University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

My Conservation Internship

Last month I completed my internship in museum conservation with the University of Cambridge Museums under the supervision of Organics Conservator Kirstie Williams, as part of my master’s course at Durham University. From October to July 2015 I worked with various museums in Cambridge, in both interventive and preventive conservation within a wide range of collections.

At the start of my internship I spent most of my time at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) working on the conservation of two very large flutes from Papua New Guinea, along with UCL intern Ellie Ohara Anderson. These flutes are made of bamboo, cane, cassowary feathers, and a lot of other materials and are nearly two-meters long! They were collected in the 1930s and would have been played during male initiation rituals by members of Sepik River tribes. The flute I conserved was covered in a layer of reddish paint that no longer held together and was quickly flaking off. As the flute was going on loan, it was important to find the right materials to consolidate, or put together, the flaking paint and prevent the loss of more original material. We needed to experiment to find the right material for the job, and Ellie and I both carried out testing, marking the areas where we tried different materials with small numbered pieces of paper. Eventually a good consolidant was found that secured the loose pigments without creating a shiny appearance or altering the colour.


Consolidation testing on the flute. Photo (C) Dr Jocelyne Dudding


The Museum of Zoology’s Dem room near the end of the big move

Across the road at the Museum of Zoology a very different type of project started in November. As part of the museum redevelopment we needed to move the collections, which meant months of heavy lifting and coordinating of various trolleys along the path to the new stores. Along with this I spent time making boxes for different skulls, adding padding and support to specimen drawers and wrapping mounted specimens in tissue and polythene for freezing. Once the move was completed in January, our conservation team moved to a temporary lab to start work conserving the collections for re-display.

My largest project (both in scope and size of the object!) was the conservation of a Glyptodon Clavipes carapace. The glyptodon was a large mammalian herbivore protected by a boney shell covered in scales that lived during the Pleistocene era along with giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats and other massive animals. Imagine an armadillo the size of a small car with a much tougher shell (often with a heavy swinging boney tail to boot), that’s a glyptodon!

This particular specimen was recovered in Argentina in the 1890’s and was put together somewhat…haphazardly. When it was removed from display in fact, most thought that it was a replica rather than the real thing. Plaster, shellac, cotton gauze, and a host of other materials were used to attach the broken pieces of bone together and the outer surface was painted to match the white plaster fills with the subfossil bone. The goal of the treatment was to remove as much paint from the surface as feasible and reduce some of the obscuring fills. Volunteer help was recruited due to the time-consuming nature of the paint removal, and many really enjoyed seeing the brown paint come off quickly with swabs of acetone. Afterwards the older plaster fills were mechanically reduced and I created new plaster fills using moulds of the distinctive scutes on the carapace to replicate the pattern.

Other smaller projects included the conservation of papier mache models at the Whipple Museum, and supporting the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Textiles Project. There I was instructed by Charlotte Owen and Conor Tulloch in how to create a wide array of supportive packaging for fragile and fraying textiles as well as finding simple and creative solutions to those that didn’t easily fit a mould. In the second week Charlotte and I treated a badly damaged cloak from Africa made of hyrax and monkey pelts that had sadly lost most of its fur to a moth attack in the past. Although it was counter to our instincts to remove the fur that was no longer attached, it would only fall off when it was next handled and also made the method of construction more visible. The cloak may no longer be displayable, but could be an excellent tool for researchers in the future and has been supported from the back with small strips of thin tissue and adhesive.

Charlotte Owen and I removing frass, debris, and fur from a cloak

Charlotte Owen and I removing frass, debris, and fur from a cloak

Throughout the year there were many exciting public outreach activities, seminars, and conferences that I was able to attend as an intern. In April I was able to assist at the Subliming Surfaces conference run by the University of Cambridge Museums, where I learned about the potentials of volatile binding media in the field of conservation. There were also workshops and lectures on using Japanese tissue, working with human remains, conserving bark cloth, identifying pests, and much more. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as an intern with the University of Cambridge Museums, it has given me the opportunity to work on a wide variety of materials and go behind the scenes at several amazing museums.

Emily Perdue, Conservation Intern, University of Cambridge Museums

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