Rae, 2014: EXPLORING THE COMMON GROUND
Figure 1: Specimen or artifact? Necklace with desiccated frogs from Guyana; A) overview, B) detail. Specimen from the National Museums Liverpool.
(Figure 1), looking remarkably similar to the
as the materials themselves.
frog
specimens
seen
in
natural
history
collections.
Agents of deterioration
Western cultures have also made use of these
resources, with cabinets of curiosity swelled by
The
impact
of
insect
pests,
dust,
natural `curiosities', for instance a chameleon
inappropriate relative humidity (RH), light
given to Dr. Bargrave, a sixteenth century
levels, poor handling and storage are
traveler, and now a delicate, desiccated part of
responsible for much of the damage to
the Bargrave Collection in Canterbury Cathedral
objects made of materials common to
Archive. Western costume, millinery and even
natural history and other organic collections.
jewelry collections are full of animal pelts and
Whether feathers are part of a mounted
parts: grebe skin stoles, whole birds decorating
specimen, an elaborate headdress or a
hats, a dress and even a ceiling - encrusted
decorative interior, a moth infestation can
with beetle wings, a necklace formed of
be equally devastating and irreversible,
hummingbird heads (Gere and Rudoe, 2010).
destroying much of the research and visual
Materials from vegetal sources are also
value of objects. The three-dimensional and
common to both natural history and other
complex nature of materials effectively traps
collections. Ancient Egyptian floral garlands and
dust and high or fluctuating RH can lead to
the array of dried leaves and grasses used in so
cementation (Lithgow et al., 2005) and
many
ethnographic
artifacts
have
close
formation of micro-climates, spoiling visual
similarities with herbaria collection materials.
impact, accurate rendering for research and
Paper, card, glass, metals, textiles, resins,
providing increased food sources for insect
pigments and wax form integral parts of
pests and molds. Stretched skins can split in
objects in both specialist fields. Dioramas for
response to low or fluctuating RH whether
instance, are often now valued in their entirety
they are tensioned over a body form, a
as examples of a skilled taxidermist or
skeleton or a drum-head. Effective lighting
preparator's craft just as are the glass domes
remains a shared challenge to allow
protecting and displaying Victorian ornaments
collections to be appreciated and studied
in other collections.
without the risk of embrittlement or fading
The fact that these raw materials may be in
(Pearlstein et al., 2010). When objects are
different forms is another source of common
handled,
studied
or
even
used
by
ground.
Many
natural
history
specimens
researchers, students, members of the
themselves have been taken apart and put
public or indigenous communities, the risks
back together in order to counteract the natural
of damage are often multiplied, particularly
decay processes. A lion's skin may be
as resources for invigilation are reduced.
transformed into a realistic representation of a
Whilst techniques used to prepare skins, in
lion by being mounted onto a metal and fiber
natural history, ethnographic and historical
support, embellished with glass eyes and
collections may vary, the deterioration that
painted detail (Figure 2), or it might be kept as
can result from poor preparation often
a specimen skin or stitched flat onto a fabric
appears similar. The role of fats in object
mount to create a lion skin rug, or made into a
preparation and in degradation is one
ceremonial cape, lined with red satin. All are
example. Preparation for taxidermy and, for
complex, composite objects: the ways in
instance,
in
Inuit
methods
which they are put together are as important
of skin preparation,
involves
removing
103 Journal of Paleontological Techniques