Skin Deep

I’ve just come to the end of my time working as a volunteer on the “Skin Deep” Project at Leeds Museums Discovery Centre. The project involves the rearrangement and documentation of the bird skin collection at the large storage facility. Prior to this project, the birds were stored in cardboard boxes and bagged. Under the direction of Curator Laura McCoy it was our job to move the birds into new storage racking in drawers and document the collection.

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First we needed to debag the birds! Some of the smaller specimens such as the hummingbirds had label information attached to the bag so they were left as is, but all of the birds that remained bagged had breathing holes cut into the bag. This is important as a sealed bag creates a microclimate of gases that over decades can build up and damage the specimen inside it.

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Each bird was then carefully placed in the drawers lined with tissue paper and categorized by row. For example, British Birds, Birds with Colourful Plumage, Birds from the Neotropics etc. For example, this drawer contains Mot Mots from Central America and their European cousins the Bee Eaters. Note both groups of birds have similar shaped beaks as they are all insectivores.

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The birds were then documented by drawer on The TMS Collections Management System. As well as all label data, location and species information was recorded on the system. We also specified what type of specimen preparation each specimen was- some birds are prepared skins and some are taxidermy mounts.

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Photography was also part of the documentation process. Scale bars are important so people accessing the records can determine physical data about a species.

A Chinese Crow, also known as the Green Magpie (Cissa chinensis)
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Bird skin collections are important as researchers can determine species variation by examining specimens from various geographical localities. By examining a bird’s feathers, researchers can also check for telltale signs of hardship, such as stress lines in the feathers. These usually appear if the bird has had trouble finding enough food during a season.

These are just some of the few examples of many for why bird collections are important and why museums keep these collections.

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5 responses to “Skin Deep

  1. Hi, How do you keep them in place in the drawer? I assume that every time you open/close the drawer the specimen will move.

    • Hi Jeannette,

      We lined the drawers with acid free tissue paper. This provides a bit of friction. Other than that it’s just a matter of positioning the bird on a part of its body that’s less likely to roll, and being careful when opening drawers.

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