7 Dec 2016

Really Wild Restoration:
Part 1

Recently, the Birmingham Museums Trust conservation department have been carrying out a lot of work on the zoology collection, in preparation for an expansion of the natural history displays at Thinktank in spring 2017.

It has not been an uncommon sight to see the conservation laboratory filled with feathered, furry, or scaly creatures of all shapes and sizes. One of the specimens recently worked upon is a wild boar with an interesting history.

The boar was killed in Patiala, Northern India, in 1922 by His Royal Highness Edward, Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VIII. It was donated to the British Museum (Natural History) – now known as the Natural History Museum – where it formed part of a diorama depicting pig sticking (hunting boar or pigs with a spear from horseback).

The boar came to Birmingham Museum in 1956 in exchange for twenty mounted bird specimens from Birmingham’s collection.

Wild boar from the zoology collection before treatment

Upon close examination of the boar, evidence of its former exhibition became apparent: there is a patch on the right flank covering a hole in which was inserted a spear, and on the underside of the belly there remain traces of the imitation blood used in the original diorama.

Patch covering a hole on the wild boar

Traces of imitation of blood on the underside of the belly

In patches across the specimen, there is also a quantity of green paint, suggesting at the colour of the surrounding area in which it was displayed at some point.

Small patch of green paint on the specimen

The boar exhibited an array of different issues which required remedial treatment before it would be ready to go on display in the Thinktank exhibition.

Most conspicuous was the fact that the front left trotter had become detached. 

Front left trotter detached from the leg of the boar

Extending from each of the boar’s legs is a metal rod, which serve(d) to anchor the specimen in place whilst on display. The front left rod had become bent, causing more of the boar’s weight to fall upon the trotter, resulting in it breaking loose.

The tail had also been damaged, and the tip was hanging loose.

The tail has been damaged and the tip hanging loose

Around the eyes, ears, and snout where the skin had dried out, cracks had formed. As the humidity of the air around the specimen decreases, the hide will dry and consequently shrink, causing it to split in areas where it is pulled most tightly over the former, beneath.

Cracks around the eyes of the boar

Cracking around the snout where the skin has dried out

Visible inside the ears was a white crystalline substance, looking a little like sugar. From the mid-eighteenth century until relatively recently, a common means of preserving taxidermy skins and preventing moths and other insects from eating specimens was to coat them with ‘arsenical soap’, or to apply mixtures containing powdered arsenic during the stuffing of the skin. Unfortunately arsenic is highly toxic to humans as well as insect pests.

White arsenical soap inside the ears

The white deposits in the ears were likely to be crystallised arsenic. Tests carried out using an X-ray fluorescence technique have shown that – in common with many other museums – our taxidermy collections contain arsenic; and so precautions had to be taken to ensure that the conservators working on the boar were not exposed to the substance. These included wearing disposable gloves and a masks at all times when working with the boar, and fitting vacuums with high efficiency filters to trap any particles disturbed during the cleaning process.

Edward VIII’s boar presents a variety of different conservation challenges to be overcome during its treatment. 

Watch out for part 2 - coming soon - when the restoration work begins. It promises to be anything but boar-ing! (*groan*)