Fish! Conserving fluid preserved specimens for display
For October and November 2010 we have opened a small exhibition in our main hall celebrating the diversity of fish found around the UK. These fish are all from our collections, with the oldest specimens going back to 1904.
To get these specimens usable for display we have had to do some conservation work. This has been as simple as cleaning the glass jar or Perspex display tank, to working on the specimen itself and changing the preservation fluid. How the fish has been preserved can affect its overall appearance and condition, but unfortunately whatever method we use the colour will be lost.
Many of the fish have been preserved in an alcohol solution, usually ethanol, which does result in shrinkage and the fish becoming very stiff. The preserving fluid can also become a very dark amber colour. This is due to materials such as lipids in the fish tissue being extracted out by the alcohol solution. However we know ethanol based preserving solutions work as the practice has been going on since the 1600’s! In more recent years we have found that it can also preserve DNA that is usable in modern molecular studies.
Another common preservative is formaldehyde, commonly called formalin. A diluted solution, usually of around 4% formaldehyde, has been used for over a century now. Formaldehyde causes chemical cross linking reactions in the biological tissues and this is termed ‘fixation’. Unfortunately formaldehyde does have problems, being pungent and potentially toxic to work with.
Some of the fish have also been preserved in a fluid called ‘Steedmans’. This is a mixture of propylene glycol (often used in anti freeze), a phenol (an aromatic organic chemical) and formaldehyde. This can preserve fish shape very well but there are concerns over its long term preservation properties.
For the main hall display all the preserving fluids were checked. All the specimens in formaldehyde and ‘Steedmans’ were moved to a safer alternative. This uses a chemical called DMDM Hydantoin which replaces the use of formaldehyde in everyday products such as shampoos and cosmetics and is much safer to work with.
Some of the specimens themselves needed some cleaning and tidying up. After years in a jar many had a build up of old proteins and fats on their surface. Other specimens had corrosion products on them from old metal tags that had been used for labels. Many of the specimens were also moved to more suitable glass jars.
The end result is an intriguing display highlighting specimens with fishy stories from the museums collections. The aim has been to make the specimens as accessible as possible so that visitors can get a close look at the preserved fish. The exhibition also represents the ongoing work that is required to care for the museums natural history collections for both now and the future.
Opening up the Collections
Final Natural History Open day – Wednesday 27th October 2010
Members of the public will be given an intimate insight into the museum’s natural history collections next week. As part of the International Year of Biodiversity, the departments of Biodiversity and Systematic Biology along with Geology have been holding open days throughout the year to showcase the work that they do.
Museum experts in a wide range of fields, from bugs to beetles, dandelions to diatoms can all be found in the main hall along with a crazy array of critters from the national collections. Visitors can also sign up for a wide variety of behind the scenes tours where they will be able to find out more about the incredible collections that the museum holds and the research that we do.
I will be running tours of the large shell collection, showcasing some of the 2 million shell specimens that we hold as well as explaining some of the work that is carried out by our researchers. Other tours will take you round the Welsh National Herbarium, the amazing vertebrate collections with their primate skeletons and stuffed animals, the insect collections with butterfly specimens over a hundred years old, and the vast array of pickled animals in jars in our marine lab.
This is to be the final open day for this year, so don’t miss your chance! Come and meet the experts and take the opportunity for a unique trip behind the scenes. Book your tour place on the day - numbers are limited to 10-12 people on each tour. Tours are suitable for ages 8 and over, but unfortunately are unsuitable for people with limited mobility because of the stairs involved.
Face to face with the past - the redisplay of a Roman coffin
One of the most popular displays at the National Roman Legion Museum is a stone coffin that contains the skeleton of a Roman man. The coffin also contains the remains of grave goods that he would need for their next life, including the base of a shale bowl and fragments of a glass perfume or ointment bottle.
The coffin was found in 1995 on the site of a Roman cemetery just outside Caerleon. The cemetery is now part of the Caerleon Campus in the University of Wales, Newport. It has been on display in the National Roman Legion Museum from 2002, however in Summer 2010 we started working to redisplay the coffin in a fashion that is closer to its original form thanks to funding from the Friends of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.
Made from a solid block of Bath stone, the coffin dates to about 200AD. Since it is around 1800 years old the coffin wouldn’t be able to support the weight of its original lid which is in 2 large pieces. The sides and base of the coffin are being reinforced and the lid will sit on top of a Perspex cover with enough of a gap so that you can see the skeleton inside.
Further work will be done to find out more about our Roman man, who was about 40 when he died. Thanks to funding from the Roman Research Trust, Isotope analysis will be carried out on his teeth which should tell us where grew up and what sort of food he ate. We will also be trying to reconstruct his face so that we can produce a painted portrait of him using the same materials and techniques used by the Romans.
Follow our progress as work proceeds over the next year.
We aim to complete the redisplay by the end of 2011 when you will be able to come face to face with the past!
The coffin, skeleton and grave goods have been on display since 2002.
In that time it has become one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery.
Gaps in the coffin allowed visitors to push things into the display.
These are some of the things we found, not exactly the sort of thing our Roman would like to take to the next life.
Work begins. First the skeleton and grave goods have to be removed and stored safely.
While off display the skeleton will undergo further investigation in an attempt to find more about the man buried in the coffin.
All modern materials added to an object must be reversible. This makes it easier to remove restoration without causing damage to the original artefact.
Here a reversible barrier is being painted onto the coffin. This will separate the original stonework from the material used to fill gaps and level the rim.
Even the most awkward places have to be reached!
The lid of the coffin must have a level surface to sit on!
Unfortunately much of the original rim of the base has eroded so with the aid of foam, double-sided tape and the glass top of the original display as a guide, we hope to establish a new level for the coffin rim.
Layers of foam were stuck to the flat glass top. When the highest part of the coffin was reached this line was used as the level for the new rim.
Now for the fun bit� mixing up the fill material.
This material must work like a putty and set hard when dry. Also be safe to use in the open gallery and similar in colour and texture to the original Bath stone.
We went for a mixture of air-drying clay, sand to reduce shrinkage and give texture. Acrylic paint for colour and extra bonding. This was a bit of a messy job and it took a while to get the mix right!
Once the mix was ready the gap between the foam and the edge of the coffin was filled.
Being careful not to get excess fill material all over the stone.
Looks good, let�s hope the fill dries without to much shrinkage.
The colour of the fill is a bit light, not as golden as the original Bath stone. The Roman quarry for the stone is believed to be south of the ancient City of Bath. The stone is soft and easily carved when wet, but becomes hard on drying.
Inspecting the days work! Hopefully when the glass and foam is removed the fill will be nice and level.
The gaps in the side of the coffin have to be filled to prevent access to the skeleton once it is put back on display.
The glass top and foam are removed and the new rim revealed. The fill has dried much lighter than expected so will have to be painted to make it less obvious.
Most of the fill will be hidden by the lid which extends over the edge and down the side. This overlapping edge use to rest on a ridge that ran round the top of the coffin base.
Remains of this ridge can still be seen on the right hand-side of the image just below the fill.
The coffin was unearthed by a mechanical digger, which broke it into several sections. Most of the pieces were retrieved, but one area was so badly damaged no pieces survived.
Instead of filling the gap to complete the side, we decided to install a viewing window so small visitors to the museum can still get a good view of the skeleton inside.
The coffin is extremely heavy and could not be moved out of the gallery safely. Therefore, all conservation work has to take place in the gallery, which has been quite challenging at times.
If you are visiting and see us there, come over and say hello, we are happy to answer any questions about the project.
'Biodiversity - Who cares?' exhibition now at Cardiff
We’ve just finished setting up the exhibition ‘Biodiversity - Who Cares?’ in the Main Hall at National Museum Cardiff. It’s been a great opportunity for us to show off some more of the beautiful botanical models from our stored collections. The models have been skilfully crafted from beeswax, but you might mistake them for real plants when you first look at them. With around 1000 models in the collection to choose from, our only problem has been deciding which ones to display!
The exhibition has been created by the BioSyB Dept as a contribution to the International Year of Biodiversity. The exhibition looks at some of the ways in which we can help reduce the loss of biodiversity. Look out for this touring exhibition at other Amgueddfa Cymru venues during the rest of the year.
St Teilo's Church - the blog
We had a fabulous event at St Fagans yesterday. The weather wasn't quite with us - damp and overcast - but luckily lots of people were, and very many of them bought copies of the book!
I didn't catch the whole service as I was flitting around with boxes of books, but what I saw was very moving, and it felt intimate and totally natural.
Then a whole load more people arrived for the actual launch. People crowded into the Church and the two main speakers, Garry Owen and Eurwyn Wiliam, both did excellent jobs. Eurwyn spoke about the project from its beginnings, and as he's been involved with the project since its beginning 25 years ago it was a great overview. But, as always, humorous too! Then Garry Owen brought a lovely personal note, as he's a local boy who remembers the Church when it was still by the river Loughour at Pontarddulais. He really emphasised just how iconic the Church was - and still is - to the local community.
Finally everyone came over to Oakdale, the Workmen's Instititute, for refreshments and we were flooded with people queuing up to buy the book. It was like when you first arrive at a car boot sale! It was also great for me to finally meet some of the book's contributors, people I've only emailed up til now. I guess everybody was enjoying themselves as by 5.30pm some people didn't seem to want to leave!
The rest of the work for me is now to make sure all the relevant bookshops and retail outlets know about it. And making sure it's on the relevant websites. And sending out review copies... In a way, producing the book is only half the job: now we've got to sell it!
St Teilo's Church - the book
No blogs for a while now - but mostly because we've been working full tilt on the book (also because I've been off for a week...).
So, it's now at the printers, and there's nothing - well, hardly anything - more we can do now. If all is well the books will be in Cardiff this Friday, and we'll all be at St Fagans launching it on Sunday. If the weather is anywhere as good as it has been this last week or so then it'll be a truly lovely afternoon.
As exciting as it is to look forward to seeing the actual book (no matter how many proofs, dummies etc you've seen - the real thing always looks different!) this bit always makes me a bit nervous too. After it arrives, and I spot the inevitable typo that got away, or something I wish we'd changed when we had the chance, or... and after the launch event, I'll be able to reflect on what a pleasure it was to work on and how lovely everybody was to work with. It's a real privilege to have been able to learn so much about the whole project - one of the very best bits of my job is being able to get involved with such a variety of different projects that might otherwise have passed me by. But with this one in particular, I think, the depth of people's knowledge and skills, and their committment, is inspiring.
Anyway, look out for it, available in all good bookshops - soon!
St Teilo's Church - the book
We're getting really stuck in now. We've had a complete set of pages, which is our chance to move or replace any images, or perhaps move pages around. Once we've done that the layout is set in stone and we start proofreading. While we proofread the English, the designer will work on the Welsh pages - that's why it's important that nothing moves around after we've agreed on the layout!
We had some new external shots of the church done, so that we'd have a wider choice to try out for the cover. I think we're pretty close to deciding on the image. And I think the title is decided too:
Saving St Teilo's: bringing a medieval church to life.
I hope it's a strong title, and I like the fact that we get the name 'St Teilo's' right in there at the beginning!
We're also moving ahead with the launch event. It will be in the spring, March or maybe April. It should be a lovely event, it will be lighter then - and warmer!
St Teilo's Church - the book
We had a very positive meeting with the book's designer before Christmas at St Fagans. She's come up with some lovely ideas, it makes a big difference when you've seen something and you then have a set of images and visual themes you can relate to. The design manages to convey a sense of the crafts, skills and techniques behind the whole project, which is something I really want the book to convey.
We're still looking for exactly the right image for the cover though. We decided, although it might seem a bit unimaginative, to use a picture of the exterior of the Church. For all the amazing images we've got of the interiors, especially of course the wall paintings, I really believe that the audience for this book will be looking for a book with a picture of the church on it - sounds obvious I suppose! The book covers many things including art, archaeology and architecture, but in the end it's primarily about the story of St Teilo's Church. So that's the message the cover will convey. Plus, the building itself is now so recognisable, its shape is almost iconic.
I think one of the features that draw people to the Church is the contrast between the simple, white, almost humble-looking exterior and the riot of colour and images inside.
As soon as I've got images of the sample spreads I'll publish them here - it would be very interesting to know what people think of them!
St Teilo's Church - the book
I'm working on a book about the fantastic St Teilo's Church at St Fagans. Been really looking forward to this one, it's a lovely story and there's a wealth of fab images - unlike usually, when I have to scrabble around for some decent stuff. I thought we'd be much further on than we are mind, I really expected to be up to my ears in proofs by now. I sort of know why we're further behind than I'd planned, just can't quite explain. Or I could, but it still probably wouldn't make much sense. Plus, designers work in different ways, and this one likes to take a lot of time 'up front' working on the design concept, then when that's agreed we crack on with the proofreading fairly quickly. I suppose I'm more comfortable with spending the bulk of the time at the proofreading stage, especially with a fairly text-heavy book like this one. Still, we always manage to end up with a book on time. I should be designing the marketing plan by now, but I'm still getting the images together and finishing the copy - things like indexes, the glossary, that kind of thing. And I haven't written any of the image captions yet, which I decided would be quite long, narrative style, so that we don't have to cram absolutely everything into the main copy.
Having to work within a financial year is odd too - not at all the way publishing works. I could get really quite anxious about this if I let myself. I just have to concentrate on how good the book's going to look, and having a high-profile launch, with a popular speaker, where everybody buys a copy of the book, which will get great reviews...
In our favour is the fact that the Church is already incredibly popular and has had a lot of good press. The whole re-erection project at St Fagans has built up a swell of good will, and the Church has its own loyal following - a sort of fan-base! All that's keeping me going at the moment, but I know things are going to get pretty intense over the next couple of months.
'Jeffrey', our recreated medieval Archer
Lots more things installed now. It's seems tidier and it's possible to see much better how the exhibition is going to look. We have some of the audio visual aspects being tested and lights are sparkling in the empty cases. You can see the Bryn Celli Ddu stone already in place and covered in bubble wrap to protect it from all the work going on around it. Our recreated medieval Archer, who we affectionately call 'Jeffrey', was first created for our Re:Creations exhibition in 2002. The level of detail on his hands where he holds the string to his bow is amazing - it looks real. He is currently covered in bubble wrap to protect him from all the activity around him. He does look a bit like a mummy - but that's a whole different exhibition!
There are a lot more stones you can see in place covered to protect them and their plinths are nearly complete.
We're waiting for more mounts and the insides of cases to allow us to start installing our objects. As soon as they arrive the gallery will become a hive of activity with curators and conservators checking and installing large and small, delicate and robust, beautiful and functional objects that together will tell some of the story of the early people of Wales.