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One of the many challenges curatorial departments face, especially within the Natural Sciences, is making specimens that are stored in our collections accessible to the wider public in a form where they can get a real sense of the what these specimens actually look and feel like. There is no real substitute to having specimens on display in the galleries and being able to see the texture, shape and scale at first hand, but this not always possible as gallary space is limited and only a tiny proportion of the 3 million specimens we hold in our natural sciences collections can ever be out on display at any one time.   

The museum is undertaking a large scale project to make our collections visible online in terms of collection data and images, but an exciting technique is now allowing us to produce and display 3D models of our specimens in fantastic detail, which is probably the closest you can get to having the specimen in front of you.

3D Scanning has been around for sometime now. Back in 2012, the department of Geology (now part of the department of Natural Sciences) was a lead partner in a JISC funded project to digitise all Type fossils held in the UK. Many of our type fossils were scanned in 3D during this project and are avalible to view on the website (3d-fossils.ac.uk). However, the technology for 3D scanning has moved on rapidly in the time since, and we are fortunate to now have the one of the the most up-to-date 3D scanners available at present - the Artec Spider HD. Our new scanner allows us the capture detail beyond the level we could previously achieve, and in much less time.

The museum now has a presence on the popular 3D model web platfom SketchFab, which is host to thousands of models produced by the public as well as other museums and gallaries across the world. Making the 3D models we produce available on the is platform allows us to promote our collections to a large audience who although may already be engaged in 3D modelling, may not necessarily be engaging with museums.

Dracoraptor hangani by Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales on Sketchfab

By no means would we expect to create models of our entire collections (the time and resources required would be huge!) but scanning some of our more scientifically important or, perhaps, charismatic specimens allows us to get parts of our collections out there for the public to engage with in a new way.

We are still learning the capabilities (and limitations) of our new scanner, and discovering which specimens and objects are best suited for scanning, but over the coming months more models will be added to the museum sketchfab site and will begin to be integrated into our own online collection websites.  

When you turn a corner in our Evolution of Wales Galleries don’t be surprised if you find Dracoraptor hangani, the new Welsh dinosaur, peering down on you from its perch on a rock.

The skeleton of this small meat eating dinosaur, currently on display in the entrance hall of the museum, has fascinated the public but palaeontologists at Amgueddfa Cymru wanted a life-like model of the animal to really show how it looked when it was alive 200 million years ago in the Jurassic.

Bob Nicholls a Bristol–based palaeoartist was commissioned to undertake this task. First Bob had to undertake extensive research to enable him reconstruct the dinosaur. He examined the bones and drew an anatomically accurate skeleton, comparing it to other species. Then added the soft tissue and considered how it would have lived before making an anatomically accurate model using steel, polystyrene, and clay. This was then moulded and a cast made of fibreglass and resin.

It was important to make sure that the reconstruction was as scientifically accurate as possible. Palaeontologists think that the body might have been covered in a feathery down, and possibly with quills along its back and Bob carefully applied feathers to the surface of the model and long quill-like feathers on the back, tail and neck. This was a meticulous process because they all had to be attached in a way that looked natural.

The project took over three months of painstaking work and after it was completed Bob said “There is no greater honour for a palaeo-artist than to be the first to show the world what a long extinct animal looked like”.

The result is incredible - you can imagine Dracoraptor jumping down into the gallery and running around.

During the past two weeks our Geology galleries were closed for essential maintenance. Now they are open to the public again, much to the delight of anyone looking after dinosaur-mad 6-year olds, who, quite rightly, have been disappointed by the temporary withdrawal of some of National Museum Cardiff’s most popular displays.

So in you come for a peek of all those refreshed displays. But what’s that? Seemingly nothing has changed?? Everything still looks as it did before the ‘major refurbishment’ – so what was so major about it?

The idea of undertaking maintenance was not to change the displays – apparently our visitors are happy with the way they are – but to update technology and fix things that were broken. This is why you have to look closely to spot what we have been so busy doing. Very busy in fact; including the planning phase, which took several months, we had at least 23 people working on the gallery. It was very busy every day, with staff and contractors working around each other, from the dinosaur foot prints pavement all the way up to the ceiling (which is 12m high in this gallery).

What you won’t notice is that the fire beams were replaced to alert us early and reliably in the event of a fire. You’ll have to look closely to spot the new lights: the spot lights underneath the ceiling are now all converted to LED. You may find that the image quality of the display screens is a million times better than it was before. What you certainly should notice is that the displays are much cleaner. We also repaired damage to displays. As the saying goes: if you touch - we need to touch up. The paint work, that is. And if anyone happens to walk into a display case the specimens inside move sometimes. If we don’t spot this early enough, they can topple off their shelf and break. We used the opportunity last week to put them all back in their place, hence our plea to you: this is now not a race to see how quickly they can be knocked off their perch again, so absolutely no prize for anyone who thinks they can dislodge the displays. Our specimens – which, actually, belong not to the museum but to the Welsh public – are fragile and repairing them costs tax payers’ money, which we do our best not to waste.

There is one thing that is entirely new to the gallery, something which will be obvious immediately to said 6-year old dinosaur enthusiast (and those of any other age, too): the new Welsh dinosaur now has a permanent home as part of our dinosaur display. A life-sized artist’s impression, feathers and colours and all, is now peeking from the early Jurassic back to its Triassic cousins. It is truly magnificent and inspiring, and actually one of the first models to represent the latest research that these kinds of dinosaurs were clad in feathers. The enthusiast in myself wants to add pathos to this announcement, which is difficult to express in a blog. Hence I’ll stop myself right here and simply invite you to come and see it.

Oh, one more thing. While working in the displays in the past two weeks we found countless sweet wrappers, discarded chewing gums and bits of sandwiches and apples in various hidden corners. These kinds of things encourage pests which we don’t want in the museum any more than you would want them in your house. We have the restaurant, café and schools sandwich room where you are welcome to eat, and there are bins in the Main Hall before you enter the galleries. We would be immensely grateful if you didn’t take any food into the galleries.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

In the last two weeks our Geology galleries at National Museum Cardiff have been closed to the public due to major refurbishments. We are coming to the end now, we are just asking for your patience for a few more days before opening the permanent exhibition again.

We have already written about some of the work in the gallery: cleaning and repairing displays and changing lighting. In addition, we have replaced display screens and fire beams, and here’s why and how.

There are a number of videos in the galleries which used to be played from medieval cathode ray tubes – if you are as old as me you will remember the old TV screens which were always surprisingly front-heavy when you had to lift them. They are larger (deeper, which limits exhibition space), use more electricity and have a lower resolution than the new flat screens we just installed. If you are a regular visitor you will notice that the screens are not sticking out of the wall as much as they used to. And the resolution is sooo much better now! The videos are now much clearer for you, the visitor, while we, the museum, will save money on our electricity bills which we can then invest in improved collection care and exhibitions – everybody wins.

At the same time we used the gallery closure to work at height – underneath the ceiling, to be precise. Fire safety is more than a legal requirement for us; it is part of our work to care for the national collections. After all, if the museum burns down a large part of your heritage disappears forever. From time to time, even fire and smoke detection equipment needs servicing. This was undertaken this week by a specialist company. And this certainly caused a bit of a stir in the building.

As in your house, the smoke detection equipment is situated underneath the ceiling. It’s just that the ceiling in our Geology galleries is about 12m high. We can’t get there with ladders or scissor lifts, not to speak of all the displays that are in the way. The solution was to climb up the walls. So if any staff are still wondering what why there was a man dangling from the ceiling – it wasn’t a burglar, as in the 1996 film Mission: Impossible, but a rope access operator keeping the museum save from fire.

We are now in the process of completing the last few pieces of work and cleaning up in the next few days. The exhibition will be open to the public again on Tuesday 5th July.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

Our Geology galleries at National Museum Cardiff are still closed for essential maintenance. We are changing things around a bit – out with the old and in with the new: we are changing old display screens for new ones; old light bulbs for new ones; old fire beams new ones; old dust – well, for no dust at all. Yes, the dinosaurs are having their vertebrae tickled to release some of the dust of the centuries and keep them looking pretty.

Actually, if you have been to see the dinosaurs recently there is a good chance you have left some of yourself on them. Dust in our galleries is composed of tiny particles that come into the building through our ventilation system (although we have very good air filtration). Other dust particles are fibres from the clothes you wear. But the bulk of dust is, actually – well, there is no easy way of saying this: bits of YOU. Especially hair and skin.

Humans are living beings whose bodies renew themselves constantly. Our skin is our largest organ. New cells are formed constantly at the base layer of the epidermis (the outer part of the skin). These new cells move up through the layers of the epidermis and die as they are further away from blood vessels that supply nutrients. Eventually they reach the corneum, the outermost layer, and slough off.

We love having you in the museum (actually, next time you visit why don’t you bring a friend who hasn’t been for a while). But if you shed your skin while you are in the museum you are inevitably leaving a small part of your body in the building. Nice.

These particles are tiny and very light. They will happily settle on surfaces. Our dinosaurs (and, of course, all other displays) provide ideal surfaces for dust to settle. And no, dust bunnies do not evolve into dust rhinos – so there is no need to set up protective zones to save these cute little things.

Dust will form a layer on objects, which, contrary to popular opinion by people who dislike cleaning, is not protective. On the contrary: dust attracts moisture from the air and then becomes very reactive, which can lead to corrosion and other forms of damage to our objects. This is not only unsightly but can result in expensive conservation treatments or even irreparable damage.

We’re in the business of heritage preservation for the long-term. We want to help keep all of the important national collections for generations to come. This includes removing your dead skin cells from the dinosaur skeletons while we have the space to work in the gallery.

And no, we would not get rid of our vacuum cleaner because it is only collecting dust.

Our Geology galleries are going to re-open on Tuesday 5th July.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.