Looking after Natural Science collections
Natural Sciences collections require careful maintenance and correct conditions for storage. They are split into 3 distinct categories: Zoology, Botany and Geology.
Zoology: normally mounted (stuffed) birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish either in glass-fronted cases or under glass domes. Also collections of insects (entomology) usually in glass-top drawered cabinets.
I have a case of birds and they look rather faded. What can I do about it?
Fading is irreversible but ensure that the case is moved away from direct sunlight or keep it covered during the daytime.
I have an old stuffed pet cat and I noticed these little brown bristly skins on it, also some of the fur seems to be falling out. Can I prevent this from becoming worse?
You have an infestation of carpet beetle grubs (woolly bears). Put the item into a polythene bag and freeze it for 3 days, remove it from the freezer for 24 hours and then re-freeze it for a further 7 days. This will kill off any live pests and egg stages within the specimen. Also check that there are no old bird nests on the outside of the house and if you have boarded up fireplaces check that there are no bird corpses behind them (or in attics) as both of these are culture sources for such pests. To have the specimen repaired contact a specialist conservator.
My stuffed seagull is looking rather grey, how do I clean it?
Do not attempt cleaning or you will only spread the dirt and possibly ruin the specimen by rehydrating the skin, pass it to a specialist conservator.
My insect/butterfly collection has some dust under the specimens and I keep finding these tiny bristly brown skins. How do I prevent this from happening?
You have an infestation of carpet beetle grubs (woolly bears). Put infested drawers into a polythene bag and freeze for 3 days, remove from the freezer for 24 hours and then re-freeze for a further 7 days. This will kill off any live pests and egg stages within the specimen. Also check that there are no old bird nests on the outside of the house and if you have boarded up fireplaces check that there are no bird corpses behind them (or in attics) as both of these are culture sources for such pests. To have any specimens repaired or drawers cleaned contact a specialist conservator.
I have an old moose head on my dining room wall and its muzzle is cracking and I can see the seams where it was stitched, are opening up. How can I prevent this from becoming worse?
Such heads are often placed over fireplaces or in rather dry rooms. It should be moved to an area where humidity levels are higher (about 50%) or install a humidifier to regulate humidity to the correct level. For repair work and skin dressing, contact a specialist conservator.
Our case of stuffed owls has these little dark spots on the inside of the glass and over the back of the case paintwork and I have seen what looks like mould growing on the beak/wing of some of the birds. What is happening?
There are many types of mildews and moulds which can grow on all sorts of media if kept in a damp room (over 55% Relative Humidity). Move the case to a dryer room (45-55% RH) or install a dehumidifier to regulate humidity to the correct level. To have the mildew neutralised and /or removed, contact a specialist conservator.
I have this old stuffed duck and it sits surrounded by white powder. What is this?
The powder may be an arsenic salt from arsenical soap which was used until the 1950s as a pest inhibitor and skin preserver. It is very toxic so be careful not to inhale it accidentally or ingest it. Contact a specialist conservator for further advice.
Botany: normally dried plants pressed onto sheets of paper and kept within folders or bound into books.
I have a book (or sheets of paper) containing very prettily-arranged dried seaweeds (or pressed flowers) but I have noticed small patches where something looks like it has been grazing it and eating the paper and glue. What is causing this and what should I do about it?
This has been caused most likely by silverfish (or maybe book lice) and can sometimes occur to butterfly collections too. Purchase some sticky traps and place them against a vertical surface near the book or collection. Place the book/ sheets into a polythene bag and freeze for a few days to kill any infesting insects. If specimens are detaching or disintegrating, contact a specialist conservator.
I have a book of pressed flowers and the pages have these tiny black and brown spots on them, what can I do?
The brown spots may be what is known as ‘foxing’ and may need neutralising or controlled bleaching – contact a specialist paper conservator.
Black spots are more likely due to moulds and mildews. There are many types of mildews and moulds which can grow on all sorts of media if kept in a damp room (over 55% Relative Humidity). Move the case to a drier room (45-55% RH) or install a dehumidifier to regulate humidity to the correct level.
Geology: subdivided into fossils (palaeontology), rocks and stones (petrology) and minerals (mineralogy).
I have a collection of fossils (or minerals) but they seem to be going mouldy - I see these patches of yellow and white on them, also they smell rather sulphury. What is happening to them and how can I prevent this?
This is known as pyritic or pyrite decay. Most fossils come from ground containing iron salts and these can easily expand in damp conditions. Move your collection to a drier room or install a dehumidifier to bring the Relative Humidity level down to about 45%. Contact a specialist conservator urgently to remove the yellow and white patches or you may lose your collection as it crumbles away to acidic dust!
I have a collection of rocks and minerals and they are very dirty. Can I clean them?
Basically, yes you can clean them by mild detergent and water cleaning but there are a few which might be adversely affected. If in doubt contact a specialist conservator.
I have a collection of minerals but they are burning holes in the material they are stored on. What is happening?
These minerals may contain sulphates which are hydrating, due to damp conditions, into sulphuric acid. Move them to a drier area or install a dehumidifier to maintain Relative Humidity to about 45%.. Also contact a specialist conservator at once to treat the specimens.
My Blue John vases are looking rather pale. Also the crystal surface looks rather brittle. Given the great financial value of them what should I do?
The purple colour of Blue John Fluorspar is prone to fading so move them away from direct contact with sunlight. They are also drying out and will become increasingly brittle - they require specialist treatment as soon as possible.
Suppliers of conservation materials
These specialist companies will supply a wide range of materials including acid-free boxes and tissue paper.
Conservation by Design Limited
Timecare Works, 5 Singer Way
Woburn Road Industrial Estate
Kempston, Bedford MK42 7AW
Conservation Resources (U.K.), Limited
Unit 2, Ashville Way, off Watlington Road
Cowley, Oxford OX4 6TU
Preservation Equipment Limited
Shelfanger, Diss, Norfolk IP22 2DG
Howlett Way, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 1HZ
G Ryder and Co Ltd
Denbigh Road, Bletchley, Milton Keynes MK1 1DG