By Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History
Museums are full of delightfully strange creatures. The weird and the wonderful are stuffed, pickled or even pinned. Filling shelves and drawers behind the scenes there may be a ghoulish lamprey preserved in spirit, an over-stuffed platypus,* or an enormous goliath beetle in a drawer. Many of these specimens were brought into the museum when it first opened.
For Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, that was in 1910. Relatively late
for a museum to open, it was built for the education and enjoyment of the newly joined city of Plymouth. Back then, there were no televisions, no internet and the best way to explore the wonderful world of nature was to visit a museum.**
Many collections in the museum are over 100 years old. This is a long time for collections to have moved around store rooms, or for curators leaving, taking their knowledge with them. Every now and then the new curators find something we didn’t know was there.
Some years ago, I was moving some boxes in one of our store rooms, and I found something. In an old plastic box lay a humongous centipede wrapped in tissue missing practically all of its legs.
The job of a museum curator is to care for the collections they are in charge of. We spend time re-packing specimens, labelling them, and constantly checking them to make sure they are safe. Over 100 years, some things do become damaged. Some may not be packed correctly. Others may have had pests attack them. Boxes may have been moved around carelessly. And some may just have been put in boxes many, many years ago waiting to be found.
Museums have specialist staff (conservators) who can carry out very complex repairs on a huge amount of varying objects including paintings, sculptures, shoes, and archaeological pieces. Because natural history curators care for such a large number of collections, a large part of their job includes conservation skills; such as consolidating fossils, re-spiriting pickled creatures, cleaning and mending taxidermy, and reattaching broken insect parts.
Reattaching 37 legs, and both antenna was no easy feat. The giant centipede itself was very fragile: being an invertebrate, the hard parts were on the outside, and this specimen was hollow because all the insides had literally turned to dust. First thing to do was find out which leg went where. Each leg was checked with the main body for the right fit. (This sounds tedious, but each leg had its own unique break – and this break could be matched to the corresponding break on the main body.) A quick sketch let me put the correct leg in the correct place.
Next came reattaching the legs. This was the fiddly bit.
Museum curators have a very particular set of skills; skills they acquire over a long career. They use these skills to find any problems and eliminate them. We learn skills through training courses (through the important subject specialist groups such as the Natural Science Collections Association, and the Geological Curators Group). The circle of curators is also very close, and we give each other support and advice on problems we may come across. (I had a plan on how two repair this centipede, and I checked with two specialist natural history curators in the UK: they both approved the conservation I proposed.) Repairing museum specimens is not simply putting blobs of superglue on the broken bits and sticking them together. There are special glues that museums use: reversible if ever needed. And it takes a lot of patience.
Small strips of acid free tissue paper were rolled up, and coated with a pH neutral glue. In two cases, acid free tissue was rolled around small stainless steel pins to add support. It was carefully fitted inside the detached leg, and the other end fitted inside the main body. I was very careful to make sure the leg was reattached in the right position, with the breakages linked perfectly. Each leg was reattached, along with the two loose antenna.
This giant centipede now has all of its legs attached, all 20 pairs. It is complete again.
As well as the displays that you see in the museums, the curators and staff behind the scenes work hard to make sure collections are safe for future generations of visitors, researchers, artists, and school groups. One day I may be pickling an octopus, the next reattaching the legs to a centipede. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.
*Strangely, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery doesn’t have a platypus in the collections. Every other museum in the country I have visited has one. It may be that the museum opened after the rush of collecting the platypus in the mid to late 1900s.
**This is still extremely true today. Lots can be seen on the internet today, and there are some unbelievably remarkable nature documentaries on the BBC. Still, there is nothing quite the same as seeing the real thing up close. Pop into your local museum this lunch time, and get a real look at nature.