Rae, 2014: EXPLORING THE COMMON GROUND
fats. When this has been done inadequately fur
particular can be widely divided. The under-
or feathers may be stained, and at its worst,
valuing that natural history and ethnography
the deterioration of remaining fats may result
collections, in particular, have shared in the
in chemical degradation of skins. In natural
past has had much to do with a Western
history collections this is usually described as
perspective on the worth of things, and this has
`fat-burn' (van Grouw, 2010) and is amongst
included monetary value. There are collections
one of the most difficult problems to treat
which, from the earliest times have been highly
(Figure 3). In other collections a similar pattern
valued in this sense paintings is an obvious
of
discoloration,
embrittlement,
cracking,
field, which have for centuries commanded high
breaking and fragmentation is seen although
prices that have helped to ensure they are
the decay mechanism may be different (Figure
well cared for. Natural history and ethnography
4), over use of leather dressing on tanned
have lagged behind. Thirty years ago the
leather artifacts, for instance (Wills et al.,
curatorial
snobbery
towards
aspects
of
1992). So-called `red rot' (acidic decay of
ethnographic collections was still palpable
leather;
see
Hatchfield,
this
volume),
they were second class collections in the eyes
particularly affecting vegetable tanned leathers,
of some. Natural history specimens were
differs from `fat burn' in its chemical process,
frequently referred to as replaceable; museums
but the challenges which need to be overcome
were working hard to get their old `boring'
reducing acidity and surface friability and
stuffed animals off display. This lack of
increasing physical strength have much in
appreciation contributed to the poor condition
common with the treatment of fat-burn.
of many of these collections today.
Recently there has been something of a
Pesticides and the hazards posed
renaissance in natural history and ethnography.
Awareness of wildlife conservation, advances in
scientific study of collection material and its
Proteinaceous materials are amongst the most
relevance to contemporary issues, the less
susceptible to insect pests. From the earliest
bigoted view of indigenous cultures and their
times, taxidermists, makers, collectors and
ability to speak up for themselves, the role of
museums have done all they can to protect
modern artists in recognizing the value of both
them. This has often involved the use of wide
ethnographic material culture and increasingly
ranging insecticides. Whilst in taxidermy
taxidermy and the subsequent rise in monetary
arsenic compounds (Mate, 2006) or mercuric
value have all contributed to a higher profile,
chlorides were frequently used as a specimen
reflected in the popularity of exhibitions with
was prepared, the vast majority of collections
the public. And yet just as natural history
housing skins, furs and feathers, including
collections are becoming more appreciated,
natural history, have been liberally treated over
those who know most about them, natural
the years with toxic dusts, sprays, fogs and
history curators, seem to be less valued. In
fumigants. There is an historic scarcity of
Britain
certainly,
financial
constraints
in
information about what exactly was used in the
museums are leading to some serious losses of
past. Excellent work has been achieved in
natural history posts.
developing and using analytical techniques to
identify residual insecticides on all types of
objects (Ormsby et al., 2006; Bacon et al.,
2011) and to develop protocols for handling
affected collections (Odegaard et al., 2005;
AREAS OF DIFFERENCE
Cane and Gayle, 2012). The Integrated Pest
Management (Pinniger, 2001) approach to pest
Preparation techniques
monitoring
and
control
alongside
the
development of freezing, heat and anoxia
Whilst sharing many raw materials, the ways in
treatments have all led to greatly reduced use
which they are prepared to form objects are
of chemicals. This is an area where curators
often very different. Wet collections, the use of
and conservators in all fields have benefited
protein denaturing agents and formalin used in
greatly from each others experiences and
relation to natural history collections are
where common resources, such as on-line sites
distinctive, posing their own challenges and
and networks, have forged strong links.
characteristic forms of deterioration. And yet
there is growing body of fluid preserved art
Historic under-valuing of collections
works in galleries now, such as Damien Hirst's
`Mother and Child Divided' at Tate where
Value can have many meanings to different
there is surely scope for shared experience
people - cultural, monetary, scientific, spiritual,
between their curators or conservators and
historical. Western and indigenous values in
those dealing with natural history material.
105 Journal of Paleontological Techniques