Natural History 101: Considerations for conservators

Bethany Palumbo


Objects of natural origin, including plant and animal material, can suffer the same types of damage as man-made materials such as fading and embrittlement. However, natural history collections and materials have additional considerations that must be taken into account when assessing a potential conservation intervention. This presentation will discuss four key areas in detail:

Health and Safety
Poisons such as arsenic and mercuric chloride have been used widely historically to aid the preservation of taxidermy, while formaldehyde is still used in many fluid-preserved collections. While very effective for preservation, these chemicals present significant health risks to anyone who handles collections in which they are present.

Legal Protections
Many species are protected by local, national, and international laws, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). These laws control not only the ownership of protected species but also how they can be used commercially such as in exhibitions and for loans. These laws may also potentially influence treatment and display decisions. While the restoration of protected species is allowed under ‘permissible maintenance’ it must be carried out within CITES guidelines. For example, you could not use real ivory in the restoration of ivory piano keys. A synthetic substitute must be used instead. Security is also paramount for CITES listed species when on display, with many achieving high value on the black market.

Scientific Value
Though they may improve the appearance or stability of a specimen, invasive treatments such as recolouring and consolidation may also reduce the potential use of the specimen in scientific research. Physical or chemical alterations can damage or permanently destroy scientific information like pigmentation, DNA, and parasites

Historical Value
With the recent resurgence of taxidermy as a cultural trend, pieces prepared from esteemed taxidermists such as Rowland Ward are now selling for thousands of dollars. Having an understanding of this potential increased financial value is crucial when considering potential treatment and collection decisions.

Armed with knowledge of these additional considerations, conservators who occasionally encounter these materials will be able to make safe and ethical decisions regarding treatments, storage or display.

2021 | Virtual | Volume 28