Last updated: October 9, 2015
Over the past month here at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park I have been conserving two very large taxidermy specimens in order to preserve the legacy of Martin Itjen’s most notorious diorama component, the “Horn-interlocked Moose.” These two specimens are thought to have been prepared by local taxidermist Percy Colton in the 1930s. Itjen included the two moose in his diorama exhibit inside Jeff Smiths Parlor, in addition to all of the other taxidermy specimens I have been treating this summer.
Transporting the moose from their off-site location to their new downtown home in the fall of 2012 was no simple feat. Relocating the moose was necessary in order for the specimens to be better protected against pest infestation and potential exposure to moisture. The new space also provided ample room and amenities for conservation work to be completed on the specimens. The relocation efforts were made possible by the KLGO Maintenance division, who loaded, transported, and safely unpacked the unwieldy taxidermy mount into its temporary home in the Meyer Building.
The challenges encountered when treating an object of this caliber are twofold. First, there is the sheer size of the animals to consider. A thorough inch-by-inch visual examination is a time-consuming but crucial first step in the conservation process. Conservation work consists of an initial visual examination to assess the condition and stability of an object or artwork, directly followed by thorough written and photographic documentation to record the current condition of the object, the fabrication processes applied, and the proposed treatment necessary in order to stabilize it. In some conservation projects I have been involved with, the documentation process actually takes just as long (if not longer!) than the treatment itself.
Secondly, there is the issue of safety and establishing future handling protocol for the taxidermy mount. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, historical taxidermy mounts often times have been treated with preservatives, insecticides, and/or pesticides. In the case of the moose taxidermy, arsenic (likely in the form of arsenical salts or soaps) is believed to have been applied to the surfaces of at least one of the moose. Proper protective equipment combined with extreme caution is necessary to ensure my own personal safety as well as the prevention of cross-contamination of harmful residues. One major problem natural history institutions and ethnographic museums face is the migration of these harmful chemicals onto surfaces such as phones, door knobs, keyboards, etc. from improper disposal or quarantining of contaminated treatment equipment. For the treatment of the moose specimens, I wore protective gloves, clothing, respirator, and used a HEPA-filter vacuum to minimize potential harmful air particulate while surface cleaning the animals.
Fortunately, the moose were in relatively good condition and required only minimal intervention in order to stabilize them. The primary issue with their condition was the plaster fill material excreting from the ears and hooves. The damage was likely a result from pest (mice) damage. The goal for this part of the treatment was to remove the unstable plaster, save the historical material by bagging it and keeping it with the object’s file, and to prevent any further agitation to the interior plaster material. The solution consisted of creating customized physical barriers with Japanese tissue paper. The paper was tacked into place using a reversible, pH-neutral adhesive in four locations to keep the barrier from moving. Then, the paper was coated with a water-proof resin to reinforce and strengthen the tissue paper so that it can be toned with acrylic paints to camouflage its presence within the mount.
This same process was applied to each moose’s ears and to one of the moose’s hooves. All of this stabilization was necessary prior to the overall surface cleaning of the animals, which involved carefully lifting and preening the animals’ fur inch-by-inch with tweezers and a vacuum microattachment to remove dust, dirt, and grime. Once the object has been entirely treated and stabilized, another round of written and photographic documentation will be completed to record the post-treatment condition and also to provide a detailed rationale behind why certain processes and materials were applied during the treatment. The moose will then be wrapped and stored until their debut appearance in the newly restored Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum, where Martin Itjen’s entire diorama will be recreated and open for public view upon the museum’s opening in 2016.