In a previous blog, I had the chance to give my general impressions on the “Animal Inside Out” exhibition currently being shown at the Museum. I was particularly entranced by the technique used for this exhibition: plastination.
There are several methods in existence for preserving animal tissues. One technique akin to plastination, called paraffinization, is in use since the beginning of the 20th century. It consists of injecting paraffin into soft, fresh tissues from which water has been extracted. But the results in terms of handling and long-term conservation can hardly be compared to plastination. Just how widespread is the use of this plastination technique, particularly in natural history museums?
Natural history collection curators have a battery of different conservation methods that can be adapted to various uses and specific goals. For example, the Canadian Museum of Nature vertebrate collections that I manage as curator include tens of thousands of complete or partial skeletons. There are almost just as many skins preserved in various forms: round, flat, naturalized, dried, preserved in liquid, refrigerated, and frozen. Over one million complete fish, amphibians and reptiles are preserved in 70% ethanol or 10% formalin. We also have internal organs, though they generally make up a small portion of our collections.
The Canadian Museum of Nature also owns a freeze dryer for extracting all the water contained in an organism. This produces a dry specimen that keeps its natural appearance and is supposedly easy to preserve. About forty years ago, tests were done to use freeze-drying techniques as a less costly alternative to taxidermy. Our phycologists also prepare diatoms in this manner to reveal their inner structure—similar to what plastination is seeking to achieve.
However, unlike the ease of handling associated with plastinated specimens, museum specimens prepared or preserved using the above techniques have a few drawbacks. Mammals and birds prepared using freeze-drying techniques are now too fragile and brittle to be handled extensively. In addition, body fats seep through the skin and damage the fur or feathers, making the specimens more prone to insect attacks. From the specimens in our bird collection prepared in this way, only the American Robin was saved from these destructive agents. Specimens kept in alcohol or formalin pose some challenges because of the dangerous nature of these chemical preservatives, likely to cause serious health problems in humans.
Plastination would be of great value in exhibitions because it produces realistic specimens. Museums would greatly benefit from it because specimens no longer need any maintenance. Why isn’t it being used? Is it because this technique is too costly that museums are so reluctant? Note that preparing the giraffe for the BodyWorlds: Animal Inside Out exhibition required almost 30,000 person-hours of work. An elephant not shown at the museum in Ottawa required 65,000 person-hours. In other words, if I set out to prepare this elephant by myself, I would need 33 years of full-time work to complete the project. It would then be the only project I would complete in my entire career! That’s much too long for a single specimen.
Plastination is better adapted to the needs of teaching general anatomy. It is not used in natural history museums. There is however one point in common between plastination and taxidermy in a museum setting. While in the first case the skin is removed to show the original structural configuration of the body’s internal organs, the animals are reconstituted at the museum with the skin back on, in an artistic and often theatrical fashion to exhibit them as naturalized specimens. In this way, specimens in both cases are no longer simply corpses, but creatures that come to life. They are shown in all their splendour to foster an appreciation of, and profound respect for, living things.
(Translated from French)