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How can you care for museum collections during lockdown?

f.taylor7 August 2020

This blog was written by Conservator Graeme McArthur from the UCL Culture Collections Management Team.

The closure of UCL’s campus during lockdown has provided new challenges for UCL Culture’s Collections Management team. We are responsible for taking care of the world-class collections of artworks, ancient artefacts, zoological and pathological specimens, instruments and scientific equipment held by the university. We make sure that these objects and specimens are available for use, study and exhibition by ensuring they are properly stored, handled, displayed and documented. But carrying out this important role usually requires us to be on site!

Usually we carry out regular programmes of cleaning, auditing and conservation as well as environmental monitoring and pest control. We work closely with our curatorial colleagues to agree new acquisitions and prepare objects for loan for exhibition in the UK and abroad. Our lovely team includes Collections Managers, Conservators and four Curatorial and Collections Assistants.

So how have we cared for our collections during lockdown? Well the very first thing we did was produce a risk register to highlight areas of concern when nobody is physically present in our museums and collection spaces. Here are some of the things we’ve been keeping an eye on.

Pests!

Some of UCL’s collections are an excellent food source for the larvae of insects such as beetles and moths. This is especially true of the feathers and fur that are prevalent in the Grant Museum of Zoology. It is vital to know if there has been a pest outbreak as soon as possible, by the time someone notices moths flying around there could already have been significant damage.


Image: A drawer full of feathers and other organic material in the Grant Museum, many pests would consider this to be a drawer full of food!

To this end we have sticky pest traps throughout all of our collection spaces. These will not remove a pest threat but enough will blunder onto them to give us an indication that there is a problem. Traps are placed on the edges of rooms where pests tend to run around as well as near particularly vulnerable materials. Of course to tell us anything these need to be checked regularly which became a problem once the UCL campus closed.


Image: Pest traps and the all-important grabber to position them behind furniture.

Environment

Understanding the environment in museums and object stores is vital to the long-term preservation of our collections. Extremes in light, temperature and humidity as well as rapid changes can all cause permanent damage. We have all seen what can happen to book spines if left next to a sunny window, but this can be stopped with something as simple as closing the blinds!

High humidity can promote mould growth and corrosion whereas low humidity can cause organic materials such as wood to shrink and crack. Knowledge of the materials in the collection allows us to make an informed choice on how we want to the environment to be, though it is not always possible to keep it that way.

Thankfully even though we have not been able to work on campus during this period we are lucky enough to have a system where data is sent to us remotely. We have sensors in all of our collection spaces and we can look at this data even whilst working from home. Without people in spaces and with lights off and the blinds closed the environment has been very stable. It is easier to keep objects safe when they are not seen or used for research, but then there wouldn’t be much point in having them!


Image: A day of environmental data from the Petrie Museum.

Flooding and leaks

Many of the UCL buildings are prone to the occasional leak. Most of the collections are well protected inside cases or cupboards, but even so if left for too long a leak can potentially cause damage. It is important to check the environmental data to look for an increase in humidity that could be caused by there being standing water in the room.

To reduce these risks, we have set up socially distanced fortnightly checks of all of our collections with two members of staff who can drive in to campus. This allows us to check all of the pest traps so any outbreaks can be discovered as soon as possible. Sometimes traps become so crowded that they need replacing so we can see what new pests have become stuck.


Image: Spiders caught in our pest traps

Unfortunately, the pests caught on traps tend to attract spiders who are actually very helpful in reducing pest numbers.

During our fortnightly visits we checked all the spaces, cupboards and drawers where objects are not visible to ensure there were no other problems.


Image: Revealing a beautiful papyrus from the Petrie Museum storage

Adapting our ways of working

Working from home is an unusual situation for our team as we don’t normally spend most of our time in front of a screen! We have had to refocus to other areas, however this has allowed us to work on projects that there would not normally be time for. One of these is improving the collections database that is used as the base for our online catalogue. Over many years data has been entered in an inconsistent manner with fields being used differently by individuals and throughout different collections. We have now standardised how the fields should be used and begun to ‘clean’ the old data to remove inconsistencies. Once this is complete it will be more useful for us, the researchers and general public who use the online catalogue.

The campus has been eerily quiet during the checks but we are looking forward to welcoming back UCL students, staff and the general public in the near future!


Image: UCL campus

Preserving Whistler’s murals

Anna E Cornelius8 April 2019

This blog is from Graeme McArthur, Conservator at UCL Culture.

UCL’s Whistler Room, located next to the Octagon Gallery, is so named because it contains murals painted by the artist Rex Whistler, who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and whose career was sadly cut short by the Second World War. These were originally completed in 1935 for a private residence on Gower Street; however by 1959 the house was due to be demolished. The murals were saved by literally cutting them out of the wall and removing them to their current location. They are part of  the UCL Art Museum collections and therefore come under the care of UCL Culture.

Two people crouch below a mural embedded in the wall

Removing a mural in the Whistler Room

The murals are painted in oil on top of house paint, supported by around 2cm of the original wall plaster with an auxiliary support of wood battens and plaster of Paris. Unfortunately the change in environment and support has caused severe stability issues. Ongoing conservation has been required since 1960 as the house paint layer keeps cracking and flaking away from the plaster beneath. Glazing was added in 1963 to try and alleviate these issues, but although it protects the surface from physical damage it has not improved the environment.

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Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month March 2018

Mark Carnall27 March 2018

Welcome to March’s underwhelming fossil fish of the month. For the blissfully ignorant amongst you, this series brings the worst and dullest fossil fish from the Grant Museum of Zoology’s collections for your viewing displeasure on a monthly basis. Natural history museums are full of this material, not every museum specimen can be the first, last, oldest, biggest or nicest smelling because life can’t always about the best. It’s important to take some time and some space to think about the mediocre. The run of the mill. The quotidian. The also ran. Sure, the sparkly stuff is what we put on display in museums but it’s really the middling masses that are key to understanding life.

Not these fossil fish though. They’re ugly and useless. Or are they?
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Specimen of the Week 321: the Wall of Mice

Jack Ashby15 December 2017

One of the most extraordinary collections in the Grant Museum relates to one of the most Ordinary of Animals. Since its creation, it has been kept behind the scenes. The man who created it, over decades of barely believable dedication and hard work, would probably never have imagined that anyone would firstly want to display it, and secondly find a way to do so.

Mice Space at the Grant Museum - a wall of 4000 mice skeletons.

Mice Space at the Grant Museum – a wall of 4000 mice skeletons.

Personally, I have a real interest in pondering the differences between what gets selected for display in museums and what doesn’t (I published an article in The Conversation about it this week), and in the Grant Museum we have a lot of experience of finding ways to display collections that were not intended for the public eye (our Micrarium is a great example of this). This week’s Specimen of the Week definitely fits these themes… (more…)

Specimen of the Week 318: The newly recapitated bandicoot

Jack Ashby24 November 2017

This is embarassing. The sheer scale of natural history collections means that some objects are going to be wrongly identified, and the fact that generations of professionals have worked here over nearly two centuries means that there has been plenty of opportunity to get things wrong. I am embarrased because I utterly failed to spot that someone had attached the head of one animal onto the body of another. I am particularly embarassed because both animals involved fall within my particular area of zoological interest – Australian mammals.

A chimeric skeleton of a woylie's skull on a bandicoot's body. LDUCZ-Z85 + LDUCZ-Z58

A chimeric skeleton of a woylie’s skull on a bandicoot’s body. LDUCZ-Z85 + LDUCZ-Z58

Allow me to introduce you to…. (more…)

Whales on the Road

Ruth Siddall6 July 2017

This weekend, 8th and 9th July, the Grant Museum is running an event of massive proportions – the Whale Weekender – when the public is invited to come and rebuild and clean their whale skeleton. Long before it came to the Grant Musuem, the whale in question begun life-after-death, in 1860, when it was sold to be toured around the country as a whole carcass. That particular venture did not go very well for anyone involved.

This post is about dead whales touring the country on the back of lorries. There are not many things these days that provide pretty much no hits when Googled, but this subject seems to be one of them. You may well be asking why I would be Googling ‘Whales’ ‘Lorry’ ‘Supermarket Car Park’. Here is the answer…

I was talking to my colleague Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum, about their upcoming #WhaleWeekender extravaganza, and he mentioned the incredible history of their specimen and its intended national tour. I told Jack that I remembered seeing a whale in the back of a truck when I was a kid in Salford in the early 1970s. Jack looked at me like I had said 1870s. On reflection there is certainly a circus side-show, freak-show element to this experience. Until speaking to Jack, I have not thought about this for years. (more…)

Help us build and clean a whale skeleton

Jack Ashby3 July 2017

Some of the whale's backbone, in one of our stores.

Some of the whale’s backbone, in one of our stores.

This weekend we will be attempting to rebuild our largest specimen – a northern bottle-nosed whale skeleton. And we would like you to help us do it.

The specimen’s story begins in 1860 when it was originally collected in Somerset, when an expedition set off across the Bristol Channel in pursuit of “two great fish” (as they were described by the local newspaper – whales are, of course, mammals) – one of which was brought back to land. After a period “on tour” as a whole carcass, the prepared skeleton was displayed hanging from the ceiling of the Weston Super-Mare Museum. It eventually came to the Grant Museum in 1948, but it had been dismantled into its separate bones. (Its full, remarkable story, including the use of entirely inappropriate whale-murdering equipment, misguided entrepreneurship, rancid carcasses, financial ruin, and the unusual tasks the wife of a 19th century curator might find herself doing, can be read in a previous post).

At over eight metres long in life, different parts of the skeleton have been stored in different cupboards and cabinets across the Museum and its storerooms. (more…)

Make Taxidermy Great Again! We launch our new conservation project

Jack Ashby12 June 2017

Taxidermy Elephant shrew in need of treatment. LDUCZ-Z2789

Taxidermy elephant shrew in need of treatment.

This week the Grant Museum is launching a project to conserve our important collection of historic taxidermy, which involves taking these much-loved specimens off display to be treated. In their place, we will be filling the gaps with toy stuffed animals to raise awareness of the project.

The specimens have been on display for over a century, and in that time some of them have begun to split and crack, their filling may be poking out or they are just plain dirty. They require expert museum conservators to repair them, ensuring that they will survive for the long-term future. That is the key aim of this project: Fluff It Up: Make Taxidermy Great Again. (more…)

Specimen of the Week 288: Pipistrelle bat skull

Dean W Veall21 April 2017

 

Pipistrelle sp. LDUCZ-Z617

Pipistrelle sp. LDUCZ-Z617

Hello Specimen of the Week fans, Dean Veall here. This week I have chosen a specimen that requires some very delicate handling as it’s a tiddler. The specimen is beautifully delicate and I would say demonstrates expert skills in preparation. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

 

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Why natural history museums are important. Specimen of the Week 278: The British Antarctic Survey Limpets

Jack Ashby10 February 2017

There is much more to a natural history museum than meets the eye, and that’s mostly because relatively tiny proportions of their collections are on display. At the Grant Museum of Zoology we are lucky enough to have about 12% of our collection on display. That’s because we have a lot of tiny things in the Micrarium and our collection is relatively small, with 68,000 objects. While we REALLY like to cram as much in our cases as is sensible, these percentages are not realistic for many museums, whose collections run into the millions.

Limpets from South Georgia. LDUCZ-P878 Nacella concinna

Limpets from South Georgia. LDUCZ-P879 Nacella concinna

The vast majority of specimens in natural history museums, ours included, were not intended for display, and that includes this week’s Specimen of the Week… (more…)