Her Majesty’s Portable Museum: A 19th Century Box of Specimens from the Animal, Mineral, and Vegetable Worlds

Tom Braun


This talk will discuss the treatment of a late 19th century wooden cabinet (a bit bigger than a breadbox), containing approximately 300 specimens from the animal, mineral, and plant worlds, in addition to examples of refined products made from these raw materials.  Cabinets such as this were created by Thomas E. Dexter and were part of a royal mission intended to educate military orphans in Britain, and to help them find professions that could sustain them as adults.  Specifically Dexter’s efforts were directed at the Royal Military Asylum, which at that time, was located in Chelsea, England.  Each cabinet was accompanied by several books, also authored by Dexter, which explained the contents of the cabinet as to its place of origin, the manner in which the raw materials were harvested, prepared, refined, and finally manufactured into finished products.  Often examples of intermediate stages of the refining process are also present, in addition to the examples of finished products.  The cabinet has particular emphasis on the textile industry which was very strong at the time in Britain, but there are also many other specimens related to most other major industries of the 19th century, including farming, ranching, forestry, and mining.  The cabinet also emphasizes the breadth of the British colonial system, with many examples of rare and unusual materials only available at the time in faraway lands, and many samples such as these are no longer used commercially.  Treatment of this cabinet involved mainly identifying and organizing the samples, which by the nature with which this cabinet had been used, were highly disorganized.  Many samples had to be analyzed before they could be properly re-organized.  Many samples as originally labelled were not familiar today, and had to be identified via historical research; for example the reference to mined graphite as “plumbago”.  Proper labelling of the samples and the sample trays also became an important part of the treatment, to help prevent the samples from getting disorganized again.  Some samples such as lead and mercury had toxicity issues that needed to be addressed.  Many of the samples will be familiar to conservators as those used to make art and artifacts of many kinds.

2020 | Online | Volume 27