Most people in Ottawa probably remember the previous fossil gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature—the one that was installed in 1974, and featured (in keeping with the style of that era) harvest gold carpeting, not only on the floors, but also on the walls! Just try to imagine the amount of dust that accumulated in those carpets over a period of 30 years.

Our new Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery (installed in 2006), has a sleek, modern style that features timeless materials such as steel, glass and slate. There is nary a carpet to be seen, and yet, somehow, dust still finds its way onto our dinosaurs.

A man on a lift cleans a large turtle-fossil cast (collection #CMNFV 51836) that hangs from the ceiling in the gallery.
One dusty giant sea turtle—Clayton Kennedy vacuums the cast of an Archelon ischyros. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Fortunately, the clean lines of the gallery tend to hide the dust, and I would venture to say that even when at its worst, few of our visitors even notice it. But we the palaeo collections staff notice it.

We see the delicate cobwebs that mysteriously appear, strung between the vertebral spines of the crested hadrosaur Hypacrosaurus and spanning the gaping jaws of the meat-eating Daspletosaurus. We look up and sigh in consternation at the dusty layer accumulating on the back of the giant sea turtle Archelon, suspended above us. And we curse the dust bunnies that skitter fearlessly amongst the huge feet of our horned dinosaurs, Triceratops and Styracosaurus.

That’s why, at least twice a year, our palaeo team, armed with all manner of cleaning supplies, enters the dusty fray to set things right. But whereas the mid-year dusting is more or less a maintenance run, the annual January cleaning blitz is an opportunity for all staff to pitch in and do a thorough cleaning of our beautiful, historic building.

A woman stands inside the rib cage of a mounted dinosaur fossil (collection #CMNFV 2280), using a brush and vacuum.
In the belly of the ceratopsian—Susan Swan cleans the Chasmosaurus russelli. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

But the cleaning of the fossils is left strictly to the “palaeo people”, who’ve spent hundreds of hours mounting, installing and repairing the fossils, and as such, are familiar with each and every specimen.

For example, although most of our skeletons are the real thing, we know which skeletons (or isolated elements on the skeletons) are casts and need not be treated quite so delicately. We also know that some of the Paleogene fossil mammals are so delicate that they can’t withstand much more than a gentle once-over with a duster.

The free-standing mounts and panel mounts are dusted from the top down, with the aid of ladders (as well as vacuum cleaners, to capture all the dust we kick up).

Among life-sized models of brontotheres (Megacerops sp.) and an entelodont (Archaeotherium sp.), a woman vacuums while a man crouches.
Tending the herd—Margaret Currie and another staff member clean the “brontothere pit”. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

The recessed nature of the brontothere diorama on the mezzanine makes it a receptacle for all sorts of objects. Beads, gum, pens, pencils and other undesirables find their way in there every year.

Near full-sized models of Vagaceratops irvinensis dinosaurs, a man wields a vacuum overhead, aiming the cone attached to the end at fake leaves.
How to capture dust—Clayton Kennedy cleans some plastic foliage. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Finally, the room with the fleshed-out dino models is tackled. The leaves on the fake trees are the worst dust collectors—every year we try to come up with a method to clean them that doesn’t simply spread the dust around, but it’s tricky and requires the use of lifts to reach them. There are also the plastic Cretaceous ground plants, which must be washed to restore their lustre. And the fibreglass dino models themselves, having enjoyed the affection of thousands of kids, are not only dusted, but often thoroughly washed.

The work in the fossil gallery is usually completed over two days and not only gives us an opportunity to check each specimen for signs of damage, but also to enjoy and take pride in the gallery that our team worked so hard to install.

The museum’s next cleaning blitz is planned for January 6 to 10, 2014 (inclusive). The museum will be closed on those days.