It’s like Christmas when a big blockbuster exhibition such as Extreme Mammals comes to town. As a museum conservator, you have been planning and anticipating its arrival for months, looking at inventory lists, crate dimensions, installation guides, specimen descriptions, and photos—trying to figure out how to safely get the exhibition into your building. Then the tractor-trailers finally arrive, and galleries and staging areas are quickly filled with a traffic jam of crates. You know how special the things inside are, but it is still a “wow moment” when you finally open the crates. Then you remember that your job as a conservator is to ensure the safety of these special items, which rarely travel. They may be on the road for up to eight years and therefore could sustain a lot of damage if people are not very careful.
Next, you find the crate filled with all the big condition-report binders. They are filled with detailed descriptions, drawings and photos concerning the condition of the specimens. They are somewhat akin to your medical records, but with lots more photos. Because the specimens are unfamiliar to you, the reports also include key info about how to safely unpack, lift, handle and install the specimens. The condition of the specimens is verified every time they leave an institution, and again when they arrive at the next. Any changes in condition are noted; any damage is addressed.
Extreme Mammals, which was developed by the American Museum of Natural History and its partners, is filled with lots and lots of fossils that look very robust but really aren’t. They are more like very heavy, very fragile 3D puzzles that are often made up of a myriad of pieces glued together. They are much more fragile than you would think.
Occasionally when our exhibition team opens the crates, we find that something has broken in transit. This happens despite all the work that goes into shipping them, and the use of air-ride trucks, cushioned skids, double crates and custom packing-mounts. As a conservator, you have to document the damage, inform the institution that owns the item, get approval for fixing it, and then fix it using archival methods and materials. Very, very occasionally it may be decided that the item is too fragile to travel and it gets pulled from the show. More commonly, we catch small problems such as wearing or cracking that can accumulate over time or lead to something more problematic. We fix the small damage, and more importantly, try to figure out the underlying cause of the problem. We make recommendations on how to improve the shipping, handling or mounting of the specimens.
There are also quite a number of special taxidermy specimens in this show, including a specimen of an extinct Tasmanian wolf that we need to inspect for signs of pest infestations. Specimens that travel are at a greater risk of pest infestation or of transporting pest infestations between museums. Therefore, we go over all the organic specimens and the crates they travel in with a “fine-tooth comb” to check for pest activity. If we find anything suspicious, rather than using pesticides, we re-crate the specimens in question and put them in a special, very cold walk-in freezer to kill any insects. So the last couple of weeks contain lots of uncrating and inspecting of specimens while the installation crew places display cases in the correct spot. We have also started the delicate job of placing the specimens on their display mounts and “buttoning up the cases” before the public comes to see the exhibition. Hopefully, it will be just as exciting for them to see the specimens as it is for us. Extreme Mammals is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA, in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, USA and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, USA.