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Museum Pests

For the majority of taxidermy's history, the overwhelming difficulty was not how to preserve prepared specimens from decay – after all upholsterers and clothing makers had long perfected the method of tanning hides – but how to keep the insects from eating the stuffed animals. It wouldn’t be until the late eighteenth century that the disaster of insect damage was finally solved with the development of an arsenic paste.  But while, chemicals might slow insects pests down, they keep on coming.

To get a more information on pests, I consulted a slim green book, Insect Pests in Museums by David Pinniger. Pinniger assures his readers that not all insects are pest, in fact of the hundreds of thousands of different species in the world, only a very small percentage cause havoc in museums, but those which do, make sure that they successfully “exploit the situations which are provided” in the museum environment.

Adult varied carpet beetle.

The main culprits are varied carpet beetles Anthrenus verbasci and the fur beetle Attagenus pellio. Both belong to skin beetle family or Dermestidae (their name literally means “skin eater” highlighting their fondness for animal proteins), which includes about 700 species world wide including the pest commonly known as the fur beetle, the larder or bacon beetle, the leather or hide beetle, the museum beetle and bow bug, which infests violin cases and feeds on strings and bows.

The adult varied carpet beetle is roundish, about 2-3 millimetres long with wavy dun-coloured bands across its back. The fur beetle – sometimes called two spot carpet beetle – is slimmer, darker, and as its common name suggests, has a white spot on either wing. The adults, however, are nothing for museum curators worry about, at least not directly. They feed mainly on pollen and nectar, and are usually found outside flying about in late spring when they mate – rather romantically – on flowers before returning indoors to lay batches of eggs in larvae.jpg
what the culprits leave behind: castings from several of the most
voracious taxidermy pests from the Natural History Conservation
Company's website [go +]
any cracks and crevices they can find. And now the problem begins. The larvae are just tiny when they hatch – less than a millimetre in length – which allows them to winkle their way through the smallest of cracks in any museum case. Feeding voraciously on any animal product in sight – they particularly enjoy stuffed animals, fur and feathers, and woollen textiles – the larvae swell up into “woolly bears” somewhat bigger than their ultimate adult forms. The varied carpet beetle larvae is dark brown at either end, lemon yellow in the middle, and hairy all over, while the two spot carpet beetle is torpedo-shaped with tufts of bristles at its posterior end. [read more about beetles +]

Besides beetles, there are many other insect pests: the various clothes moths (Tinea pellionella and Tineola bisselliella) who lay batches of eggs on fur, feathers, skins, wool, and fabrics, and of course cockroaches, ants, and various wood boring insects that gleefully gnaw the wooden frames of animal cases.

But there are more factors than hungry pests. Simon Moore is a Senior Conservator of Natural Sciences, who job it is to restore and sometimes even has to recreate preserved creatures from shreds and feathers.  He kindly gave me a list of main culprits affecting the longevity of taxidermy:

Humidity-related: pests (see above), moulds, case warping, rusting armatures, eye extrusion (see also below) due to expansion of wadding behind it, damp staining
Also too dry causes: case back splitting and warping (again) allowing pests ingress, drying of protein - skin stretching and eyes popping (again), also embrittlement of skin and horn products, including wattles, legs, beaks.
Light bleaching: fading gradually occurs and requires test strip monitoring for specimens near sources of light (esp. sunlight)
Dust - acidic causes burning, discolouration of pale feathers.
Fat seepage and burn: due to poor taxidermy, non-removal of subcutaneous fat bodies.
Physical damage: obvious
Fire: obvious
Flood: obvious
Theft and Vandalism: Taxidermy on open display often encourages teenage humourists!
Perception also - many perceive taxidermy as non-PC (!!!) and there are horror stories of curators destroying taxidermy in order to secure an HLF grant!! How much credence can be given to this is speculative but the stories are there....

Simon Moore and a team of natural history conservationists [go to their website +] have restores the taxidermy in Britain's swarm of National Trust heritage estates including the taxidermy specimens affected by mildew and some severely insect-infested specimens at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire.  The ears of this long-eared bat damaged by larvae of Anthrenus carpet beetle:

 bat1.jpg bat2.jpg


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Reader Comments (1)

I am helping a small regional natural history museum decide how to handle its Ornithology Collection. Most specimens were prepared in the timeframe when arsenic preservatives were common. We are looking for a cost effective approach that will meet requirements, reduce or remove the health threat, and preserve the specimens for future research and display.
March 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDexter Snyder

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