Spirits and Specimens

Aloha Em here,

For the next two months, The Training Museum trainees are taking part in a placement within Colchester + Ipswich Museums, working with a particular team to complete a collections or exhibitions project. Mine is based in The Victorian Gallery in Ipswich Museum, focusing on the reinterpretation of the gallery’s text, themes and overall visual presentation. I am working alongside Molly Carter and Elle Root (Collections and Learning Curators) and Emma Harper (Collections Information Programme Officer) to inventory, research, reinterpret and conserve the objects in the gallery, to give it a fresh new feel.

The first case I have been working on is based around The Victorian Museum and Victorian Science. Scientific and technological advances, developed throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, were vital, such as improvements in communication, scientific discoveries and the power of electricity. These advances are very relevant within our collections. Professor Henslow, the founder and second president of Ipswich Museum, carried out a lot of botanical and natural history research in the 1800’s alongside his student, Charles Darwin! We are extremely lucky to have strong links and collections related to Professor Henslow, which help us represent not only the scientific work going on throughout the Victorian era but also the cultural shift in attitude towards museums – establishing them as positive spaces for education.

During the first week of this project, I was inventorying some glass measuring cylinders, scientific test tubes and fluid specimens including a shrimp, rock leech and starfish. I was working on improving my documentation skills, which we learnt about at the beginning of the traineeship.

This week, I got to carry out conservation on the fluid specimens from the Victorian Gallery, which was very exciting, particularly as I have a love for zoology and things in jars! I worked alongside Molly, James Lumbard (Museum of East Anglian Life intern) and Bob (Conservation Officer) to clean and re-fill the spirit jars so that they were better conserved and presented. The first task we had was to open all of the jar lids, which sounds simple – but it was actually really difficult! The glue solution that sticks the lids to the body of the jar is often extremely strong, to prevent them from coming undone, spillages occurring or pests getting inside. We had to remove the glue using warm water and scalpels, easing it away from each side to allow us to re-fill the jars with a chemical called Industrial Methylated Spirit (IMS). I had previously used IMS during the remedial conservation of the Natural History collection. Some of the jars had small holes pierced into the lids, so we could carefully insert a long syringe to remove the fluid and then re-fill it with a fresh batch of IMS. This is what I’m doing in the photos below.

The difference between the jars before and after they’d been cleaned and re-filled is astonishing, proving how important it is to keep them clean and fresh, both for the conservation of the specimen but also for aesthetic presentation in the gallery. Below is a cuttlefish before and after it had been filled with clean IMS.

I really enjoyed working with Bob to improve and expand my conservation practice. I particularly liked the fluid specimens, as these have always really fascinated me. Learning about how to treat specimens ready for preservation, the storage and preparatory stages for fluid specimens and how to carry out the ‘rehydration process’ was really interesting and something I would like to be able to do more work on in the future.

We also got to work with some of the specimens that Bob had found for us in stores that needed some conservation/love. These included a Lobster and a Whale embryo, which needed to be rehydrated and re-housed in more suitable packaging.

Here’s to  getting the Victorian Gallery re-interpreted before I leave…!!

Until next time,

Em 🙂


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