue 01:00:10] wet cleaning methods, they can make it a little bit more … The dry cleaning sometimes isn’t very effective, but wet cleaning can go awry very quickly. It’s better to talk to someone who has a little bit more experience on cleaning those.
And then common household and hardware shop materials don’t often work. They might be ineffective or worse, they might cause new chemical or structural damage. There are many different options for how to restore a damaged piece of taxidermy and there are ethical choices that we think about that reflect the preservation goals as well as that artistic and historical scientific or other values that surround the specimen and the collections. We often work with the stakeholders of the collections to determine appropriate treatment approaches. And there are also structural repairs particularly in the mannequin that can require significant intervention. And you need to have a really solid understanding of construction and materials in order to even try to work on that. And we don’t just work with conservators, we also work with taxidermists. There’s often a confusion on when you should contact a taxidermist versus when you should contact a conservator.
Taxidermists bring important skill sets to the table and many of them are accomplished wildlife artists and sophisticated naturalist. A skilled taxidermist might be able to restore damage very quickly and with impressive accuracy. But the key thing to remember is that not all taxidermist are equal with this because many of them lack experience restoring taxidermy of historical significance. And they might not prioritize the original materials and construction methods, which is important because if you have a mount that was mounted by Teddy Roosevelt, you’re going to want to keep that because the importance is that it was Teddy who mounted it. A taxidermist skillsets, it’s also best suited to the materials that they regularly use And some of those might lack the long-term stability and reversibility that we prefer in conservation.
An aged hide will respond differently to the environment than a fresh one will. If a taxidermist isn’t used to working with aged components, they might not really know the special considerations. It’s important to talk with any taxidermist about the materials and methods that they propose and to consider whether they’re compatible with your preservation goals before you work with someone. In our experience, it’s worked out really well to partner with a conservator and a taxidermist on projects of importance. But fear not, the last thought that we want to leave you with is that before you consider anything a lost cause, you should definitely consult with a specialist because many damages that appear to be a total loss can actually be adjust quite successfully by a specialist. The top pieces in these photos are pieces that were in a fire, they’re covered in soot and they had water damage. The before treatment are the top photos and then the after treatment are the bottom photos.
Of course, if you need help, feel free to contact me or contact Julia or both of us. If you need help finding a conservator, you can go to AIC’s website, which is where you signed up for this webinar in the find a conservator options there. But you can also email us to see if we know of any people who work on taxidermy who are in your region. We’d like to thank all the institutions who have shared the key studies today and we would especially like to thank Linda Nieuwenhuizen who helped us with some of her key studies that were really phenomenal. And, of course, our interns who helped all along in some recent projects who were featured in some of the photos. Thank you everyone for listening. I don’t know if they’re going to want us to respond to questions now or if we will have perhaps a blog write up or send out some emails. We’re seeing maybe a couple of questions coming up. That’s fine with us, we could hang on for a few more minutes.
Sheena D. Simmons: we have six questions from the attendees, and I can ask them in the order in which we received them. That’s okay with you?
Fran Ritchie: Yes.
Sheena D. Simmons: Okay. The first question is, can you recommend a good source for litmus type tests for arsenic to test mounts currently in a collection so that they could be flagged for safety if necessary?
Fran Ritchie: We didn’t get into this today. The kits that I know of are the spot testing, they actually require the use of some pretty heavy-duty chemicals like hydrochloric acid. It’s best to do with someone when you have a conservation lab or someone who is used to handling those chemicals. I think that they did used to sell some kits, but there have been some back and forth on how successful they are if you can get them and how long of a shelf-life they have. I think I need to do a little bit more background research before talking about that. And there are also analytical techniques to use such as x-ray fluorescence. And they are very expensive pieces of equipment, but you can often borrow them from institutions who have them. I think that question was asked by the person in Colorado. I bet that there’s probably an XRF unit at the Museum of Nature and Science in Denver or at the Art Museum. You can ask people to come and spend a day or an afternoon looking at many different mounts.
You can also check out the history, that woman, she wouldn’t be able to do this. But if you’re in a museum, you can ask around for people who’ve worked there for a long time if they remember people using pesticides or look for things in storage. Julia has something to add.
Julia Sybalsky: I just want to add one note, which is that our collection at the museum, we don’t do a lot of object by object testing. We know a little bit about how certain parts of our collection were treated historically. But in practice, we’ve decided that the most pragmatic approach is just to assume that everything is contaminated and then approach everything with that level of precaution. You want to tell me another one?
Sheena D. Simmons: Yes. The next question, is there a specific velocity for drying in the air drying process to avoid more damage? And in an arid environment, would you just air dry without the fans?
Julia Sybalsky: That’s one that I will have to kind of do a little bit of research before I go and answer based on my intuitive and my limited experience. But I can certainly follow up on that.
Sheena D. Simmons: Okay. One more question then, is it possible to freeze items in a normal freezer without causing too much damage and with an industrial-grade freezer that gets to at least negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit suffice?
Julia Sybalsky: My understanding is that if you need to freeze things, a freezer that goes to about zero Celsius is preferable. I don’t think that one can say that you will necessarily avoid damage in doing that though, I think that that’s going to remain a risk. And I don’t know specifically how that risk would change if you need it to use a lower temperature simply because that’s what you had on hand. In terms of mold, I don’t think that there are benefits to choosing the lower temperature. That’s another thing that we can try to provide a little bit more information about. We’d recommend drying first as a preferred approach over the freezing.
Sheena D. Simmons: Okay. Do we have time for any more questions or shall we address them elsewhere?
Julia Sybalsky: Yeah. Why don’t we follow up in some other format if that’s okay.
Sheena D. Simmons: Okay. Well, thank you Fran and Julia. And thank you all attendees for joining us today. We ask that you please take a few minutes now to complete the brief evaluation survey linked on the screen. And you can find more information about both FAIC and NCPTT on their websites. Thanks so much.