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05.07.2019

Tru Vue Blog: Taxidermy Conservation

Beth Baker ACR, is Senior Conservator at the Conservation and Museums Advisory Service, Wiltshire Council where she coordinates the Conservation Services. She received a Tru Vue CPD grant earlier in 2019 to allow her to attend a course on taxidermy conservation technology for biological specialisms run by Simon Moore ACR. 

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Focusing on long term collections sustainability I work with a broad range of clients from across the heritage sector providing advice, training, preventive and remedial conservation services. My areas of specialism and particular interest are archaeology and social history, in particular hazardous materials in objects.

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

On return to work after the birth of my second child I experienced a wobble in my belief in my own abilities and experience. Any prolonged absence from a place of work and from putting skills into practice is likely to leave a person with a feeling of lagging behind. I began to fear that I had grown rusty and may even have lost some of the fine practical skills I had honed over the years.

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 in May 2019 focusing on the care and conservation of vertebrate taxidermy specimens with Simon Moore, a subject specialist with 50 years experience.

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!

img_1962.jpg​​​Simon Moore ACR  demonstrating how to access a specimen in a glazed case with beading. 

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.

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.

img_1968.jpg​​Beth Baker ACR, honing her skills in Japanese repairs to bird fee

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

Reattach: could loose material be 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. Such as 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!

img_1925_0.jpg​​​Bird Specimen after treatment to remove mould and pests. 

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.

The opportunity to work with these snapshots of life, has enriched my skillset and reinvigorated my confidence in my abilities.

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All Images: Beth Baker ©

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