conservation

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Dr Eric Dorfman’s professional credentials would be a separate – and very long – story. The books he’s written and studies he has made, in themselves, would make a fascinating Midweek article (note to self: write fascinating Midweek article about Dr Eric Dorfman’s books and published studies).

In this issue, however, we treat him as the recently appointed director of the Whanganui Regional Museum and hear about his interest in the long extinct Tasmanian Wolf, Thylacinus cynocephalus.

To do that I had to follow the tall, one-time Californian (but I think New Zealand has claimed him now) down into the bowels of the museum, shuffling between shelves until finding dozens of specimens of the taxidermists’ art. There we encountered our Tasmanian Wolf.

The museum has a stuffed specimen, collected by the museum’s founder, Samuel Drew, sometime around 1891, well before the species met its total demise. It looks its age, poor thing, but the astounding fact is that we have one.

Eric lived in Australia for some years and knows a bit about these creatures. So why did he choose it to present to Midweek?  “It’s immensely cool from the fact that we have an extinct Australian species of which there are only a few in the world and exemplifies the importance of the collection internationally, as well as nationally. It’s cool on a personal level because I’m a conservationist by profession and there is still an effort afoot to see if maybe there are some left in Tasmania … and evolutionarily it’s very cool because although it looks like a dog it’s actually more closely related to a kangaroo, koala or wombat.”

The Thylacine is a marsupial and has a pouch like a kangaroo … well, the female does. The museum’s specimen is an adult male. Eric says they are more closely related to the quoll, another Australian animal, which is “more like a marsupial weasel”.  “From an evolutionary standpoint, this is convergent evolution with a dog,” says Eric. “Also biologically that’s very interesting.  One of my research thrusts is about humans’ relationship with nature,” he says. Eric has a book coming out later this year – Intangible Natural Heritage – of which he is author/editor in league with a team of distinguished authors.

Looking at this sad, stuffed specimen, Eric sees past the obvious and finds a symbol of “our coming of age as a society when we realise that doing this [making animals extinct] is a really bad thing.” He stresses that while this new-found consciousness is too late for some species, it’s not too late for many others.

He praises the work of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and its work here and overseas. “DOC is supporting other countries, including the United States, in methodology of setting up island sanctuaries … and it’s fantastic to be in New Zealand – even though this is an Australian species – from the point of view of this is a place where we have come of age in terms of the environment, and I hope we stay there. You can see why this launches into a lot of really interesting philosophical issues … and also thinking about where museums have been and where they’re going.”

It’s incredible, almost, to realise that Samuel Drew, Whanganui Regional Museum founder, actually helped, in his way, send species such as the huia extinct. He did that by trading stuffed huia (probably) to get an example of another species that, itself, would be extinct in another 50 years. At the time he traded for the Tasmanian Wolf, it was reasonably common but he needed it for his marsupial collection.

“No museum curator has ever intentionally sent a species extinct,” says Eric, “but back in the 19th century when species looked like they were going extinct, often, museum curators would run out to make sure they had them in their collection before anyone else got them … the huia was a victim of that kind of thing.”

The Thylacine was once a pan-Australian species, says Eric, with cave paintings to prove it was once even in the very north of Australia in Kakadu National Park. “By the time Drew was around it was restricted to Tasmania,” he says, although it was being hunted until its final (probable) extinction in the 1930s.

Eric says there is enough genetic material in existence so that, one day, techniques of cloning may be able to reintroduce the species. And so we looked at Samuel Drew’s legacy, part of his vision of a great museum that was all-encompassing.  “We now ‘get’ why he did it,” says Eric, “and we now have this incredible treasure. This is an amazing thing to have.”

There are lemurs from Madagascar and animals from all around the world, some exhibited upstairs, others hiding from the light below decks in the vaults. The Thylacine stands with them, an example of old ethics and philosophies and yet a symbol of what we are today. And if we do manage to clone them back into existence, will we look after them this time? The last word goes to Dr Eric Dorfman.

“If the Thylacine is never going to be reinvented and really is extinct, and the same with the huia, don’t we owe it to the species and owe it to ourselves to allow it to awaken us to the realities of what we’re doing to the planet?”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek newspaper in June 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the author.

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The 25 Pounder Gun

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With the centenary of World War I now upon us there is currently a global interest in the recovery and conservation of military objects. These relics, many from both World Wars, are now eagerly sought after by Museums, collectors and historians. Fuelled by this enthusiasm, some of the world’s rarest military hardware is now being recovered from various sites and conserved. For many people these objects embody and symbolise the sacrifices made by our forebears, and their conservation will enable future generations to view, touch and appreciate what has gone before.

High on the list of the most interesting are artillery guns and the Whanganui Regional Museum has such a weapon in its collection. It is a 25 pounder Vickers Armstrong Mk2 /1 which was built around 1942. This type of gun is notable for being among the first light field artillery guns to embody the multiple role capabilities of field guns, anti-tank guns and howitzers all rolled into one. The Vickers Armstrong 25 pounder was considered by many to be the best light artillery gun of World War II. An additional benefit of its multi-role capability was that the Army could retire all of their howitzers and anti-tank guns and only had to mass produce one type of gun.

GL1All the Mark 1 25 pounders were sent to France. When the British withdrew from Dunkirk all had fallen into German hands. The Germans tested them and liked them so much that they kept them right to the end of the war; when their supplies of captured British ammunition ran out they manufactured their own. All subsequent 25 pounders were built from scratch as 25 pounders, as opposed to modified 18 pounders, and were designated Mk 2/1, signifying an all-new Mark 2 barrel in a Mark 1 frame.

GL2The Museum’s 25 pounder is one of these and was probably built in 1942 before being sent to New Zealand for army training and military exercises during the war. There is a possibility, however, that it may have been used by the New Zealand contingent that served in Korea. Because all the brass plaques that could have told us when it was made, which factory had built it and its service serial numbers, were removed, it is difficult to say where it was used with any certainty.

GL3Donated to the Whanganui Regional Museum by the New Zealand Army in 1979, this weapon was mounted in Queens Park until 2010 when it was removed so that the Wanganui Antiquities Trust could undertake a major conservation and stabilisation task upon it.

 

GL4Generously sponsored by Emmetts Civil Construction, the gun was lifted from its mount and transported to Boyds Auto Museum on Great North Road in Whanganui. There it was stripped of its smaller parts before being moved to Garmac Engineering for the removal of its axle, barrel and recoil frame and for an assessment of its overall condition.

GL5It then went to Edmonds Industrial Coatings where the myriad of parts were sandblasted to remove corrosion and lightly painted in preparation for later conservation. Corrosion was also removed from the frame and new steel added.

 

GL6Trips were made to New Zealand Army Museum in Waiouru so that missing parts could be identified, measured and photographed. A trip to Dannevirke by the team to visit veteran WWI gunner, Gordon Menzies, yielded a copy of an original 25 pounder parts manual.

To date all the major parts have been repaired, repainted and reassembled. All that remains to do now is the ancillary parts; these small parts are often more time consuming and require more skills than the large parts. With the barrel reinstalled and now back on its original wheels, the project completion is not far away.

 

By Geoff Lawson, Wanganui Antiquities Trust

You fixed it with what?!?

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has recently come under fire for fixing an artifact with epoxy glue.  Oops!

The mask of King Tutankhamun was being cleaned when the iconic beard came off, and was rumoured to be hastily reattached with the inappropriate adhesive.  And poorly reattached too, with reports the remnants of the glue were visible to viewers of the object.

The Museum sector has guidelines for the correct materials and methods to be used in the conservation, preservation, and repair of historic items, and we do our best to stick to these rules as much as possible.  Acid-free, pH neutral, non-corrosive, and ideally reversible if need be.

For more information on caring for, and fixing, artifacts, check out the Canadian Conservation Institute here.  Or, visit your local museum or archive center for a chat with a friendly conservator or collection manager.  We are always willing to help!

Caring for a precious collection

Caring for a precious collection

We were in the vaults; that converted carpark wherein lies most of the museum’s property. Much of it is already old, and we expect it to get much older. With the latest run of natural disasters and threats to man-made structures, heritage or otherwise, how long can we preserve our history?  “We’re looking for perpetuity,” says museum curator, Libby Sharpe. “Most people would never imagine that the museum has about 80 per cent of its collection in storage … That 15 per cent on display is more or less a formula for most museums.”

Libby began her museum career at the Canterbury museum, a place that underwent major earthquake proofing a couple of decades ago. It paid off. Their website reports minimal structural damage to the old buildings and 99 per cent of the collection is unharmed.

She says Wanganui is particularly prone to flooding and during the 2004 deluge the museum, itself safely above the rising water table, helped people clean and restore family papers, photographs and paintings and assist with advice and direction. She says family treasures and memories can often matter more than a house or other property and their loss can be devastating. So we talked about disasters and the plans that are in place for such institutions as museums, art galleries and libraries.

“They have specific priorities in rescue,” says Libby, “Obviously, people first, but we hold these collections that are immensely valuable, and I don’t necessarily mean in terms of money, although that is a consideration. They are a huge asset, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.” She talked about measures that are in place to preserve damaged material until experts can take over and complete the restoration. For example, she says she has seen sodden, ancient books being wrapped in plastic and put in the freezer until such time as serious salvage can be performed.

The archives in our museum is a huge collection by most standards and it is uniquely Wanganui. As Libby says, there is no other collection like it in the world. “So you see, we do take a lot of trouble with our storage. We use waxed boxes which have a degree of fire retardancy and also protect from light and atmospheric dirt,” she says. The boxes (called transit boxes) also allow air to circulate, preventing mildew and dankness. She also mentioned a ‘number 8 wire fix’ used since the 1970s to store rolled plans; realising they would be crushed if stored in a flat drawer or shelf, someone came up with the idea of a calico sling.

Keeping in mind changing technology and standards of preservation, Libby says, “Anything we do should be reversible. Conservation is incredibly expensive because it’s time-consuming and vastly expert. Conservators train for seven or eight years.” She says the local museum staff are trained in basic conservation to enable them to provide optimum conditions for the collection and to prevent any further deterioration. Temperature and relative humidity is monitored, keeping conditions right to keep the collection stable.

Libby showed me a red line that runs along the concrete in the ‘vaults’. To one side of that line, the concrete flooring has been reinforced to allow storage of great weights. Up to 500kg per square metre can be stored on that part of the museum, contrasting with up to 300kg outside the line. She also showed me one of several orange cupboards in which emergency supplies are stored. Most of the equipment within is for dealing with water damage. There are also personal lidded buckets for each staff member, filled with essential items should disaster strike.

As we walked through the vaults, Libby showed how shelving was made secure and how stored items like crockery were protected with acid-free foam. Ancient stone tools rest in their drawers, fitting snugly into thick-cut double-layered foam. She says the museum is one of the most protected buildings in Wanganui, certainly as far as fire safety and security against human invaders is concerned, as well as safeguards against time.

“We have to lessen the impact of disaster by how we manage our building and collections,” says Libby. “We need to address possibility, not wait for inevitability. All the same, all the money and all the care in the world will not guarantee either is safe.”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.