Taxidermy specimens can be the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the case of the taxidermy case created by Jesse Swinehart of Licking County, Ohio, there is whole lot of good. The wooden case is filled with a rich assortment of birds, farm animals, and varmints from the Ohio region dating back to 1890. The case has a glass front and the back wall and floor are covered in mirrors. It is currently cared for by the Ohio History Connection located in Columbus, Ohio, but it was in need of some conservation treatment.
Conservation of taxidermy or natural history specimens can sometimes be a taxing affair, something understood by Objects and Sculpture Conservator, Christina L. Simms, of McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory.
These objects are highly susceptible to agents of deterioration, especially pest infestations. All that skin, fur, and feathers make a good snack, so to speak, for living pests to stuff themselves.
In the 18th to late 20th century, many natural history skins and mounts were preserved with heavy metals like mercury and/or metalloids like arsenic. These materials were used as a preservative, deterring pests and the growth of microorganisms. Arsenic was even used until the 1980s. For this reason, especially with older natural history specimens, these types of objects should be handled by trained museum professionals with the proper personal protection equipment.
The condition of the Swinehart case was certainly something to crow about, but not unexpected for this type of object and its age. In addition to toxic preservatives, highly visible dust bunnies, not intended by the taxidermist, had collected inside of the case over the years. The object and its contents endured some physical damage in the form of cracked mirrors, chipped wood, and broken contents over its long life. Display interventions were also employed like interior lighting and a sheet of acrylic glazing to protect the original glass.
For the conservation treatment, a large containment structure was built around the case to prevent the spread of any contaminants in the lab. The back and front covers of the case were then removed. Conservator Simms made sure all of her ducks were in a row before treatment by suiting up in her personal protection equipment.
Upon a visual inspection, the telltale signs of arsenic were evident as a white powder accumulating in the recesses of the specimen. As previously noted that even if these signs are not immediately evident, historic mounts or skins should always be handled as if they are potentially toxic.
Dusts were then removed with a special variable speed vacuum with a HEPA filter and fitted with micro-attachments to control the spread of particulate as well as provide a low-pressure to remove debris but not damage the specimens.
Unfortunately, though the mirror on the bottom of the case was previously broken from an impact, many of the specimens, moss, and other details were attached with adhesive to the mirror. It was decided that it was too invasive to remove the bottom mirror completely, and it was stabilized instead, but the quacks were still visible after treatment.
Minor repairs inside the case were also completed. The broken branch holding the Baltimore Oriole’s nest and a loose turtle specimen were reattached with metal fasteners and adhesive respectively.
On the back of the case, the broken mirror was removed and replaced with a new mirror of the same size and thickness. Breaks, losses, and splits in the wooden components were repaired with adhesive and inpainted with acrylic paints to disguise the repairs.
Due to the high display value of the case, new lightning was requested. Natural history specimens are especially susceptible to damage from light exposure, and low-light levels are recommended for these types of objects. In order to meet client needs and protect the object, Conservator Simms replaced failed lighting components with dimmable, low-temperature LEDs. Lights were then connected to a timed motion detector.
The motion detector device turns on the lights when a visitor approaches the case, only to automatically turn off the lights when the visitor leaves the viewing area. The dimming feature and timed motion detector reduces the amount of overall light exposure while still allowing visitors to enjoy the contents of the case. It is visible, but discreet, and arguably a minor visual inconvenience when considering the preservation of such a unique object.
The final steps of the conservation treatment of the taxidermy case, involved cleaning and reattaching the back cover and front glass. A final museum-grade, Ultra-violet (UV) blocking sheet of acrylic glazing with impact resistance was cut to size and placed over the original glass front.
After treatment, the improved look of the case was a pheasant surprise, and it was now in stable condition. Most importantly, the contents of the case appeared to be brought back to life. The colors and details of the flora and fauna inside were no longer obscured by heavy dusts and debris. The cleaned glass and newly installed mirror crisply reflected every frog, snake, turtle, and bird.
Despite the new and improved look, Conservator Simms warns museum professionals who might be handling similar objects, that “historic specimens should always be treated as if they are contaminated, despite conservation intervention, toucan never be too careful”.
For future visitors, the Swinehart taxidermy is now sealed for display and protected by new glazing for visitors to safely enjoy.
The Ohio History Connection, formerly the Ohio Historical Society, in its own words “…is a statewide history organization with the mission to spark discovery of Ohio’s stories.” You can visit the Ohio History Center in Columbus, Ohio, or check out the other 50 historic sites and museums managed by the Ohio History Connection throughout the state of Ohio.