Standards in the care and conservation of Skins and Taxidermy collections
Notes take from the Clothworkers Foundation workshop 23rd-24th January 2013
Project supported by the Cloth Workers Foundation and SYNTHESYS
These notes have been developed form a workshop comprised of a collection of experts in the field. The notes are for development and will be a living document covering best practice in the preservation of skins and taxidermy materials. The Project does not cover or recommend interventive processes for the stabilization of skins and taxidermy materials.
Overview of discussion
1. Review of Materials included in a skin and taxidermy collection
2. Ethical Problems and issues
3. Collecting techniques for specimen preservation
4. Processing Methods
5. Deterioration Mechanisms
6. Specimen Handling and Transportation
7. Health and Safety
8. Storage and storage environment
9. Monitoring Equipment and standards
10. Storage Media
11. Training Syllabus
12. Key Research questions
1.0 Aims of workshop
• To discuss best practice in the Preservation of skins and taxidermy Collections
• To agree standards in the care of collections
• To agree a syllabus for developing a standardised training program
• To review historic practice and discussed what is currently considered to be best practice in the field (where possible this will be backed up with researched evidence).
• Establish datasets being reserved as part of best practice
Best practice and standards ensure that collections are maintained to reduce levels of deterioration
The purposes of this project are (1) to review established standards for the preservation of skins and taxidermy materials to establish baseline standards for the storage of these materials; and (3) to outline a training syllabus for a best practices training course on the care of wet collections.
The unavailability of appropriate expertise, materials, and chemicals in many geographic areas should be considered when establishing baseline standards for preservation and collections care.
Best practices and baseline standards for preservation of wet collections as presented in this document will continue to evolve as more information is accumulated to help understand the range of current and future materials and techniques. The gathering of additional information for the further development of these standards is encouraged.
Best Practice Recommendation: Dry collections and wet collections should not be stored in the same room due to their different storage environment requirements, shelving configuration, health and safety requirements, and because of potential risks from chemical spills.
Materials Covered in workshop
Materials included in this review of skin and taxidermy collection;
• processed skins,
• scientific samples,
• tissue samples
• mounted taxidermy specimens,
• study skins, tendons, gut, stomach contents,
• pellets, spores, parasites, scat
o Osteological collections, human remains, slide collections will be treated separately as they require a slightly different set of parameters.
Key data sets to be preserved in these materials includes;
• Colour (pigments)
• Morphology and structure
Ethical Approaches to the preservation of skins and taxidermy
• Workers should always take a minimalist approach so that as much information as possible is left intact.
• The object is to preserve as many different data sets as possible
• Detailed notes should be kept on the condition of all material ad any processes that are kept of preparation and conservation treatments, much data is inevitably lost or at best contaminated/subject to misinterpretation.
• Processing affects data; for example, a dried skin will retain the wide variety of residual ground substances (an amorphous gel, primarily composed of glycosaminoglycans, most notably hyaluronan, proteoglycans, and glycoproteins) and inherent fats, whereas a fully-tanned skin will keep only the collagen and may have a range of additives.
Ethical Problems and Issues
Codes of Ethics
These are all relevant ethical guidelines that govern the decisions and choices that we make with regard to specimen preservation conservation treatments and preparation techniques (in museum).
• Conservation ethics that guideline the processing and stabilisation of specimens are governed ICOM, MA, AIC, ICON
Other Ethical guidelines that should be considered
o ABS (Access and benefit sharing),
o Human Tissue Act,
o Red book,
o Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003.
Full consultation with relevant stakeholders such as indigenous should be considered when undertaking conservation and preservation treatments.
Best practice – should accommodate concerns of living cultures and relevant stakeholders. Conservation and Museum ethical guidelines should always govern the processing of materials. A window of re-evaluation should always be built into all processes.
Collecting techniques for specimen preservation
The collection method will always affect the long-term preservation of the specimen and will determine the types of data preserved in an object. Collecting Institutions have very little input into how specimens are processed or prepared by present or past amateur or professional preparators, whether as contractors or sometimes, as employees of the institution.” In reality institutions have rarely, if ever, dictate practice; research scientists prep specimens to suit their research needs, not long-term preservation. When specimens are sent out for preparation it is essential that managers understand the processing techniques and the effects on the object. Full documentation and a risk review should be obtained.
There should also be more control and documentation when the collecting is carried out by an institution.
In collecting preservation staff should lay out advice for collectors and provide for an easy but effective methodology standard for collection and which will hopefully minimize exportation problems abroad.
There is lack of documentation on how things are prepared both in the past and currently. A minimum of an MSDS information sheet should be provided by the commercial preparers. This may not give the exact recipe, but can give an indication of what’s been used.
Processes for collection (Dependent on material and sample)
Deliberate choices may be made in the field depending on what the specimen is going to be used for. When collecting (and especially for amateur collectors), health and safety considerations should be paramount.
Euthanasia (should be humane as possible as well as reduce damage to the skin or skeleton) following national legal guidelines.
As much information as possible will be collected in the field – e.g. blood samples, fur samples, tissue samples, etc. Documentation such as photography and video should record the process and materials, as well as the object itself.
There are three main areas of collecting; donation, opportunistic and expedition.
Some institutions accept donations from the public however there is no control in this method and often, little to no documentation.
Donations from specific institutes will be accompanied with documentation on how the animal was killed – e.g., London Zoo, etc.
Should advice be given to amateur collectors? It is important from a health and safety point of view.
Best practice –Best practice is dependent on the size of the organism, its condition and its intended use. However, there are some general areas that can be described as best practice.
• No chemical killing and needs to be done
• Euthanasia should be undertaken as humanely as possible with as little damage to the skin and skeleton. The type of organism will dictate the method of killing .
• Specimens should only be collected with full documentation.
Freezing can cause significant damage to data sets, cold storage is a better recommendation – 2-6 days. Cryogenic storage is a potential avenue for smaller specimens.
Methods (Procedures) of stabilisation
Minimal intervention is the best approach as it preserves more data in the object and leaves an avenue open for potential future research and data collection.
Study skins –
The process is dependent on the condition and size of the specimen
• Smaller ones might be just skinned and dried.
• Larger ones can be cured, tanned, or dried.
• Tanning – when tanning agents are used they can destroy the collagen of the skin. Some institutes send their specimens away for commercial tanning. Tanning is ideal for specimens that will be mounted as it gives the skin flexibility, however the effects on the datasets should be considered.
• Need more research into the deleterious effects of tanning on skins
• Skins that have been dried after preparation (and not tanned) tend to be quite stable (but can be relaxed later on if necessary.
• Traditional data sets gathered from skin include DNA, isotopes, colour, structure of the hair.
• Need more research on the deleterious effects of preparation techniques (Williams ****)
• Bird skins – scrape fat and dry it out – usual process (see http://ornithologyexchange.org/articles/_/educational/working-with-birds...)
• Need more research in this area.
Deterioration processes that are observed on processed include
Shrinkage, fat burn, acidification, loss of colour,
Best practice – Difficult to define and will depend on the size of the specimen, its condition, what it will be used for, etc. Minimal intervention is the best approach.
See appendix for terminology of skin processing techniques and matrix
Effects of solutions and environmental and storage standards including deterioration due to;
• Poor preparation
o There is not enough research in this area. We still don’t know the impact of these older chemical processes and how they affect deterioration.
o Chemical deterioration can cause Fat burn, overall acidification, alkaline buffers and keratin (see below).
• Armature/support problems
o Metal can react with the fatty acids and if in contact with skin will cause corrosion. High nickel, high copper component will cause corrosion if in direct contact with the skin. Metal wire used to stitch skins to cards is corroded.
o Which stainless steel pins should be used? We need research into what type of stainless steel is best.
o Skins can shrink around the armatures and become pierced or damaged.
o Fillers in taxidermy specimens – can be anything from plaster of Paris, straw to metal armatures, to lightweight specimen forms (polyurethane, fiberglass, polystyrene). It was suggested that older (natural) filler materials might act as buffer against RH however they could also move differentially causing
BW comment: can we recommend the incorporation of stable organic material as a buffer? Such as acid-free paper, card, textile? To be discussed.
Environmental Conditions for storage
• Lacking in quantitative data of the actual damage caused by incorrect RH – need more research and publication in this area.
• Mounted taxidermy specimens are vulnerable to fluctuations because they are under tension.
• Gradual fluctuations will impact the specimen less.
• Drier RH is probably better for skins, but too dry will cause damage. Too low will cause embrittlement and result in chemical changes.
• Fluctuations below 40% Relative humidity will cause greater damage to objects than above
• Specimens will reach an equilibrium with their ambient environment. It’s important to remember this when setting parameters, as drastic changes can cause damage (even if they’re within the ideal RH).
• Best practice – Minimum - 40%, Maximum - 55% (65% critical RH for mould growth). Gradual fluctuations are okay, but major and rapid fluctuations need to be reduced. Need to understand what your object is composed of. Should be pragmatic in our recommendations.
o Open display specimens (or open storage) tend to be more vulnerable than those in closed storage.
o How often is pest trapping carried out? May not be necessary to do on a rigorous basis. Can check during the warmer months and near Spring, i.e., known breeding periods of pests. Can also target the specimens that are more vulnerable.
o Best practice – make sure organic material completely removed from skull during preparation
o IF a study skin then ensure that object stored in pest proof environment.
o Initiate or maintain programs of Integrated Pest Management. Extract data, be able to understand and use this data and implement programs of mitigation and response to infestation.
o Some pollutants come from off-gassing of other specimens or storage facilities/containers (see below). Gaseous or vapour pollutants include H2S, SO2, Formaldehyde, Peroxides, Organic acids.
o see storage containers
o External pollutants – most groups don’t actively monitor our external particulate pollutant. No one could actually site any hard data or evidence for external pollutants causing major damage to museum collections. Need more research in this area.
o Dust – Dust is defined here as airborne particles that settle on specimens. A program of dust monitoring is recommended. A huge issue for objects on open display or on open shelving. Can cause damage to specimen is left for a considerable period of time as they act as sites of nucleation. Cleaning (removal of particulate pollutants) can also take a large amount of time.
o Due to introduction of ethanol based fuel in the States, Formaldehyde is now the largest external pollutant.
o Slightly acidic pH for keratins and collagen is good – pH 6 is probably okay.
o Best practice – monitor specimens for active damage and deterioration. Can use scavengers, or some absorbent (e.g. corrosion intercept, charcoal cloth) if necessary for gaseous pollutants. Ensure specimens are stored in closed cabinets or drawers (without being airtight).
• Display recommendations – 50 – 100 lux (depending on the circumstance). Can be damage at 50 lux to some types of feathers. Flash photography isn’t damaging (unless consistent over a long period of time. 0 µW/m2 UV.
• Lux isn’t usually a problem for stored collections.
• Almost all fading colour is the result of light damage. May affect structural colour in feathers.
• Light deterioration can break down keratin, which will then affect the pigment.
• LED lighting has had a good response.
• Best practice – for display – 50 -100 lux. No light in storage conditions.
• To do: link categories of sensitivity to area under consideration and review blue wool sensitivity.
o Didn’t specifically discuss, but isn’t a huge issue unless it is taken to extremes. An issue for working environments and effect on relative humidity.
• Storage containers
o Wood cabinets can off-gas and cause damage to specimens. However, the only visible evidence of this has been observed is shells and bird eggs (Byne’s Disease).
o Peroxides and organic acids off-gassed from wood can cause a problem with specimens. There are many pros with using wood cabinets – buffer against fluctuations in RH, offer better protection against fire). However cost and potential off-gassing from pollutants has led to being it considered unsuitable – NB some museums still use a wooden storage system to store their materials successfully.
o We need more research into the deterioration of plastic containers and the deleterious effects they can have on specimens. Problems occur such as leaching of plasticizers. Certain plastics merit research.
o Difficult to maintain a standard when we are reliant upon commercial manufacturers as they commonly change the recipe without informing the clients.
o Which Polyethylene foams are conservation grade?
BW comment: Zotefoams claim good stability (http://www.zotefoams.com/pages/en/conservation.asphttp://www.zotefoams.c...) and the BM uses this supplier. Other polyethylene foams may have been expanded using CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs or volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
o Hanging of skins exerts a gravitational pull on skins. These are usually corded through natural openings, such as nostrils. Skins lying flat in cabinets is better.
o Can lead to overcrowding in cabinets and drawers and physical damage of specimens- causes deformation.
o Best Practice - Metal cabinetry – epoxy powder coated, well sealed cabinetry with metal (mild steel, aluminium, stainless steel drawers is currently the accepted standard for skins and taxidermy). The inclusion of buffering materials alongside the objects inside the cabinetry should be used to enhance the buffering capacity of the cabinetry. – have raised our cabinets off our floor – help with pests and keeping them level which means the doors have to be closed properly.
o Previous conservation and interventive processes
It is essential that all processes undertaken on skins and taxidermy are recorded (using a format that can be accessed in the future). Where possible processes that are undertaken on objects should be ethical and follow relevant national or international regulations.
Specimen Handling and Transportation
Procedures for handling and moving skins (appendix 1)
o Varies from institute to institute on the types of handling guidelines they provide. Some have them as a part of museum policy, others are done by individual departments and some have nothing in writing. Some of our institutes provide manual handling training courses for all staff members.
o Fully supported and covered with inert materials e.g. Tyvek, Nomex (DuPont Softesse, PTFE sheets, or similar suitable supporting material meeting conservation standards
o Ensure that handling and transfer routes are fully documented and risk assessed and are appropriate to trolleys and specimens
o Trolley or cart with pneumatic or similar tyres which absorb shock
o If hand carrying then the appropriate number of people to fully support the specimen without a health and safety risk
o CH – We add labelling to skins for shipping and transport advising on the dangers associated with specific specimens. This is also useful in terms of disaster planning – then those who are not familiar with the objects will immediately know there are risks associated with them.
o BW – Description of how they pack their mummies for transport. They use a polystyrene bag and a thin polyethylene bag and then expel the air. This allows the bags to be moulded against the bodies. CH – They use Nomex to wrap or line objects/specimens – it’s softer than Tyvek and not as slick.
BW comment: see Appendix II for storage and packing advice
o Best practice –
o To Do: Create a document collating various handling guidelines for skins and taxidermy provided by participants.
• Regional and International Transfer (agreements) Beyond scope of workshop
• Internal movement and tracking
o Discussion about using databases, barcodes and RFID (Radio Frequency Indication Devices) for tracking object movement. The museum world is a bit behind in the technology and at the moment bar coding is rapidly becoming outdated.
Health and Safety
• Health and Safety issues
o Pest treatments
• Previous pest treatments on most organic specimens included the use of pesticides. These objects are now contaminated with mercury and arsenic.
• Mercury salts were used for mold and insect protection and as fixatives for fatty tissues in the preparation process and can remain present on/in the skin.
• CH – Tested previously used botanical cabinets that have been empty for 15 years and they still appear to be off-gassing mercury vapor.
• The risk associated with handling contaminated specimens depend on a lot of factors, including how many are being handled, exposure limits, etc. This area needs more research. PG – we haven’t been able to find any measurable hazard on our skin collections from previous treatments or residues.
• Best practice – Tie long hair back, always wear gloves. Depending on amount of contamination – may need to wear a lab coat or apron, face mask and/or Tyvek cuffs.
• To Do: Create a document outlining the specific risks associated with contaminated specimens. BW will provide a document on sustainability practices.
BW comment: see http://ebookbrowse.com/megan-de-silva-steps-towards-sustainability-ppt-d...
Good advice re waste management, sustainable procurement, low-energy storage, energy management for Museums. See also Journal of the Institute of Conservation Volume 34, Issue 1, 2011, Sustainability in conservation practice by Megan de Silva and Jane Henderson.
o Disease control
• Hantavirus is common in most rodent specimens, but it is not usually the kind that puts people at high risk.
• CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) did a comprehensive review of biohazards for museum professionals. Certain types of specimens will be more likely to carry diseases and health risks (e.g. frozen tissue). Psittacosis is a disease caused by Chlamydia psittaci from pigeon excrement. Rabies and many other pathogens don’t die when you freeze the specimen and are preserved in viable states in tissue collections.
• Archaeological material is unlikely to carry any significant health hazards.
• Ethnographic material is more likely (e.g. anthrax).
• There are publications for taxidermists.
• Best practice – Tie long hair back, always wear gloves. Depending on amount of contamination – may need to wear a lab coat or apron, face mask and/or Tyvek cuffs.
• To Do: Add CDC document to reference list. Create a document outlining the specific risks associated with contaminated specimens.
• Security issues
o Some natural history museum specimens have value and are at risk to theft. Although this is more of a collections’ management issue, it is still relevant to preservation. If something is stolen and taken apart, no form of conservation or preservation is going to save it.
o Best Practice - Ensure that a security program is in place appropriate to the collections. Ensure that you are aware of which specimens are sensitive and vulnerable.
o To Do: Provide a reference list.
• Unique Numbers for individual specimens
o This is another collections management related issue and is outside the scope of this workshop.
o Best practice: For the purposes of this workshop, we assume all museums are up to code and follow protocols, such as giving unique #’s etc. Follow relevant national documentation standards which include Darwin Core metadata set.
o To Do: Provide a list of references for this subject.
Storage and storage environment
• Design of storage environment
o Specimens should be supported and not hung.
o Good cabinets are essential. Don’t want cabinets to be air tight – there needs to be air exchange, otherwise gaseous elements will build up from off-gassing.
o Stay away from open shelving – specimens are more vulnerable to disaster and damage. CH - We would use fire retardant Nomex to cover specimens because of our health and safety protocols. Polyethylene covers are not a good idea as they are a fire hazard and statically attract dust. BW – we have our mummies on open shelving and are making Polyethylene curtains to enclose them.
o Compactor stores – some have brush seals, some are airtight. CH – in the U.S. all compactors have to have a gap between due to fire safety standards.
o Wood versus metal cabinets –
• Powder - coated metal cabinets don’t give off pollutants and if built properly will create a microclimate and are pest-proof.
• Wood cabinets buffer against fluctuations in RH and provide some fire protection.
o CH – We have a folding technique large skins (published a long time ago). 101 Storage Designs will be going up on the AIC website.
o Disagreement among the group on whether installation of fire suppression methods should be recommended? Sprinkler system was the perspective of the majority.
o Best Practice
• Cabinets – Cannot be air-tight - needs to have some form of air exchange to accommodate off-gassing. However, it still needs to have seals that can keep out pests and dust.
o To Do: Produce a bibliography and guidelines for this. Add Library of Congress spec sheets for various materials to bibliography. Add words such as archival, conservation grade to terminology list – ‘Museum-wise’, SPNHC publication has definitions of these things. Add templates for box patterns – as an appendix (Poundbury skull box).
o Shelf type
• Removable drawers, shelves for large objects. Use pH neutral blotting paper to line shelves to absorb oils and fats – Plastazote can be placed under this.
• Keep a handling board at hand for larger specimens. Don’t layer or overcrowd skins – requires too much handling.
• Best practice – Use removable drawers/shelves lined with Plastazote and pH neutral blotting paper. Use a handling board for larger specimens. Maintain one layer of skins per drawer/shelf. Use CH’s folding technique for larger skins if necessary.
• Storage containers - standard composition and lids
o Individual boxes and well-supported. However, it’s harder to monitor pests, have to be opened individually. Also, if it’s off-gassing it’s contained in a microclimate.
o Human remains storage – Hexlite/Cellite panel sealed at edges lined with Plastazote LD35, covered in Tyvek. Specimen is supported with Relic Wrap (PTFE tape) and various forms of Plastazote. Can make pillows for support. Create little hammocks for the most delicate tissue – fabricated with walls of Plastazote covered and pinned into place with Relic wrap on top. Specimen is placed in this ‘hammock’ and then more tape is placed on top and pinned into place. Melinex trays can be produced to contain small items.
o There is a SPNHC list of approved materials for use with technical specifications. Can also use the materials spec sheets from the Library of Congress to tell manufacturers exactly what you want.
o Difficult to assess if actually damage is happening to specimens as a result of the breakdown of packaging.
o Polyethylene bags are okay as long as they are big enough to not cause any compression of the specimen. Not ideal for long-term storage. There is a risk of mechanical damage when specimens are removed and replaced into the bags by researchers. Haven’t found any evidence of polyethylene degradation. A good alternative for a low-use collection.
o Polypropylene boxes are stable enough to use for the short-term and are a good alternative to more expensive solutions.
o Best Practice
• Containers - ‘pH netural, lignin free, min. sulphur content that’s ok, alpha cellulose fibre, non-buffered’. Palletise large specimens.
o Best Practice Overall - Should be well supported not hanging, pH neutral, visible, not stacked, archival materials (see above), protected from dust without causing compressional damage, appropriate to size of object, air exchange in cabinet with suitable seal to keep bugs and dust out.
Monitoring Equipment and standards
• Should be able to monitor, interpret and use the data
• Relative Humidity – (see above too).
o Best practice – Minimum - 40%, Maximum - 55% (65% critical RH for mould growth). Gradual fluctuations are okay, but major and rapid fluctuations need to be reduced. Need to understand what your object is composed of. The group needs to gather more information on the preferred standards however some best practice element will come into final decision
• Temperature – Didn’t specifically discuss, but isn’t a huge issue unless it is taken to extremes.
o Best Practice – have an IPM program that uses the data appropriately. Mechanisms to respond and protocols in place to limit infestation. The group would not recommend use of heat treatments for skins and taxidermy. Freezing is considered to be te best process for treating We use freezing for skins and taxidermy. Can’t use CO2 in UK. CO2 used in the States but can use anoxia. Where practicable the process of pest treatment for an object should be documented.
• Handling (see above)
• Light (as above)
o Best Practice – have a monitoring program in place – actively look for noticeable damage. Have mechanisms to respond and protocols in place to limit amount of pollutants.
• Destructive Sampling protocols
o Each museum has their own policy. In general, they try not to allow over-sampling of a specimen and see if previous samples can be reused. If there’s no new knowledge coming out of these it shouldn’t be allowed. Not within the scope of this workshop – more a collections management issue. Destructive sampling information and policy is being drawn together as part of the botanical collections workshop
Storage Media (already discussed)
• Range of storage media
• Current practice per material e.g. mammals, Herps, orhithology
• Pros and Cons of different solutions
• Deterioration issues
• Will be modular so we can offer half day sessions and so that sessions can be bolted together into courses that can be targeted on individual needs (flexible audience)
• The course will not address specific conservation treatments but will refer to some basic care processes. Additional
• Focus on taxidermists and museum staff as the target audience. (May include long-term volunteers or even universities, curators, etc.)
• Can add hands-on stuff to the various areas – including condition reporting (letting them learn how to look at things). Students have to list every material, key that to condition and then describe a narrative of what’s happening and how to mitigate this, look at deterioration mechanisms, practical storage, etc.
• Not supposed to be prescriptive in how it’s done, but what is taught.
• Ethics have to come first in the syllabus…
• Ethics first, material science next, Deterioration mechanisms with material science, then prep and processing with deterioration mechanisms…
• Use the objects as a vehicle throughout the entire course…
• Practical session in storage containers –
• Key learning targets
o Understand the object, recognize damage, assess and condition report, recognizing harmful conditions for your collections, knowing the importance of the data sets, ethics behind these types of collections, how to mitigate deteriorative mechanisms
• Milestones for teaching
o Develop further training after the workshops – a chance to introduce results of new research
Key Research questions
• Effects of RH on materials, deteriorative effects from processing and preparation, fat burn, how much do pesticides actually affect the specimen and our health, off-gassing and pollutants, does the deterioration of packaging actually negatively impact on specimens, deterioration of plastics and if/how this affects specimens.
Review if this overlaps with Leather Conservation Centre projects and include in review and the new one that is happening. Review Guild of Taxidermy and NatSCA perpsectives on this area. Doing a skins and leather practical tanning workshops
Lecturers will be drawn from the review and standards groups
To Do: Organize bibliography into distinct sections. Create a list of projects from this workshop that students may be able to do as research projects.
Julian Carter Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museums Wales
Allyson Rae Freelance
Barbara Wills British Museum
Richard Sabin Natural History Museum
Peter Giere Museum für Naturkunde
Catherine Hawks National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Inst.
Christiane Quassier Museum für Naturkunde
Chris Collins Natural History Museum
Arianna Bernucci Natural History Museum
Skin processing definitions and notes
Definition of leather
Leather is the chemically stabilised form of (principally but not exclusively) mammal skins. Hide or skin has its original fibrous structure more or less intact and is tanned to be imputrescible. The hair or wool may or may not have been removed. It is also made from a hide or skin that has been split into layers or segmented either before or after tanning. A fundamental property of leather is that, while raw skin is subject to rapid bacterial degradation, leather is resistant even if it is kept wet (Kite and Thomson 2006).
Fur and Leather definitions (courtesy of Roy Thomson)
• Fur: Where the fur is normally retained on the skin, this is commonly called ‘fur’ (leopard, mink, etc.)
• Hair-on: The term ‘hair-on’ is used where it is normal for the skin to have the hair taken off (calf, goat, etc.) but the hair has been left on.
• Fleece: should be used to refer to the wool after it has been taken off the skin.
• Wool-on, shearling: Sheepskin with the wool still attached is called ‘wool-on’ or ‘shearling’. Modern fashion usage refers to garments made from these materials (or artificial imitations) as fleeces, but fashion terms are volatile.
These are generally agreed leather industry definitions, based on the British Standard Glossary of leather terms (BS2780:1983).
Notes re species, age and sex variation
Each species shows a distinct structure (varying for example in total thickness and the dimensions of the upper and lower skin layers). Similarly, the skins of young animals differ from older (young skin is thinner and more supple). Male differs from female; for example female underbellies may be more elastic (to accommodate dimensional changes due to reproduction). Thus if a fully representative collection of skins were made it would include young and old, male and female, different parts of the skin: butt, shoulder and belly areas).
Brief notes re deterioration of vegetable tans
The primary mechanisms causing deterioration of the collagen structure in parchment and vegetable tanned leather are acid hydrolysis (caused by air pollutants) and oxidation (caused by heat and light). One of the two mechanisms predominates depending on the storage conditions. However acid hydrolysis seems to be the more aggressive of the two.
Table of skin preparation methods, advantages and disadvantages in terms of long-term stability and range of information retained for skin collections
Skin preparation method Advantages Disadvantages
Skin dried under controlled conditions, no other preparation Greater range of original material present (including hair if desirable).
No contaminants from preparation techniques to obscure data.
Collagen fibre structure is compressed (though may be regained on re-hydration).
Skin is stiff, cannot be rolled for storage.
Will deteriorate quickly on wetting.
Oil-tanned pseudo-leather (brain-tans) Good longevity, may keep the hair on if desirable.
Supple and flexible, may be rolled for storage purposes. Addition of fats inhibits identification of original oil and fats
Limed hide Preparation for further tanning processes Removal of much original material: interfibrillary proteins; keratin. Collagen swells due to the alkaline pH. Collagen fibre bundles split. Removal of natural grease and fats
Salt-cured skins Stabilised skins in preparation for further tanning processes. Keeps range of skin structures and contents relatively intact. Collagen fibre structure is compressed (though may be regained on re-hydration). A temporary cure, it may be reversed on wetting. Stiff.
Aldehyde-tanned leather Formaldehyde-tan is supple, spongy and flexible, may be rolled for storage purposes.
Glutaraldehyde tanning used commercially.
Oxazolidine produces an effective stable tannage, pale in colour. Disadvantages of pre-treatment preparation above, plus the addition of aldehydes. Now restricted due to toxicity.
Glutaraldehyde leathers are yellow-orange colour leather.
Vegetable-tanned leather (hydrolysable tannins) Supple and flexible, may be rolled for storage purposes.
Usually various shades of brown, however pale-coloured leather may be produced. All disadvantages of limed hide preparation above, plus the addition of tannins (see notes regarding decay patterns). However, good vegetable-tanned leathers can be more stable in the long term than chrome-tanned leathers
Vegetable-tanned leather (condensed tannins) Supple and flexible, may be rolled for storage purposes.
Usually various shades of brown, All disadvantages of limed hide preparation above, plus the addition of tannins.
Chemically unstable, break down relatively rapidly, so ultimately unstable for collection purposes.
Leather reddens on exposure to light
Mineral tanning agents: chrome-tanned leather Supple and flexible, may be rolled for storage purposes.
Very stable, but breaks down more completely and rapidly than vegetable-tanned leather. All disadvantages of limed hide preparation above, plus the addition of chrome tan, and possibly by additions of other tans.
Duck-egg blue in colour, usually modified by the addition of further colorants.
Mineral tanning agents: alum-tawed skins Supple and flexible, may be rolled for storage purposes. All disadvantages of limed hide preparation above.
Addition of other materials (fats, salt, flour etc.) inhibits identification of original oil and fats.
A relatively unstable method, tawed leather will deteriorate on wetting.
Modern white tans (titanium, zirconium and other mixed tans) Supple and flexible, may be rolled for storage purposes. Pale in colour All disadvantages of limed hide preparation above.
Drying skin via solvent baths Supple and flexible, may be rolled for storage purposes.
Good longevity, may keep the hair on if desirable Addition of fats inhibits identification of original fats
Skins dried under controlled conditions
Resembling the preparation of parchment and vellum, the skin is prepared by drying unhaired pelts under tension. Parchment/vellum differs in that pre-treatment includes soaking the hide in a lime bath when the hairs are removed. Parchment normally contains a certain amount of calcite from the production and some natural fats.
The skin is impregnated with a range of fatty materials manipulated to penetrate the skin. Widely used by tribal and other peoples from ancient times. Useful tanning agents contain fatty acids, polyunsaturated. It is less a chemical bonding process than a physical interaction with the triple helix of the collagen. A synthetic version of oil tanning is to use a sulphonyl chloride. In native use (Plains Indians, for example) the brains of the animal are used to tan the hide, so a high proportion of phospholipids are found, which act as excellent lubricants. Further stabilization is introduced by smoking over a wood fire.
A pre-treatment for hides: soaking in an alkali solution to stabilize usually prior to vegetable-tanning.
A temporary pre-treatment for hides and furskins: typically salt is scattered on to layered fresh pelts to inhibit bacterial decay. Later soaked in water to remove in preparation for tanning.
Aldehyde -tanned leather
Formaldehyde (typically used in preserving biological specimens or embalming) is presently being phased out due to toxicity. Glutaraldehyde is used commercially, producing yellow-orange colour leather. Oxazolidine produces an effective ‘though acridly odiferous’ tannage.
The leather is prepared, after pre-treatment, by immersion in plant polyphenols (tannins) found in vegetable matter such as tree bark. It results in a supple, strong, varied leather, brown in colour. Two classifications: condensed tannins and hydrolysable tannins; the latter are significantly more stable.
Mineral tanning agents: chrome-tanned leather
Invented in 1858, chromium sulphate and other salts of chromium have been widely used since the mid-1880s. This process dominated leather technology until very recently, now being overtaken by less toxic tanning methods. Very stable, relatively little tanning agent required. Often used in combination with other re-tanning agents, this makes it very versatile. The unmodified colour is a pale blue.
Mineral tanning agents: aluminium III salts
Used by the ancient Egyptians among others, alum tawing is a relatively reversible method (exposure to water will reverse it) producing a soft white leather.
Modern white tans
‘Wet white’ leathers are produced by combinations of synthetic tannins, vegetable tannins, glutaraldehydes and minerals, such as aluminium and zirconium. Titanium produces a soft, white leather. Colourless, it has been used for tanning sheepskins with the wool on for rugs. Zirconium is relatively recently developed, an inorganic equivalent to vegetable tanning in terms of chemistry.
Wet white tanning allows the manufacture of chromium free leathers with the same equipment that a chrome tannery uses. A wide variety of different types of leather can successfully be produced using wet white system, including automotive leathers, upholstery leather, garment leather and shoe upper leather.
Drying skin via solvent baths
Dehydrating skins (usually unhaired) via immersion in solvents such as acetone results in a soft, flexible, stable skin resembling an alum-tawed skin, especially if manipulated while just damp (Kite and Thomson 2006 p2).
Kite, M. & R. Thomson (eds). 2006. Conservation of leather and related materials. Elsevier
Further information available from
A mounting and packing system for fragile specimen material for use with the collections of the Natural History Museum, adapted from the support system of the Fourth Cataract bodies
Mounting and storage
Described below is a storage system designed to effectively support the varied contours and materials of fragile specimens, so keeping them stable under conventional storage conditions and during study. The design below was evolved to support human remains, lying horizontally, so would need adaptation to support other forms.
The criteria for choosing support materials is that these should be relatively cheap and easily available; where possible should be sustainable with a low carbon footprint; and that the system should be simple and quick, undertaken straightforwardly by those with minimal training and instruction. This is in addition to the generally-accepted criteria such as the use of stable, tested, appropriate storage materials. A handling protocol for those studying the collection should also be in place, and referred to before study or handling.
The NHM stored materials include leather/skins; and biological tissues and bodies (bones, skin, tendons, hair, teeth etc.) and possibly also structural taxidermy materials. Varying in condition, the specimens may be vulnerable and fragile, with some delamination.
The aim, on treatment to improve storage, is to keep the majority of the specimen in clear view so the fewest number of visible supports are desirable. No interventive conservation measures are desirable or required. The surfaces of the mount and supports in contact with the specimen should be smooth, and the baseboard shock-absorbent and supportive. As the material is primarily for study, some of the retaining smaller supports and Plastazote (polyethylene foam) blocks should be removable so that further access is possible when necessary. It should be clear where and how to replace these back in the correct position. Some other permanent supports may not be easily removable; these should be clearly signaled on the mount; either these remain in place or are removed by a conservator who understands the structures.
The first step in planning a store refurbishment will of course be to survey and evaluate the requirements of the collection, calculate space, materials, time and costs as well as the available practical help.
• Create a stable baseboard (e.g. from Cellite 220 aluminium honeycomb) for each specimen or related group. (Cutting to size may be done by the supplier.) If using Cellite, clean all surfaces thoroughly first. To smooth rough edges, first sand down then cover with a stable tape such as adhesive gummed linen tape. Note that Cellite is opaque when CT-scanning, so if planning to scan, choose another support board that is less dense.
• Place Plastazote battens beneath the stable support; LD45 was chosen because of its resilience and ability to absorb vibration. Adhere to base of Cellite if desirable.
• Cut a rectangular piece of Plastazote (LD33, 3 – 5 cm thick) to the dimensions of baseboard. Wrap with Tyvec hospital sheeting, the rough side on the interior, secure using a hot-melt glue-gun. A thicker Plastazote may need no Cellite support beneath when mounting a small individual.
• Lay out the specimen in the most ‘readable’ way, on curatorial advice. Allow c10cm spare space around all edges beyond the laid-out specimen. Start by supporting the areas in the centre, creating side-supports and/or base supports as desirable from Plastazote, polyester wadding, Relic-wrap PTFE, PTFE tape, etc.
• The specimen supports and side-supports are held in place using stable steel pins (‘Austerlitz’ pins have been used successfully) inserted through the support into the Tyvec-covered Plastazote ‘mattress’ below. Thus, each Plastazote shape or PTFE ‘doughnut’ is made so that pins can be driven through at the edges to hold it in position. Pins may be colour coordinated (for example, by threading a sequin on each) to send out messages; green means removal is possible, red means removal is potentially damaging. If placed wrongly, the supports and pads may be replaced easily in a different position; modification is straightforward.
• Wrap vulnerable tissue with PTFE tape
• The areas that need side and base supports should be chosen with care; any supports/pads should be in contact with the most stable areas of the specimen. Having estimated the minimum number, positioning and height, each is shaped using a suitable tool, to match the adjacent area of the specimen as closely as possible. Tools include: scalpels and sharp blades, Thermocutter, rasps and abrasive papers.
• Create further tailored supports using PTFE sheet, gathered to support voids and vulnerable areas, or wrapping soft polyester wadding to create a soft, smooth tailored cushion. These cushions may also be pinned in position. A ‘hammock’ made of Relic-wrap over a void, sandwiched between Plastazote ‘walls’ creates the softest of supports for vulnerable tissue.
• Make Correx boxes to slide beneath the specimen support, for storage of samples and loose material. polypropylene sheet to contain samples
• Label clearly. Take photos during processing, front and back, and have this easily accessible in storage trays for reference.
Packing for transport of vulnerable material
The following system was devised for the transport of a fragile naturally-mummified body to a private hospital that had offered its facilities for CT-scanning of human remains from the collections in December 2011. It may be adapted for a range of other large, fragile specimens. Conventional wooden crates were used, along with the usual Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan crating system with expanded foam padding below and to the sides of the board on which the skeleton rests.
The primary modification to packing was the use of polystyrene balls as packing filler; used in slightly different ways these created a range of soft to mouldable cushions. First, a Tyvec –covered ‘mattress’ was made for the body to rest upon, sealing the bag with a hand-held crimp sealer (model 150DH). Initially the crimp sealer takes several minutes to heat up, then seals Tyvec efficiently within 10 seconds when clamped in the jaws. The ‘mattress’ was first made into a bag, then filled with the balls, the air partially expelled, and the open end sealed. The body then rested on this, which is placed on its stable board and covered with Tyvec. A number of thin polythene bags were then filled with polystyrene balls to make packing cushions to place around the perimeter of the mattress and above the body. The polythene cushions were given different qualities dependent on how much air was expelled. Lots of air within the bag allows the balls to move and flow. Expelling air on sealing results in cushions that are ‘mouldable’ and hold a given shape. The more air expelled, the harder the cushions. Soft bags were placed against the body, mouldable ones around the edges to keep thee in place.
Notes re static electricity
Polystyrene balls, as they move, readily generate static electricity, cling to a variety of surfaces, and may affect fragile objects. The charge can be minimised by using an anti-static pistol, such as Milty Zerostat 3 Anti-Static Gun. High humidity will dissipate any charge, as will a conductor such as metal. With the body, simple handling and leaving the bags for a while worked sufficiently well for the static to fade. The body was also wrapped in Tyvec which had been treated with an anti-static agent. However, in low relative humidities all types of Tyvec will build up a static charge, as will polythene bags.
Antoine, D and Fletcher, A. 2014. Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum. Chapter 6 Conservation of Human Remains from Archaeological Contexts by Barbara Wills, Clare Ward and Vanessa Sáiz Gómez with contributions by Capucine Korenburg and Julianne Phippard pp 50 – 73.
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7.1 USEFUL RESOURCES:
Ethos Project, British Library.
Access to UK university theses / dissertations. http://ethos.bl.uk
ICOM-CC Natural History Working Group
Museum Pest Net: a valuable resource for pest management.
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC)
Natural History Collections Listserver (NHCOLL)
The Feather Atlas
U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory.
Scans of North American birds flight feathers for identification.
UCLA Conservation Genetics Resource Centre.
Genetic material repository; birds and mammals. Bird collection consists of feather and blood samples. Currently (2005) mainly Central and West Africa, North, Central and South America. http://www.ioe.ucla.edu
8.0 Environmental Standards