Author Archives: claireljones

Endangered Specimens, Endangered Skills: Core Principles of Fluid Collection Conservation

On 5th February 2013, Mark and I, along with Pat Harkin (Associate Director of Student Support in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds), attended a three-day course at the Hunterian Museum, Royal Collections of Surgeons, London to learn how to preserve and care for anatomical and pathological wet specimens. The University of Leeds currently holds approximately 1,000 human pathological wet specimens, largely dating from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as several hundred anatomical specimens and approximately 500 wet zoological specimens. Unfortunately, these collections, once vital to University teaching, are now in need of much care and attention. Yet, without the time, resources or expertise to conduct the necessary conservation work, these collections continue to deteriorate. The technical and scientific expertise required to care for such specimens are dwindling on a frightening scale across the world as collections are replaced with other teaching tools and as the number of specialist curators is decreasing. The opportunity to spend three days at the Hunterian to learn from experienced conservators at the Museum’s Conservation Unit, a centre of excellence for preserving natural specimens with one of the world’s most significant collection, was therefore too good to miss.

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The course itself focused on the maintenance of collections within glass jars. We found it incredibly interesting to learn that there is no standardised way of doing this because there is no perfect single preservative, sealant or container for preservation. Specimens deteriorate and do so for any number of reasons.  However, we were also reminded of the key rule of conservation of any specimen or object: follow the methods and materials originally used to make/prepare the specimen as best as possible, which is very difficult to do because all jars appear at first glance to look the same and few historical specimens have accompanying records.


Interestingly, many specimens prepared by John Hunter in the eighteenth century were the most stable and best preserved undoubtedly due to his skill in preparation. He used glass jars, which he covered with pigs’ bladders and layers of tin and lead as a sealant. This type of sealant was later replaced with a substance called ‘pitch’, consisting of asphalt and gutta-percha, while glass remains a common material for jars, alongside newer materials such as acrylic.


The course was incredibly useful and the new knowledge and skills we now possess will be invaluable in developing a plan for Leeds’ wet specimen collection. We hope to procure funding to allow us to purchase the necessary preservation equipment but also to enable us to develop our own conservation training programme for volunteers of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. The benefit of such collections for medicine is clear: specimens are a greater aid to understanding the form of the body than any other type of source. Even with technology capable of producing high quality three dimensional images, there is no substitute for ‘the real thing’. So, while public audiences often find such specimens fascinatingly macabre, medical students take the knowledge acquired from their study and apply it to their everyday and future practice. Collections like this then make a considerable contribution to medical science today and it is therefore vital that they are preserved for future generations. With suitable care and attention, the collection at Leeds might prove to be as useful to medical students as the one at Hunterian Museum.

Claire Jones




Lights on at Lotherton 2

Thanks Emily, for this great post. I just wanted to add a few images of the workshop so you can get a better feel of what happened:

Holding one of our batteries


Doing the electricity trail around the house

Emily, our curator, with some of our objects, including the Wimshurst machine

Having a go!

Well, that’s it. Keep an eye for other workshops coming soon (including another Lights on at Lotherton on 8th October)!






What lurks beneath……

We’ve had some great blog posts lately updating us all on the great project work of the museum taskforce. While many of these posts have focused on object and collections based research, I wanted to briefly draw your attention to the amazing work we’ve all been doing behind the scenes in the store room. As museums across the world recognise, arranging store rooms to make them pleasant working environments and to make collections accessible can be just as significant as collections research. If we can’t find what we want when we want to, collections work of any kind will not be possible. Pictures often speak louder than words and, as you can see from the images, store development since 2007 has been quite remarkable. We now have shelves and boxes on shelves! More work still needs to be done – our next few goals include making more room for incoming objects from biology and storing similar objects together as we continue to inventory what we have – but progress is certainly being made, so thanks to everyone for your continued efforts.


The store room in 2007


The store room in 2012

We also need to make room for a couple of very large but really interesting objects from the Medical School (currently in the Art Gallery store): a couple of nineteenth century body boxes. I don’t know much about these at present but they were used in the Medical School to store bodies for dissection prior to refrigeration. They would make wonderful and unusual objects for a research project and for display (they could be display cases themselves?), so if you have any interest in taking on this project, do let me know. They also smell of formaldehyde, which would add another element to the research and to the visitor experience!


A c19th body box used in the Medical School

We’ve also recently had help in our inventorying of the history of education books from Rebecca Wade, a PhD student in Museum Studies, and hope that she can continue making as much progress as she has in the day that she’s spent in the store. She assures me that she’s really enjoying it so far!

Anyway, more store updates as and when they take place…..which should be soon!

The BIG Store Room Clean Up! Take 1.

On March 17th 2012, a group of enthusiastic and dedicated taskforce members spent the day going through some of the many boxes in the museum store room. The purpose of this activity was to aid the inventorying backlog of the some 10,000 objects, books and texts currently residing there and to help us to decide what to keep and what to dispose of. Once items are disposed, we will have room to construct our additional shelving and focus on the important scientific and medical objects, which form of the core of our project.  

Taskforce members uncovered some very interesting and, in some cases, rare examples of nineteenth century scientific texts, needlework and crafts, and some pretty gruesome photographs of victims of the Industrial Pennines smallpox outbreak of 1953. It’s safe to say that not many ate lunch straight after viewing these images. Emily, Kiara and Jessica also bravely battled with some strong frames in order to demount some of the old history of education museum images. These old frames are now being donated to another local museum initiative.

It was a long and tiring day, where taskforce members carried out necessary but repetitive and fairly uninteresting work. But morale remained high, as taskforce members worked in time to the beat of Brazilian jazz and electro-funk with Shloer and doughnuts as well deserved rewards. We managed to list approximately 10 boxes of items or approximately 1,000 items, which has made a considerable dent in the inventorying backlog and I want to thank all of youfor making the day such a success. We will be organising another sometime in the summer term so watch this space!



Heritage Reading Group – 6th March, 12.30-2.00pm

Thought this may be of interest. I hope to go…..


Heritage Reading Group – 6th March, 12.30-2.00pm

The next meeting of the Heritage Reading Group will be 6th March at 12.30pm in 104, Student Common Room in the Old Mining Building (number 53 on the campus map). All postgraduates and staff very welcome indeed.
We will be reading Laurajane Smith’s ‘”Man’s inhumanity to man” and other platitudes of avoidance and misrecognition: an analysis of visitor responses to exhibitions marking the 1807 bicentenary’ (Museum and Society, 8(3): 193-213) which explores visitor responses to exhibitions and displays developed as part of the bicentenary of the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The discussion will be introduced by Helen Graham, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies.
To facilitate staff and student access to the reading group texts we have set up a shared ‘Community’ on Elgg (Leeds’ in house blogging site). The texts for the March meeting and all future groups will be posted here. To join the group Log in with your standard ISS username and password, all you need to do is ‘join’ the Community.
We hope to see you on 6th March,
Helen Graham and Nick Cass