Rae, 2014: EXPLORING THE COMMON GROUND
Other processes undertaken by taxidermists to
multidisciplinary
teams,
with
scientists,
preserve skins (Pe'Quignot, 2006) may not be
curators and designers. The main focus of their
as different from techniques used to prepare
role is conservation and they may be working
skins as is often assumed; for instance the use
in organizations in which they have no
of mineral tanning agents, such as alum (alum
responsibilities for natural history collections,
tawed leathers) and salt (natron desiccated
but are treating artifacts with very similar
tissue in Egyptian mummies). In general,
problems.
however, the range of chemical agents,
In many natural history collections it is more
techniques and materials used by taxidermists
likely that specimens will be cared for by
are clearly different from the vegetable tannins,
curators, usually trained to degree and
acid, alkali and smoke treatments used
postgraduate degree level in aspects of natural
traditionally in western and many indigenous
history. Preparators and taxidermists may also
cultures to make leathers and cured skins. The
undertake repairs. Cleaning or repairing objects
aging and deterioration of all these treatments
is often only a small part of their role and they
can pose specific challenges.
have very limited time. They are most likely to
The mounting of skins onto an internal form to
have learned their approach to cleaning and
recreate the appearance of an animal in life
repair from the craft skills and traditions of
appears to be a distinctive feature of natural
their colleagues. Increasingly, conservators
history
collections.
Whilst
this
form
of
trained through conservation degree and
taxidermy is increasing in modern art, the skills
postgraduate training programs with specialist
remain the skills of the taxidermist working
natural history modules are employed in
with, or as, an artist. Over time the selection of
natural history collections, sometimes working
internal mount materials have changed and
alongside craft-trained colleagues, technicians
evolved, from natural materials, waddings and
or preparators.
metal armatures to fiber-glass and other
The divergence between craft traditions and an
modern resin forms, all of which make their
increasingly scientific approach to object
own contribution to the varied needs of a
conservation lies at the heart of the sensitivity
specimens' care: long-term aging, pH, or
between those working with similar object
responsiveness to RH fluctuations.
materials and treatment challenges. Many
There has been little attempt to create the
working in other fields, including bookbinding,
accurate appearance of life outside the
horology and working machinery, share this
traditions
of
Europe,
setting
aside
uncomfortable union of craft and scientific
mummification practices. Whilst animals and
traditions to treating objects.
birds may have been case-skinned and retained
A historical legacy of mistrust, secrecy,
as totems or symbolic objects there is no
demarcation and insecurity has contributed to
attempt to recreate the form as it was in life.
the distance between specialists in both natural
Perhaps the closest approach to something like
history and artifacts. There are preconceptions
western mounted taxidermy specimens are the
to overcome, or at least to talk about. Some of
masks made traditionally by the Ekoi people of
these anxieties may be true: people do get set
Nigeria, in which hide is stretched and pegged
in
their
ways,
judgmental,
prickly
and
over wooden formers (Julien, 2000).
impatient. Professions rely on people and no
one is perfect.
Practitioners
Treatments
Whilst the preventive steps taken to look after
natural history specimens and artifacts from
Most conservators and carers will favor minimal
different types of collections often have much
intervention,
using
preventive
measures
in common, approaches to their remedial care
wherever possible, but cleaning, stabilization or
can take quite different paths. This often
repair may be essential in order to preserve,
includes those who will be undertaking the
understand or appreciate an object. Cleaning
repairs or treatments as well as the techniques
can take many forms depending on the object
and materials they use. This is the area where
material and the reasons for cleaning. Those
sensitivities are at their greatest; where
undertaking treatments on organic artifacts and
offense and defense are most likely to be
natural history specimens will probably all
generated. Those conserving artifacts will
consider gentle vacuum cleaning first, followed
usually
have
trained
to
degree
and
by an increasingly invasive range of cleaning
postgraduate degree level in the care of
methods (Mason and Graham 2005). Other dry
specific materials. They value a scientific
cleaning techniques, such as molecular traps
approach to examination and treatment and
(e.g. Groomstick®), powdered rubber (e.g.
often
have
experience
of
working
in
Draft Clean®), solvent applications (Pack and
107 Journal of Paleontological Techniques