Return of the Dead: Taxidermy in Contemporary Culture

The American Museum of Natural History is famous for its dioramas that include expert examples of taxidermy. But taxidermy is encountered in other types of museums and facets of contemporary life, especially since it has been gaining popularity in art and elsewhere. This post explores (and celebrates) the expected and unexpected spaces where taxidermy is displayed. Add your own observations and favorite websites, artists, and taxidermy sightings in the comments.


Art & History Museums

Keep an eye out for pieces of taxidermy when visiting the following museums:

Van Gogh Museum – Look for a mounted bat on display next to Van Gogh’s painting Flying Fox (1884), shown below. As the website reveals,

“This is a type of tropical bat – an unusual subject for an artist. The one painted by Van Gogh was stuffed and mounted. . . Van Gogh knew a man in Eindhoven (NL), Antoon Hermans, with a collection of more than 300 mounted exotic animals. This bat may have come from that collection. Van Gogh wanted to depict the translucent wings clearly, so he placed a light source behind them.” (www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0136V1973)

flying fox

Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum.

National Air & Space Museum – Look for Able, a taxidermy rhesus monkey in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition.

“She flew inside a Jupiter nose cone with Baker, a female squirrel monkey on May 28, 1959, in an Army experiment designed to test the biomedical effects of space travel. Launched from Cape Canaveral, they reached a maximum altitude of 300 miles and travelled downrange 2,000 miles at speeds reaching 10,000 mph before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and being recovered by Navy ships. Both monkeys survived the trip well, but Able died from the anesthesia during a routine post-flight operation.

The Army transferred Able to NASM in 1960 and the National Museum of Natural History preserved her.” (www.airandspace.si.edu)

National Postal Museum – Look for famous Owney the dog, the unofficial mascot of the Railway Mail Service in the late 19th century.

Owney

Owney the dog. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.

 


Hipster Spaces

In the past few years, we’ve seen taxidermy in tattoo parlors, hip new restaurants, bars and coffee shops, and incorporated into contemporary interior design in homes. Representation in these spaces shows how taxidermy is no longer reserved for Wild West-themed restaurants and honky-tonks.

taxi and tattoos

Taxidermy mount in a tattoo parlor. ©AMNH /F. Ritchie

 

Buecherts Saloon

Taxidermy bisons above the bar at a hip restaurant in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C. ©AMNH /F. Ritchie


Reality Television

Although each series was short-lived, several reality televisions shows have been based upon creating taxidermy. Check out episodes that are still available on YouTube:

Mounted in Alaska (History Channel, 2011)

Immortalized (AMC, 2013)

American Stuffers (Animal Planet, 2012)

 


Professional Taxidermists

Unfortunately when many people think of taxidermy, they conjure images of the “stuffed” animals of past centuries, or worse – the bad taxidermy that fills internet memes. Those stuffed examples did not accurately resemble their living counterparts. The late 19th and 20th centuries saw a dramatic shift in the quality of taxidermy. Top taxidermists in the field today create beautiful and scientifically impressive mounts that present the viewer with an ever increasing sense of realism. Encountering taxidermists is not new, but this crop of wildlife artists may be unexpected to some.

Watch how the AMNH recently preserved Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise of  Pinta Island, by working with taxidermist (and member of the Project’s External Advisory Committee) George Dante.

 

If you’ve ever wondered where the best of the best showcase their talent, attend the World Taxidermy Championship that is held each year. The Field Museum’s Curiosity Correspondent takes us through a tour of what it’s like to see phenomenal examples of taxidermy:

 


Rogue Taxidermy

Fran_rogue

Project Conservator Fran Ritchie preparing to mount her own rogue taxidermy piece.

Taxidermy art, or rogue taxidermy, is a genre of art that incorporates preserved animal parts, or as the founders of the artform define it, “A genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed media sculptures containing conventional taxidermy-related materials that are used in an unconventional manner.” (Sarina Brewer, Rogue Taxidermy Society)

If you’re interested in learning rogue taxidermy yourself, there are typically classes available in larger cities. New Yorkers can contact us for recommendations for taxidermy classes for amateurs.

 


Art Galleries

Fine art galleries did not typically display mounted animals, until contemporary artists began incorporating them into their artwork. If you were able to see any of the following exhibitions, tell us about it in the comments section.

Fluff it Up: Make Taxidermy Great Again, Grant Museum of Zoology; June 2017

Dead Animals, or the Curious Occurrence of Taxidermy in Contemporary Art, Brown University List Art Center, David Winton Bell Gallery; January 23, 2016-March 27, 2016

Ravishing Beasts: The Strangely Alluring World of Taxidermy, Museum of Vancouver; October 21, 2009-February 28, 2010

 


Contemporary Artists

Interested in seeing more taxidermy-based contemporary art? Research these artists to see what’s happening in the art world today. Did we miss any of your favorites?

Petah Coyne

Project Conservator Fran Ritchie viewing Petah Coyne’s Untitled #1336 (Scalapino Nu Shu) (2009-10).

Richard Barnes

Maurizio Cattelan

Kate Clark

Petah Coyne

Mark Dion

Nicholas Galanin

Jules Greenberg

Thomas Grünfeld

Cai Guo-Qiang

Damien Hirst

Karen Knorr

Claire Morgan

Sarah Cusimano Miles

Polly Morgan

Javier Perez

Deborah Sengl

Angela Singer

Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir/Mark Wilson


 

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Case Study: Lemur Mount Treatment Part 1: Condition Examination

In addition to testing the stability of metal-complex dyes, we have been studying condition issues facing historic taxidermy collections (see our previous posts on the Mammalogy condition survey) and performing conservation treatments on selected specimens. These treatments stabilized important mounts and served as case studies for a workshop on the Care of Historic Mammalian Taxidermy at the 2017 Denver meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC).

Before Treatment of lemur.

Before treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

In one of these Case Studies, project intern Caitlin Richeson treated a damaged red-fronted brown lemur (Eulemur rufus) taxidermy mount. Its catalog number suggests that it was acquired soon after the Museum was formed in the late 19th century. This post and the next one will provide some of the details of that treatment.

All conservation treatments should begin with thorough documentation: an object description, condition examination, and photography. Caitlin’s project provides a good example of what that documentation may look like for a piece of taxidermy.


Object Identification: A full-body taxidermy mount of a female red-dronted lemur (Eulemur rufus) mounted on a habitat base constructed from a tree branch.

 

Description
The specimen is constructed around a composite manikin that is visible in several locations due to previous damages. The manikin is composed of wood wool (thin wood shavings traditionally made of poplar, pine, or spruce) bound to recreate the musculature form of the specimen; cotton batting used to bulk appendages such as the hands; and a metal armature used to provide rigid structural support. Appendages such as the hands and feet still contain original skeletal materials. The nose, snout, and eyelids are shaped from a soft black material, likely a pigmented wax.

The specimen is attached to the base with ferrous metal wires at three points: the proper right palm, the proper right foot, and the proper left foot. The wires penetrate the palm and feet of the specimen as well as the habitat base where they have been secured to the base by bending at a 90-degree angle.  The specimen is mounted in a standing position gripping the habitat base with the proper right (PR) hand and both feet.

There is a paper specimen label tied to the proper right ankle, which contains taxonomic information in two separate campaigns of writing. There is also a metal plate attached to the habitat base located on the front of the branch.  The plate is inscribed with the catalogue number and attached to the branch with two tacks. There is another metal tag tied with a thin metal wire around the PR wrist of the specimen, also stamped with the catalog number.

Condition
The specimen is in fair condition. It is structurally stable; however, there are two detached elements, several areas of fur loss, tears and cracks/splits in the hide, which contribute to the overall instability of the specimen. In addition, the specimen is covered in a layer of light grey dust and grime.

Hide/Manikin:

  • A portion of the proper left (PL) hand is detached from the specimen. The detached hand consists of the hide and four digits, but excludes the thumb, which remains attached to the specimen. The detached hand has several cracks/splits in the hide and a large loss on the palm side, exposing the interior construction. The PL ear of the specimen is also detached and there are small areas of unrecovered loss.

Before Treatment of lemur detached proper left hand.

Before Treatment of lemur detached proper left hand.

Before treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. Proper left detached hand. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

  • On the lower back at both the PR and PL sides there several moderately large stable tears in the skin of the lower torso, which expose the wood wool manikin below. There is also a minor split located at the PR side of the vent. Although the skin is slightly out of plane, it remains somewhat pliable and can be pressed back into place with gentle pressure.
  • There is a small circular area of abrasion on the back of the PR hand.

Finishing Materials:

  • The material used to finish the nose of the specimen has sustained localized losses and a dent on the PL side. The eyelids, which are made from the same finishing material, have also been deformed.
    Before Treatment of lemur. Detail of nose with missing wax.

    Before treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. Note the loss of finishing material on the nose and the loss of skin on the ear. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

    Before Treatment of lemur. Detail of nose with missing wax.

    Before treatment of lemur taxidermy mount. Note the loss of finishing material on the nose. ©AMNH /C. Richeson

Fur:

  • The fur of the specimen has discolored to a light yellow-brown color, having lost its natural variation in red, brown, and black colors that are representative of the species.
  • There are several areas of fur loss located on the mount. The first is a a substantial loss of fur on the chin and underside of the snout. This species is identifiable by its characteristic “beard”, and thus the fur loss in this area detracts from the accurate representation of the species. There are also small losses associated with the detached PL hand and at the coccyx.
  • There are also beige accretions on the fur, primarily located along the seam at the center of the torso, and an overall layer of moderate dust accumulation on the fur.

Display Base (branch):

  • The specimen is well-secured to the tree branch habitat base, which appears to be in good condition. When examined in ultraviolet light, the base fluoresced a milky yellow/green color, and appears to have been coated.

After completing this type of photographic and written documentation, the conservator then submits a proposed treatment to the Collections Manager and/or Curator for approval. Follow along with the progress of this treatment in the next post.

 

 

Surveying Historic Taxidermy Part 1: Goals and Parameters

Alongside the lightfastness testing described earlier in this blog, we are developing tools to support the efforts of other individuals and institutions seeking to preserve collections of historic mammalian taxidermy. To do this, we needed to deepen our understanding of the historic and modern materials and techniques used in creating these objects, the common condition issues affecting them, and methods of remediation, both historic and modern.

1194_2_detail face and mouth

Taxidermy viscacha specimen from the collection during condition surveying. (c) AMNH/F. Ritchie

Working toward these aims, we conducted an inventory and condition survey of taxidermy in storage in the Department of Mammalogy of the American Museum of Natural History. This survey was intended to accomplish the goals set out above with the added benefit of providing the department with a searchable, data driven inventory of the entire mammalian taxidermy collection. This kind of inventory can serve as a basis for planning and decisions related to collection management and storage, loans, exhibits, and associated conservation needs.

The Department of Mammalogy is one of four departments in the Museum’s Division of Vertebrate Zoology Division. The department’s collection comprises more than 420,000 specimens from around the world, although only a tiny fraction of those in storage are taxidermy mounts. This fraction still represents about half of the mammal taxidermy at the Museum, with the other half on permanent display. These numbers should not be surprising: museum-quality taxidermy is costly to produce and limited in its scientific uses compared to materials such as study skins or skeletons. Instead, taxidermy is valued primarily for display, so it has been produced in relatively small numbers for specific exhibits over the years. Thus, the percentage of specimens on display versus in storage is much higher for taxidermy than it is for other materials that are more often used in scientific research. Among the Museum’s mammal taxidermy holdings are numerous examples from the founding collections that were acquired in 1869 and are now approaching 150 years old. How are these specimens holding up after so many years?

Caitlin_bats

Project intern Caitlin Richeson examining taxidermy fruit bats in collection storage. (c) AMNH/F. Ritchie

Over a period of four months we spent an average of two to three days per week surveying. We worked around visiting researchers and staff using temporary photography and examination stations in each room. Each specimen took five to 10 minutes to assess, depending on its complexity and accessibility. After opening every storage cabinet and pulling out every drawer to ensure that no specimen was overlooked, we assessed approximately 635 individual mounts in 30 mammalogy-collection storage spaces.

Fran_bat

Project conservator Fran Ritchie examining a specimen at a temporary surveying station in collection storage. (c) AMNH/K. McCauley

Using a custom-built database, we tailored our survey parameters to record identifying information for each specimen, an assessment of its condition, and recommendations for treatment. If desired, the data collected can be exported in CSV and PDF file formats and then imported or attached to records in other existing databases, such as the EMu database system used by the Museum’s Division of Vertebrate Zoology.

Data gathered for each specimen included ‘identifying information’ such as:

  • Specimen Description – Basic taxonomic and locality information, as well as notes about special historical, scientific, or ecological significance
  • Current Storage Location – Building, floor, room, cabinet number(s), and cabinet label(s)
  • Transcriptions – Data from all labels and inscriptions, including taxonomy, catalog and other numbers, and other scientific or historical details
  • Digital Photograph(s) – An overall identifying photograph as well as details of specific condition or preparation issues, when appropriate
database_mock

Survey database example entry (not actual specimen in the collection).

We evaluated the condition of each specimen, looking closely at the following elements:

  • Internal armature
  • Skin/hide
  • Fur/hair
  • Antlers/horns/hooves/nails/claws/teeth
  • Eyes
  • Finishing materials (for sculpting lips, nose, etc.)
  • Base
  • Specimen label
Kelly_workspace

Summer intern Kelly McCauley using the survey database to examine a specimen in collection storage. Note the grey photography paper used to photograph each specimen. (c) AMNH/F. Ritchie

Each specimen was given an overall condition summary, identifying it as Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor, and further noting whether it is Stable or Unstable, based on the likelihood of existing damage worsening if left untreated.

In the final section of our survey, we recorded the nature and extent of any conservation treatment that would be required to make the specimen stable or suitable for exhibit, such as skin repairs, reconstruction, general grooming, dry cleaning, etc.

Together, all of this documentation will be used to guide decisions about how best to manage, store, and exhibit historic mammal taxidermy at the Museum, while offering supporting resources for the preservation of similar collections at other museums or sites.

Our next post will reveal some of the unique examples that we discovered during the survey.

Special Post – Updated Team Taxidermy

Our blog posting took a short respite over the past few months, as we said a fond farewell and welcomed new members to our original Team Taxidermy.

Ersang_Ma

Associate conservator Julia Sybalsky presents a Certificate of Recognition to conservation pre-program intern Ersang Ma for her hard work during this project. AMNH/D. Finnin

It was bittersweet to say goodbye and good luck to our pre-program intern Ersang Ma, who has been working with the team since summer 2014.  Ersang was an essential troubleshooter, tireless preparer of samples, and diligent manager of data.  To honor her work, Ersang was awarded an American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Volunteer Appreciation Award at a recent Museum reception.  Ersang leaves the project to attend the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation this fall.

 

The former associate conservator for the Natural Science Collections Conservation (NSCC) lab and the In Their True Colors project blog writer extraordinaire, Beth Nunan, left the Museum to pursue new conservation opportunities.  Thank you for all of your hard work and organization, Beth!

 

Former project conservator Julia Sybalsky moved into the associate conservator role for the NSCC lab.  Julia began working in the conservation lab as a graduate student intern in 2010, continued as graduate fellow, and subsequently became the project conservator.  In addition to her new duties as associate conservator for the NSCC lab, she will continue work on this project to interpret data, carry out investigations at the Yale University Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, and provide troubleshooting support.

 

Lemur 2

Project Conservator Fran Ritchie (left). AMNH/E. Ma

The Team welcomed new project conservator Fran Ritchie in the spring.  Fran was a previous pre-program intern in the NSCC lab (2009-2010) and has continued pursuing experiences conserving natural science collections.  Now that Fran has joined the project, she carries out analysis at AMNH and is responsible for much of the dissemination of project findings.  This dissemination will culminate in a Care & Conservation of Taxidermy workshop to be held at an upcoming Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) conference at the conclusion of the project (2017).  Exact details will be announced in future posts.

 

In the fall the Project will welcome Caitlin Richeson as our new pre-program intern.  Caitlin will assist with sample preparation, data interpretation, and workshop organization. It will be an exciting time as data continues to accumulate and the workshop begins to take shape.

 

Upcoming blog posts will get back to the project information, including how we were able to troubleshoot our new Q-SUN Xenon Test Chamber to collect our first few rounds of sample data!

 

Special Post – Microfading Workshop!

On June 26th 2014, Project Conservator Julia Sybalsky and Graduate Intern Gisella Campanelli attended the Microfading and Light Management Study Day, a half-day workshop and demonstration organized by Paul Whitmore at Yale University’s Institute for Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH), and sponsored by IPCH and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

After catching an early morning train from New York to West Haven, Connecticut, we arrived at Yale’s West Campus Conference Center for the Microfading and Light Management Study Day, hosted by the Institute for Preservation of Cultural Heritage. We enjoyed two presentations. The first talk, presented by Paul Whitmore, summarized the basics of microfading: what a microfade tester does, how it is constructed, and how and why one might use one. In the second, Bruce Ford, presented case studies from the National Museum of Australia in which microfading informed the revision of overly restrictive lighting guidelines. The result of his study was a cost-effective policy that protects light sensitive materials and materials of special significance while increasing access to collections in general.

These presentations were followed by an informal tabletop demonstration of the microfade tester. Paul gave us a comprehensive tour of the instrument and explained how to interpret the spectral data, whose stability is the measure of the relative permanence of the color. Tests on several of the inks from a set of “permanent” marking pens made the point that the label is not always an accurate description of stability.

A selection of topics covered in the course of the day’s presentations and demonstration are summarized below.

Background

Light has the potential to cause irreversible damage to objects. It can be especially deleterious to colorants, resulting in visible fading. Conservators understand that light-sensitive objects have a finite display life. Nowadays, collecting institutions often adopt guidelines to indicate the lighting conditions and durations of exhibitions of classes of objects (e.g. oil paintings, watercolors, metal sculpture, etc). These policies assume that objects within a class share the same, known stability. Some of those assumptions have been brought into question.

FadeExample_woodblock

Two copies of a Japanese woodblock print by Utamaro. When they were created, they were genetic identical twins, made from the same materials applied in the same way, probably by the same people. Then the two copies were separated at birth, with one image experiencing significant fading (by being exposed to light). Such experiences demonstrate the profound change in the object from light exposure, but also show that some colors, like the green on the kimono, are not very light-sensitive. Knowing the stability of the colors on an individual object, which may have no identical twins from which to gain information, is the challenge that microfading addresses.

In his presentation, Bruce discussed the way in which museums have traditionally managed this ‘display-destroy’ dilemma (table 1).

Table 1. Lighting requirements for display across three institutions

Institution Light level (lux) Display/Total (years)
Tate 80 4/8
V&A 50 2/10
CIE157 50 1/10

He argued that these guidelines are essentially based on guesswork and assumptions, and challenged this dogmatic approach by raising questions such as: How efficient are these standards? Are they cost-effective? Do they limit public access to objects of significance? Are they counter-productive? Do they exist in order to protect artifacts or to protect conservators?

Bruce proposed that the Micro-Fading Tester (MFT) can be used as a reliable tool to predict a colorant’s rate of fade over time. This information, along with an appreciation for the object’s significance, public demand, and aesthetic value, will better inform decisions about that object’s exhibition.

Sensitivity_significance

A structured significance evaluation can help prioritize conservation efforts and improve communication between conservators and other museum professionals. In this example, significance is used in a risk assessment aimed at assessing an item’s likely future demand for exhibition as well as its importance to the museum. Ref: Russell, R. and K. Winkworth. 2009. Significance 2.0 – a guide to assessing the significance of collection. Collections Council of Australia Ltd.

Microfading

Some colorants are more sensitive to light than others. But how do you know the sensitivity of a pigment or dye used on a specific artifact? The conventional ways to assess fading risks to objects come with a price. One way is to exhibit  the object and watch to see if its colors fade, either to the naked eye or by tracking the changes with a color measuring device. This approach obviously risks incurring some degree of fading in order to provide the information about the sensitivity to further light exposure. A second approach is to identify the materials present on the object, and to replicate those materials in all their detail in a sample that can then be exposed to light and evaluated. The challenge here is to identify the composition of the colored materials in every important detail, which can be very difficult for natural colorants which may have altered over time. Replicating such a substance is also not usually practical. This approach then becomes difficult and time-consuming, and it is impractical for application to a large number of objects. The last approach is to do spot testing, to shine light on a small area of color and measure whether the color is altered by that light exposure. That is the approach taken in the microfading tester, and the device has the added essential feature that it can be done so sensitively that the tested colors are not changed visibly: it is essentially nondestructive, so the presentation surfaces of objects can be tested safely.

The MFT delivers a focused 0.3mm beam of high-intensity light from a xenon lamp onto a tiny spot on the surface of the object and progressively measures any color changes that take place. In doing so, it allows a quick determination of whether an object contains light sensitive materials without need for their prior identification. The machine has two fiber optics angled at 45° degrees to the test surface. One fiber optic supplies the incoming beam from the xenon lamp. The incoming light is filtered to remove both infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which cause damage that is usually minimized in museum and gallery lighting environments. The object absorbs some of this incoming light, while the rest is reflected into a spectrophotometer via the second fiber optic. The spectrophotometer separates the wavelengths in this reflected light and produces a spectrum. As the spectrum is continuously updated during the test period, color measurements are recorded and used to calculate. ∆E, a measure of color change since the initial spectrum was collected. Any non-zero ∆E values indicate that the colorant being assayed is being altered by the light delivered. If the color does exhibit a color change during the test, the rate of that change is compared to the rate of fading of  Blue Wool standards, cloths whose fading rates are known and have been adopted as the international yardstick for color lightfastness. There are eight cloths in that scale, with Blue Wool #1 being least stable and Blue Wool #8 the most stable. “Fugitive” colors are considered to be in the Blue Wool #1-#3 range.

MicrofaderMounted

A microfading tester in use, measure the light stability of the colors in a lithograph. ©Paul Whitmore.

This incoming beam delivers light up to fifty times more intense than sunlight, exposing the tiny test area to a light dose equivalent to what the average museum object might receive over 5-10 years. By comparing the rate of increasing ∆E values in the test colorant to rates for Blue Wool standards exposed in the same way, the conservator is able to make informed predictions about the future behavior of the test material over time: will it retain its color for a long time like a Blue Wool 8, or is it more fugitive than a Blue Wool 1? To fully understand an artifact’s light sensitivity, each color on the object should be tested, and the exhibition policy for the object based on the stability of the most sensitive color.

Textile with emitted light from microfader visible on the surface.

Photomicrograph showing size of area tested with microfader light beam, here being directed onto a coarse-woven textile.

Microfade testing is considered an essentially nondestructive technique, as it does not leave a visible mark on the object. Not only is the test area minute, but more importantly, color change is monitored in real time by the operator and the experiment can be stopped if it looks as if visible change might occur. Meaningful results can be obtained without exceeding a ∆E value of 5, while we are only able to visually detect color differences in these tiny spots when the changes are larger than about 15. Damage can be avoided by observing ∆E values in real time throughout the duration of the test. The test usually runs for five minutes, but should be stopped earlier if ∆E approaches 5. There can be a temperature change of 5-10°C within the test location. This is usually inconsequential for most objects, but may require consideration for waxes, plastics, or other materials with low melting points. Paul explained that such test sites will often re-solidify on cooling without any visible damage, but the results of the test would not be reliable measures of color stability.

Benefits of Micro-fading

The advantage of using the MFT over traditional practices is that it eliminates the need for guesswork because it is measuring the sensitivity to exhibition lighting of colorants that are present on the actual object, rather than a simulation. Objects that can be micro-fade tested include paintings, prints (even through glass), manuscripts, photographs, 3D objects, textiles, and furs/taxidermy – basically any surface that one can make a color measurement on.

Fader_manuscript

Microfade testing at the National Library of Australia. ©Bruce Ford.

Fader_taxidermy

Microfade testing of taxidermy at the Horniman Museum and Garden, London, UK. ©Bruce Ford.

Fader_thru_glass

Microfade testing of Japanese prints, through glazing. Otago University, New Zealand. ©Bruce Ford.

Bruce explained that prior to revision of their lighting guidelines, the National Museum of Australia (NMA) typically displayed materials thought to be light sensitive for 2 years per decade. After a subsequent ‘resting’ period, objects would be returned to display, and the cycle repeated. Through his studies using micro-fading, Bruce was able to determine that numerous objects presumed to be light sensitive were in fact more stable than the 2 years exposed in 10 restriction implied (and could therefore be displayed for longer periods), while for a smaller number of items the same restriction was too generous. By measuring fading rates, very fugitive colorants were able to be identified and better protected without the need to restrict access across the board. By being more selective about restrictions using a combination of microfading and a structured significance assessment, the museum has been able to save thousands of dollars in the cost of exhibit changeovers.

NMA_savings

Illustration of potential cost savings using exhibit guidelines revised based on microfade testing. Green = extended display, yellow = unchanged display guidelines, red = displayed less than 2 years per decade.

The MFT can also be used in an anoxic environment to determine whether display in such conditions will have any appreciable benefits for the object in terms of color preservation. Some colorants may fade more rapidly in the absence of oxygen, for example Prussian blue and iron gall inks. Interestingly both of these examples undergo a reaction with oxygen which opposes the light-driven color loss but which cannot be measured using microfading or any other accelerated light exposure method. Again, this demonstrates how under-informed assumptions about reducing light damage can be unjustifiable and costly.

Conclusion

Data from microfading tests can supplement other information about the artifact to better inform decisions impacting an artifact’s display life. Using an evidence-based approach to manage display policies can prevent wasteful use of precious funds. Such resources can be redirected towards more needy causes.

How to Access a MFT

MFTs are available for purchase as kits at around $20K. Alternatively, one may contact a nearby colleague or institution that owns one to inquire about arranging for access. Currently, there are 24 MFTs in use worldwide. More information is available through Bruce Ford’s website, www.microfading.com.