Team Taxidermy!

In the last few posts, we discussed how the renovation of the diorama hall at the American Museum of Natural History led to the creation of our current grant project. We were confident in the testing we did prior to the renovation, and successfully recolored many of the faded taxidermy specimens in the hall – however, we were still left with a number of questions as a result of our research.

  • Our lightfastness testing investigated the dye’s resistance to fading in a controlled environment – but how long can we expect the dyes to last inside an actual diorama environment?
  • How can we better understand the ease of removal of the dyes from the animal hairs – is there a way to manipulate the dyes’ ability to penetrate or “fix” to the substrate?
  • Could the dyes potentially cause the hairs to degrade faster inside the harsh diorama environment, or do they block the light and slow down damage?

To tackle how to answer these questions, conservators at the American Museum of Natural History reached out to colleagues at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Institute for Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) to collaborate on a grant proposal. We knew that there was a strong interest in recoloring taxidermy based on the feedback we received on presentations at the American Institute for Conservation‘s (AIC) 2012 annual meeting, the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) 2012 annual meeting, and the International Council of Museums Committee for Conservation Natural History Working Group Newsletter (No.17, October 2012). We also submitted a survey among conservation practitioners, and the results indicated the urgent need for comprehensive research to identify additional colorants and protocols appropriate for recoloring fur in the museum context. The project partners were awarded a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to fund three years of research to answer the questions that arose out of the restoration project. The conservators at the AMNH partnered with staff from the Peabody and IPCH to develop a robust research design for assessing the use of dyes and lead the evaluation of results. Additionally, an advisory panel of experts in the field was also created to support the team throughout the course of the project.   The project will culminate in a workshop hosted jointly with SPNHC to train conservation professionals in the use of well-understood, high-quality, affordable materials for the conservation of taxidermy. The project will also introduce standards for decision-making about treatment procedures and present a project website and resources (like this blog!) to support the care and treatment of natural history collections. The research also has the potential to transform how visual artists, especially those working with taxidermy, create and conserve their work. The main project team combines expertise from museum collections staff, conservators, and conservation scientists. Lisa Elkin, Judith Levinson, and Paul Whitmore are the Project Co-Directors.

Lisa Elkin, Chief Registrar and Director of Natural Science Collections Conservation, provides administrative oversight of all phases of the project and general administrative oversight of the project conservator, ensuring all timelines are effective, and planning activities relevant and achievable. She also provides specific oversight for all outreach activities including standards and best practices, website/workshop development and blog maintenance.

Judith Levinson

Judith Levinson

Judith Levinson, Director of Anthropology Conservation, provides oversight concerning the AMNH research program, specifically the preparation of samples and the aging and lightfastness analysis. She will also lead efforts in identifying re-coloring materials to be investigated and the substrates upon which they will be applied.

 

Paul Whitmore

Paul Whitmore

Paul Whitmore, Director, Art Conservation Research Center, provides oversight of the overall research program and its development. He will provide support concerning analysis and evaluation of results, and foster access to expertise across the Yale science departments.

 

 

Julia Sybalsky

Julia Sybalsky

Julia Sybalsky is the Project Conservator. Julia carries out all the project analysis at AMNH and Yale. She will document all findings for presentation to the project team, the advisory committee, and the field at large. She will also work with the project participants in developing content for the website, the workshop, and the blog.

 

Aniko Bezur, Wallace S. Wilson Director of Scientific Research at the Center for Conservation and Preservation at Yale University, provides guidance in the use of analytical equipment and evaluation of results.

 

Beth Nunan

Beth Nunan

Beth Nunan, Associate Conservator at AMNH (that’s me!), maintains the project blog and will assist the project conservator with sample preparation and analysis at AMNH.

 

 

Tim White, Director of Collections & Operations at the Yale Peabody Museum, ensures that the results of the project are up to the standards expected of this field and disseminated to the appropriate audiences – conservators, collections managers, taxidermists, etc.

 

Richard Kissel

Richard Kissel

Richard Kissel, Director of Public Programs at the Yale Peabody Museum, provides guidance concerning the best methods for disseminating results particularly related to social media, web and blog technologies.

 

 

Michael Anderson, Museum Preparator at the Yale Peabody Museum, stands as the resident expert on habitat dioramas and provides guidance concerning the visual impact any treatment must have.

Catherine Sease, Senior Conservator at the Yale Peabody Museum, provides guidance concerning the potential long-term impact of the proposed treatments to specimen-based collections.

The role of our external advisory committee is to review the research questions to ensure that the issues critical to working and visual properties and long terms stability are covered. Annual meetings will help provide a forum to present details concerning the program and encourage discussion of the results: whether the methods of analysis need to be adapted and whether timelines need to be re-thought. Through regular updates, including these blog posts, the committee can  monitor the overall direction of the project, review the testing conducted thus far, and provide input concerning dye application and interpretation.

Members of the external advisory committee include:

Corina Rogge

Corina Rogge

Corina Rogge, PhD., Andrew W. Mellon Research Scientist at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Dr. Rogge provides a critical role of oversight concerning the research program and analysis of results. Dr. Rogge will be the point person liaising between the project team and the committee and will have the most regular contact with the project team.

 

Catherine Hawks

Catherine Hawks

Catherine Hawks, Museum Conservator, National Museum of Natural History. Ms. Hawks is a renowned natural science conservator and will provide guidance concerning the potential long-term impact of the proposed treatments to specimen based collections.

 

 

GeorgeD_MTLion

George Dante

George Dante, Master Taxidermist. Mr. Dante was the taxidermist on staff for the AMNH diorama renovation project. He will provide insight concerning the suitability of the various dyes for treatment and will assist in disseminating results to the world of professional taxidermists as an effort to improve current methods and practices in this professional community.

 

Stephen Quinn

Stephen Quinn

Stephen Quinn, Diorama Historian and Artist. Mr. Quinn is the authority on habitat dioramas and was the project director of the AMNH diorama renovation. He will provide insights into the methods and materials used in constructing historic taxidermy and how the proposed treatments could be influenced as such.

 

 

Jane Pickering

Jane Pickering

Jane Pickering, Executive Director, Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Ms. Pickering will provide the voice for public programming, education and exhibition. She will guarantee dissemination of the results to these communities and will provide guidance in the planning and development of the workshop and website.

 

 

We are excited to be collaborating with so many new partners! This diverse team of specialists has helped to guide the creation of a well thought-out research design and methodology that ensures key issues can be effectively addressed – more on this research plan in the next post!

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A Horse of a Different Color – researching colorants for recoloring taxidermy

For the 2011-2012 renovation of the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals dioramas, we were limited by the need for high lightfastness (resistance to fading), in situ treatment considerations, health and safety requirements, and reversibility/retreatability, so the project conservators looked to materials already in use in our profession (see previous posts for more details on this project). The Orasol® dyes seemed like a good alternative to the acrylic paint favored by the project taxidermist. Orasol® dyes (Ciba-Geigy; currently marketed by BASF for coatings and printing inks) are commercially available metal complex dyes that cannot be dissolved in water, but can be dissolved in many common organic solvents such as ethanol. They can be applied without salts or peroxides (which can be acidic), and require no rinsing, making them useful for in situ treatment. They are manufactured in a palette of 26 colors, which was enough to mix the range of tones needed for the North American Mammals. They are also generally approved by the conservation community and are commonly used in furniture and wood stains, as well as for tinting epoxy and other resins used for fills.

A word on dyes:

A dye is a substance that has an affinity to the substrate (in our case, the hair of the taxidermy mount) to which it is applied. In contrast, a pigment is generally insoluble and has no affinity for the substrate.

A typical dye molecule is composed of different chemical groups, each responsible for a specific property of the dye:

  1. Chromophore – color producing portion
  1. Auxochrome – influences the intensity of the color and provides the site at which the dye chemically bonds with the fiber (hydrogen, ionic, or dipole-dipole interactions with the substrate).
  1. Solubilizing group – allows the dye molecule to be soluble in a given solvent so it is capable of reacting with the fiber.
Typical dye molecule (from Synthetic Dyes for Natural Fibers. Knutson, Linda. 1982)

Typical dye molecule (from Synthetic Dyes for Natural Fibers, Linda Knutson. 1982)

Metal complex dyes are made of a transition metal ion such as chromium, copper, or cobalt complexed to two symmetrical dye molecules (chromophore and auxochrome). In general, members of this group have better lightfastness (resistance to fading) compared to other dyes due to the stability of the chelated complex and their large particle size; this, along with their working properties, has been the basis for their past use in conservation.

To determine if the dyes met all of our needs for the project, we developed some tests to compare the acrylic paints to the Orasol® dyes. The conservators worked closely with the taxidermist and partnered with outside conservation scientists to test the materials against these necessary criteria: minimal physical alteration to the hairs, retreatability/reversibility, and high lightfastness.

The physical appearance of bison hair samples colored with acrylic paint and ones colored using Orasol® dyes was examined using normal light as well as scanning electron microscopy (SEM). At first look, all of the colored samples appeared somewhat similar. The acrylic paints produced a matted and stiff feel, whereas the Orasol® dyes produced a more natural look and feel. The SEM images showed us that the binder in the acrylic paints covered the hair cuticle unevenly, creating a non-cohesive coating around the hair with some visible peeling and lifting. The Orasol® dyes were only just visible on the hair fibers and did not appear to cover or coat the hair shaft.

The surface of bison hairs imaged using scanning electron microscopy. From left to right: control (no colorant), acrylic paint, Orasol dye.

The surface of bison hairs imaged using scanning electron microscopy. From left to right: control (no colorant), acrylic paint, Orasol dye.

The taxidermist also found that the Orasol® dyes could be reduced or removed entirely when wiped or rinsed with ethanol after application. Although initially taken aback by this revelation, we quickly recognized the potential for reversibility, as well as the ability to produce special effects, such as localized reduction or removal of color to achieve special effects.

Project taxidermist reduces dye from a practice skin.

Project taxidermist George Dante reduces dye from a practice skin.

Metal complex dyes are generally regarded as having a high lightfastness. However, chromophore and auxochrome structures vary, making some dye colors more susceptible to fading. In their product literature, the manufacturer reports a definite range in both lightfastness and solubility from color to color.

Orasol dye lightfastness ratings according to manufacturer.

Orasol dye lightfastness ratings according to manufacturer.

These ratings are based on their use in printing ink, and the tests were conducted with two different binders (nitrocellulose and vinyl acetate) which produced significantly different results. To be able to judge the lightfastness of the Orasol® dyes when used on taxidermy, it was necessary to conduct our own tests without any binding media.

 The lightfastness of the dyes was tested using accelerated light-aging following the ASTM D4303 Standard Test Methods for Lightfastness of Colorants Used in Artists’ Coloring Materials. Test swatches were produced by airbrushing a 1% solution of dye dissolved in ethanol onto unbleached 100% wool as well as swatches of bleached bison fur. As a flat substrate of keratin fibers, the wool textile was chosen as a reasonable substrate to measure color changes using a spectrophotometer. Details about the testing procedure will not be listed here, but will be covered in subsequent posts as continued lightfastness testing is part of the current research program.

Conservation Fellows Julia Sybalsky and Rebecca Pollak prep swatches of Orasol dye for testing.

Conservation Fellows Julia Sybalsky and Rebecca Pollak prep swatches of Orasol dye for testing.

The ASTM protocol requires exposure of test materials to a broad spectrum of light that includes ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Since new lights in the diorama are filtered to exclude this particularly damaging light, the test helped us develop a worst-case scenario for assessing the lightfastness of the dyes.

Real-time monitoring of cumulative light exposure is continuing inside the bison diorama. Orasol dyes are exposed in situ alongside Blue Wool reference standards out of sight of visitors. At the same time, portions of the bison have been sprayed with dye mixtures and masked to permit direct comparison of exposed and unexposed areas of restoration.

Strategically placed dyed swatches and a blue wool card were placed inside the bison diorama (hidden from view), and sections of the dyed bison were covered for side-by-side comparison.

Strategically placed dyed swatches and a blue wool card were placed inside the bison diorama (hidden from view), and sections of the dyed bison were covered for side-by-side comparison.

Our lightfastness tests identified the most stable of the dye colors, allowing us to be picky about which shades could be used for the diorama taxidermy. The reversibility and retreatability of the dyes also played a major factor when deciding to use them on specimens in dioramas with higher light levels, with the understanding that fading will occur in time. The AMNH conservation and exhibition team was able to successfully recolor many of the faded specimens in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals.

Coyote, before and after recoloring.

Coyote, before and after recoloring.

The dye research we did as part of the renovation generated numerous new questions, which fell into three main topics:

Lightfastness – While our previous testing did effectively establish a lightfastness ranking among the Orasol colors, it didn’t answer one of the questions we were asked the most often – “Ok, we know that the dyes in the brighter dioramas are eventually going to fade… how long will they last?” By developing a test procedure that mirrors the UV-filtered lighting environment in the dioramas , we will get enough information to be able to create a probable lifespan for these materials when used in treatment.

Penetration/Fixation – While the ease of dye removal was beneficial in the 2011-2012 recoloring treatments, in other contexts you might want a greater fixation or penetration of the dye. We want to understand ways we could achieve and manipulate that “fixability”, as well as knowing if those variations impact the dyes working properties and lightfastness.

Substrate Degradation – Finally, we want to better understand whether or not the use of recoloring materials like the Orasol dyes causes the colored animal hairs to degrade faster than normal, or do they act as a protectant and slow down light damage?

These topics acted as a starting point for the research plan for the current project: Recoloring Faded Taxidermy: Research into the Properties and Applicability of Dye Materials for Conservation Treatment, the details of which will have to wait until the next post!