Amgueddfa Blog: Conservation

Written by Caitlin Jenkins, MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University

I’m Caitlin, an MSc Conservation Practice student from Cardiff University and I have just finished my summer placement at National Museum Cardiff. I’ve been working with conservator Julian Carter on the natural history collections, with the last five weeks focused on preparations for the museum’s summer exhibition, Snakes!

The first week saw me elbow deep in jars full of snakes, as we worked our way through getting 32 fluid preserved specimens ready for display. Although the snakes had already undergone previous treatment, many were very old and in need of attention. After checking the jars’ condition, we added or replaced conservation fluid as required.

Replacing the preserving fluid in the jars

Many snakes needed to be rehomed in new jars. Some preservationists use wires or mountings, but we chose to follow the natural shape of the snake and its flexibility to guide its positioning within the jar. My favourite of the specimens was a grass snake that had been preserved in the act of eating a toad (with one leg dangling from its mouth...poor toad!)

Topping up the preserving fluid for a grass snake

I was also able to assist with preserving a new addition to this collection – a boa constrictor named Aeron. After formaldehyde injections and several fluid changes, we needed to find an extra-large shiny new jar, because he was over a metre long. Aeron has now bagged a starring role as the centrepiece of his display case. I really enjoyed this experience, and it has given me a fantastic insight into the complexities and potential of fluid preservation.

Injecting the Boa with preserving fluid

Rhodri Viney from our Digital media team filmed the whole process of preserving the Boa

Aeron the Boa looking magnificent in the gallery

My other major project was the treatment of three snake models destined to be part of a large interactive exhibit within Snakes! Two were painted plaster models of a rattle snake and a king cobra. These incredibly detailed antiques were perhaps cast from real specimens. The third was a moulded rubber and polystyrene grass snake model from the 1960s. The models had survived in remarkably good condition given their age, they just needed a little ‘zhoosh’ to make them display-ready. Light brushing and swabbing with water and mild detergent was all that was needed to remove ingrained dust. Any loose or flaking areas were consolidated to ensure that they didn’t become further detached from the model.

Cleaning the rattlesnake model

Nevertheless, small elements were missing from each model. The grass snake model posed a specific conservation risk, as rubber and plastics can become unstable over time. Its tongue became fragmented during cleaning and unfortunately proved too badly degraded to reattach. Using photographs of the real-life snake species as a guide, I fashioned replacement tongues for this and the king cobra model from a strong plant-based fibre known as Japanese tissue. They were secured in place and painted to blend them into the jaw area. Being able to see the immediate improvement after each snake ‘facelift’ was very satisfying - this took cosmetic surgery to a whole new level!

Finally, the finished models were settled into their new home for the summer – a large interactive exhibit affectionately dubbed ‘the snake pit’. I’d become so immersed in their treatment over the last five weeks that I was kind of sad to see them go – but it was satisfying to see them looking their best and used in the spirit for which they were originally created.

The finished snakes in their jars ready to go up to the gallery

I’ve really enjoyed working on Snakes! from preparation to completed display – it’s been a fantastic experience. If you are in the vicinity of the museum, pleasssse pay them a visit.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.

On the 22nd June our new summer exhibition opened. This family friendly exhibition runs until September and delves into the captivating life of snakes, helping you to find out more about these extraordinary and misunderstood creatures. We are hoping to feature more detailed stories about all of the things mentioned below in a series of blogs running through July and August so keep tuning in to find out more.

Dr Rhys Jones at our opening launch event.

Snakes is a touring exhibition created by a company called Blue Tokay with added bonus content generated by our team. Work began on bringing together all of this way back in September 2018 and since then we have been busy researching, writing text and preparing some great specimens for you all to enjoy.

The main exhibition covers all aspects of the lives of snakes, so we focused our efforts on highlighting our collections at the museum. We hold over 3.5 million natural history specimens here, and as you can imagine, not everything is on display. We hold a small collection of 500 reptiles from all over the world. These are mostly preserved in alcohol and stored in jars, but we also have skeletons, skins and eggs. We chose 32 of our best snakes to go out on display. Each of these were carefully rehoused and conserved as many of the specimens were old and in need of work.

Some of the fantastic snake collections at the museum.

Our Conservation intern, Caitlin Jenkins, hard at work rehousing the snakes.

But it’s not just snakes in jars. We have also displayed some fantastic casts of 49 million years old fossil snakes, and 3D printed the vertebra of Titanoboa, the largest snake that ever lived.

Snake evolution case featuring casts of snake fossils.

One of my favourite features of the exhibit are our objects dealing with snake folklore and mythology, featuring a 13th century manuscript showing how snakes were used in medicinal remedies. Also some fantastic ‘snakestones’, actually fossil ammonites with snake heads carved on to the top.

Getting out the Snakestones from the collections.

You may also recognise the statue of Perseus that has long been displayed in our main hall. Perseus is enjoying his new surroundings, with Medusa’s snake ridden head looking positively sinister with the new lighting.

Perseus with the severed head of the serpent haired Medusa.

The exhibition features six live snakes and as I’m sure you can imagine, bringing live animals into a museum requires a LOT of preparation. We have done a great deal of work to ensure that their time with us is spent in 5 star accommodation. Their ‘vivaria’ are purpose built to ensure our snakes are well cared for, including warm and cool spots, as well as a water feature for a bathe. We have a fantastic (and very brave) set of staff who are volunteering their time to looking after them including changing water bowls, and clearing up their poo! Dr Rhys Jones (Cardiff University) has been fantastic with helping throughout this whole process, including coming in every week to feed them. The snakes are all provided by a company called Bugs n Stuff, you can see a video of them installing the live snakes here.

The largest of our live snakes, Prestwick, the Jungle Carpet Python.

Dr Rhys Jones with some of our staff at the live snake care team meeting.

Guy Tansley from Bugs N Stuff with Mela, the Boa constrictor.

Finally, our fantastic learning department, design team and technicians have worked hard to add some fun activities for all to enjoy. Our Spot the Snake pit features, amongst other things, two beautifully conserved models of a cobra and a rattlesnake that date back to 1903, and a real freeze-dried adder! We also have a snake expert quiz, a world map of snakes, and drawing and colouring stations. Volunteers will be in the gallery periodically across the summer with snake handling specimens including a real full length skin of an African Rock Python.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.

 

Were you amongst among the record number of people who enjoyed our recent ‘Tim Peake’ and ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ exhibitions at National Museum Cardiff? Did you realise that, while you were in the public galleries, there were workers with hard hats and power tools working to improve the building?

We are currently undertaking a large amount of maintenance works in the museum. We do this in such a way to minimise the disturbance to our visitors as much as possible. We want you to enjoy your experience at the museum and be inspired. During the coming months, however, scaffolding will be erected around parts of the building. We are also going to get a temporary over roof on the oldest part of the museum.

Given that this part of the building was opened as long ago as April 1927 by King George V it is now due some tender loving care. Owing to the ravages of time, the roof has developed a few leaks which we are going to repair this year. This also involves having to close some galleries temporarily, for example the Ceramics and Photography galleries. We do apologise for the inconvenience, but these closures are necessary to allow us to undertake the work on the roof and associated internal works.

Galleries will reopen refreshed in the Autumn of 2019, once the works are completed. The brilliant news is that we will be able to present exhibitions without having to worry about a leaking roof. Associated electrical rewiring will also reduce the fire risk in the museum.

Other works we are undertaking - unbeknown to most people as these are happening in our basement - are further electrical works and substantial improvements to our air conditioning systems. This includes the installation of new air conditioning equipment to replace old equipment which will make the museum much more environmentally sustainable.

We are undertaking these works, with kind support of Welsh Government, to protect the Welsh national collection. We constantly strive to improve the way we care for the three million objects housed at National Museum Cardiff. The collections allow us to refresh displays regularly and put on exhibitions with new themes – check out our new ‘People and Plants’ exhibition of the museum’s economic Botany collection. Collections are also used for research, study, teaching, commemoration and many other functions.

Hence, there are many reasons why we would want to do our best to preserve the collections as best we can. The maintenance works during the coming months will greatly assist us with our collection care and, if these occasionally impact on our public spaces, we do ask that you bear with us – the works are temporary but the benefits will be long-lasting.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter. Follow the progress of the maintenance works during the coming months in 2019 on Twitter using the hashtag #museumcare.

 

The National Waterfront Museum is one of the partners in the Angelshark Project, which aims to gather information, both current and historic, about this protected species, one of the rarest sharks in the world. Prior to a roadshow at the Museum on 15 and 16 February, Jake Davies, from the Zoological Society of London, shares his work.

Angels of Wales - How can you help?

Angel Shark Project: Wales is a pioneering new project with an aim to better understand and safeguard the Angelshark (Squatina squatina) in Wales through fisher-participation, heritage and citizen-science.

We are working with Amgueddfa Cymru and alongside fishers and coastal communities in Wales to better understand the Angelshark through gathering historic and current information about its life off the Welsh coast.

Angelsharks are large, flat-bodied sharks can reach 2.4m in length. Also known as monkfish or angel fish, they are sometimes mistaken for a ray or misrecorded as anglerfish. Angelsharks feed on a range of fish, crustaceans and molluscs and have an important role in maintaining a balanced marine ecosystem.

They are not threatening to humans, living mainly on sand or mud at the bottom of the sea, lying in wait to ambush unsuspecting prey.

Angelsharks are protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

It is illegal to intentionally disturb, target, injure or kill Angelsharks within 12 nautical miles of Welsh and English coastlines.

The four major areas of the Angelshark Project are:

  1. Understand status and ecology of Angelsharks in Wales
  2. Fishers are stewards of Angelshark conservation
  3. Communities help unlock Angelshark heritage to share across the generations.
  4. Develop Wales’s Angelshark Action Plan to identify key steps to secure their future

As part of the historical research, Angel Shark Project: Wales will be running the Angelshark History Roadshow from January to March 2019 in five of the project’s focal regions: North Anglesey, the Llŷn Peninsula, Porthmadog to Aberarth, Fishguard to Milford Haven and Swansea to Porthcawl (though we also welcome information from across Wales). The free events provide the opportunity to bring your memories, photos or stories of Angelsharks (or any other interesting shark, skate or ray species off the Welsh Coast) and see how they help build our understanding of Wales’s rich maritime landscape. The roadshows will also be a good opportunity to meet the team and find out more about the project. The roadshow dates are:

Date Venue Location
25 & 26 Jan Llŷn Maritime museum Nefyn
11 & 12 Feb Milford Heritage Museum Milford Haven
15 & 16 Feb National Waterfront Museum Swansea
1 & 2 Mar The National Library of Wales Aberystwyth
4 & 5 March Sea Cadets Holyhead

Following the roadshows, we will be recruiting and training citizen scientists to continue the historical research by scouring local libraries, archives, historic magazines and museums. Information captured through this research will be digitalised and displayed in collaboration with Peoples Collection Wales and provided to the next generation via a History of Angels iBook.

Those who are interested in being part of the project but unable to attend the roadshows and would like to share memories or photographs of Angelsharks can get in touch at angelsharks@zsl.org to help save one of the rarest sharks in the world. You can report personal sightings and accidental captures of Angelsharks to the sightings webpage http://angelsharknetwork.com/#map or email angelsharks@zsl.org.

Angel Shark Project: Wales is led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Natural Resources Wales (NRW), funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Welsh Government.

Angel Shark Project: Wales (PDF)
 

Hope that you have been following our Natural Science #MuseumAdvent Calendar

Our curators and scientists in the Natural Science Department at National Museum Cardiff have been choosing their favourite objects from the collections, to place behind the doors of our very own museum advent calendar. As it is Christmas Eve, all of the doors are now open and we wanted to share with you all of the wonderful 24 objects chosen, and the staff who have helped created it. 

Why not have a look back through all of the doors and find out about these amazing objects and specimens within Amgueddfa Cymru collections.

Nadolig Llawen a blwyddyn newydd dda oddi wrth @CardiffCurator
 
Merry Christmas and a happy new year from @CardiffCurator