Big Animal Health Check at the Powell-Cotton Museum
Inbal Livne – Head of Collections
November 2013 – February 2014
What was the Project aim?
To undertake a full conservation assessment of as many of the Museum’s historic taxidermy specimens as possible in Gallery 1 and all specimens in Gallery 3. The subsequent reports could then be used to plan the Museum’s future taxidermy conservation programme and help with taxidermy conservation grant applications. The information acquired from the project would help set standards in taxidermy care, which could feed into the Museum’s collections management and conservation plans.
What was the impact of the project?
The project ended up having a number of outcomes that were exciting and unexpected. Our expert taxidermist David Leggett (funded through the project) has a huge amount of knowledge about historic taxidermy, its presentation and care. By shadowing David as he worked, the Head of Collections (who is not a natural history specialist) gained a huge amount of knowledge about historic taxidermy, how the animals are mounted and damage/changes that have occurred through their time in the museum. She now feels much better equipped to look after these specimens and has also gained a huge enthusiasm for the subject.
The public also gained a great deal – mostly be being entertained! People were really curious about our work in the dioramas and asked the front of house staff lots of questions about what we were doing. It brought ‘behind the scenes’ into the public eye, which people really enjoy.
From a research perspective, the project also brought a lot of new information to the fore. David and the Head of Collections spent a lot of time discussing each animal and their histories. Information on labels, plaques and the skins themselves revealed all sorts of information hidden from public view. This has enriched our knowledge of the collections, opened up some exciting opportunities for further research but also created some great new stories to share with our public.
The work undertaken will also allow us to work up a conservation programme in an efficient but also sensitive manner. The specimens are historically unique, many over one hundred years old, and require careful and considered conservation work. Previous surveys have suggested some quite radical work was desperately needed, but David has taken a sensitive and cautious approach. Once work is done, it cannot be undone, and our future plans will protect the collections without making any unnecessary or damaging (and costly) changes.
What went well and what didn’t go well?
The museum was very lucky to employ David Leggett for this project, who totally got the Museum’s role, ethos, structure and future plans. He has balanced up what is best for the collections with what is best for the museum AND what is practically achievable considering our financial situation and limited staff resources.
The project mostly involved the collections staff, but as a result of David’s work on the main museum collections, the SFP project team decided to employ him to work on the handling collections, which is also about to go on public display. David is now making a series of models for the new SFP gallery, examining the process of taxidermy. He has also donated a pheasant to the handling collection, in replacement of one that was badly damaged. The front of house team were in the galleries whilst we worked in the dioramas, and this worked really well as a way of engaging with visitors, as they could discuss the animals as we looked at them. We also put up posters asking members of the public to leave questions for the taxidermist and posted many images of our finds on facebook. The posters were not particularly successful, perhaps because people could not ask the taxidermist a question directly (we were behind glass) or perhaps because it was too hard to think of a question on the spot. However the facebook posts proved very popular.
The only negative was practical in nature. We would have liked to survey the whole of the primate diorama, but health and safety prevented us from getting to the high up specimens as we were unsure how safe the 80 year old ladder in the case was! We were able to survey all the animals at the base though, and planned a way in which we would survey them all, if we were to remove them for remedial work.
- For greatest public engagement, plan early. Get information on facebook or twitter about work that people can come and watch. Maybe even do it in the school holidays?
- Work with experts who understand your collection but also understand how museums work and their constraints. There is no point working with someone who thinks the ONLY way to make something work is to spend tens of thousands of pounds, or shut the gallery for several months – clearly this isn’t going to happen!
- If it’s an area where staff don’t have the relevant expertise, shadow the professional. The PCM now has a huge wealth of knowledge about the collection, all because we took the time to watch and listen.
What are your plans for the future?
- The survey has revealed a few key specimens that do need urgent remedial work and these will be undertaken this year (2014).
- As a result of the success of this project, and his own personal interest, David will be coming back to survey the Kashmir diorama, with a view to applying for a large grant for its conservation. This project would look at us hiring an intern, to work with David and learn from him, as there is a considerable lack of taxidermy conservation skills in the museum field.
- We also hope to do more new work with the dioramas, including some research publications on the basis of the survey finds and a summer exhibition examining the endangered animals (as categorised by the UN Red List) on display in our collections.
Overall Cost of Project
£1,800 from the South East Museum Development Programme
£750 costs in kind from the Powell-Cotton Museum (staff time)
£500 costs in kind from taxidermist (report writing)