The importance of practical skills

Last time I was at Gallery Oldham, curator Patricia Francis and I had an interesting conversation about the fact that many of the more hands-on skills a curator might use are not especially encouraged in the sector. Practical skills are a huge part of caring for biology collections. In larger museums, there might be a divide between curators and conservators, with the former doing all the documentation and object interpretation and the latter doing most of the repair and practical work. Smaller museums usually do not have such luxuries- often one member of staff is responsible for all this.

Therefore, we agreed that it is extremely important that whether you are training to be either a conservator or curator, you need to be a bit of both.

Documentation standards, ethics, loans, and object interpretation are all extremely important, but practical skills should not be pushed aside in favor of them. If a taxidermy mount in storage breaks, will you be able to repair it? Can you prepare new specimens if they are brought to your fresh? Can you stop the slow spread of verdigris on an entomology specimen? These are just some examples of why practical skills are extremely important when it comes to the health of the collections.

Patricia lent me a fabulous book called The Preservation of Natural History Specimens by Wagstaffe and Fidler. Inside it details valuable dry and wet methods for skinning, mounting and preserving reptiles, birds and mammals. There is also a chapter on how to make a baleen whale model!

If some art and archaeology curators know of any practical skills that are encouraged in their field, please speak up. Since I am not an art or archaeology curator, I do not know if the practical skills are as key as they are in the field of biology curation. The reason I say this is whenever I read articles about these forms of curation, practical skills are rarely mentioned, and the articles seem to focus on theory and interpretation. It would be interesting to know if this is because they simply aren’t used as much, or if it’s merely the way the sector reports it.

Practical skills I developed over the past year have been relaxing, pinning and setting entomological specimens, skinning and stuffing fresh bird skins, conserving and cleaning feathers on taxidermy, repairing herbarium sheets, removing verdigris from insects and cleaning skeletons.

Skills that I aim to develop during my AMA are the preservation and rehydration of spirit specimens, and learning taxidermy and the repair of taxidermy.

Therefore, when I heard that artist Polly Morgan would be doing a live taxidermy demonstration at Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Liverpool, I decided to go and see the process.

It was also a good opportunity to go and look around the museum. They have a fine collection of spirit specimens on display, and an exhibition on ondontological collections.

Then it was time for the demonstration. The bird (a starling) was skinned the way a study skin would normally be done. The difference came in when it was time to mount the bird. The skull and eyes were filled with auto filler and clay, and wires were run along the wings, legs and neck in order to articulate and pose the specimen. It was a very quick demonstration, however. A full taxidermy mount takes hours or days to get right, as the feathers/fur need to be preened to look natural.

I was pleased I went to see this, as I have read about how to mount taxidermy in books, but actually SEEING someone do it made it a lot clearer in my mind, and this is definitely another skill I want to pursue and add to my list in order to care for collections properly.

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