Getting Specimens Prepared for Display!

Specimens being prepared for display

Specimens being prepared for display

The Collections Department is hard at work getting close to 120 specimens prepared for display in the Water Gallery.  The specimens, which will include Whale Tape Worms, A Squid Tentacle, Starfish, Jellyfish and Urchins, among many others, will all be displayed in one of three ways:  some are being freeze dried, some are being mounted and the rest will be in glass jars containing the fluid preserved specimens.  This may sound fairly straightforward, but there are plenty of logistical issues that staff are in the process of working out.  For example, the specimens which are going to be mounted in display cases have to be very securely anchored in order to withstand the excited visitors crowding around as well as things like stroller traffic through the gallery.  For certain specimens this isn’t a problem, but for others, like the Brown Vase Shaped Sponge (or Acanthascus dowlingi) which has glass fibers sticking out all around it, it is a challenge to come up with a way to safely mount and display the specimens without damaging it. Of course, cost is also a factor so unfortunately the museum isn’t able to build anything too elaborate or custom-made for each of the specimens.

Display containers all the way from England!

Display containers all the way from England!

For the fluid preserved specimens on display, the challenges are different, but plentiful! The specimens are stored in fluid for conservation purposes, and alcohol has been found to be the best for this because it doesn’t damage the specimens, fog up the display jars or evaporate over time. However, there are building regulations to follow when using a flammable substance like alcohol.  For a space the size of the water gallery, only 30 litres are allowed to be used, which isn’t enough for all of the specimens the museum wants to put on display.  Ethanol is an alternative which will likely work best, although it isn’t perfect!  Ethanol evaporates over time, so staff will have to monitor the levels and refill when necessary.  Now that staff are close to finding a replacement for alcohol, they must now find appropriate containers for the displays.  Not only do the containers have to safely contain the specimen and be leak proof, they have to be clear from all angles so the visitors can actually see inside!  Since some of the specimens will be displayed in a way that the visitors will be looking down on them, this means the lids can’t obstruct that view either, and it’s been a challenge to find a seamless, clear lid for a container with so many other demands too!  Staff have explored many options, including getting samples from a company in England, and will surely get all the problems solved before the exhibit opens in May.  Next time you visit the museum, pay attention to the all the different kinds of displays used and remember all the obstacles they overcame to get there!

About Kate Beresford

As a Guest Services Host at the Museum of Nature since 2006, I get to see the visitor’s reactions to the museum first hand and speak with them about their experiences here; what they like and what they don’t! No two days are ever the same! My background is in Art and Culture and I’ve had the opportunity to work in a few different museums and galleries across Canada and in the UK, which has only increased my interest in and love for museums. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share some behind the scenes information with you all!
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