A Bump in the Collections Room

A Bump in the Collections Room

Picture this: You’re working alone in the collections room, inspecting the insect collection for evidence of pests, when you hear a noise coming from one of the cabinets behind you. The noise has a familiar skittering quality, similar to the dreaded sound of squirrels running around in your attic, followed by a loud thud. You think to yourself, “I looked in that cabinet just ten minutes ago, and I am very confident that there could not be a live squirrel in there.” You briefly (and humorously) consider that the cabinet could be haunted by the ghosts of the insects stored within, but that would be very silly as this is a collection of Natural History, not Supernatural History! With squirrels and ghost ruled out, you take a deep breath to steel yourself, and slowly open the cabinet door…

This is the situation in which I found myself at the beginning of April, and upon investigation I was able to determine the source of the sound. While a live rodent or a vengeful spirit would have been frightening, the real culprit was enough to make this Collection Technician’s blood run cold! The glass window in the lid of an insect drawer had peeled away from its adhesive (the skittering), followed by the pane of glass landing on the inner walls of the box below (the thud).

Square sheet of clear glass and broken wooden frame lying flat on a dark surface.

When I inspected the drawer in question just ten minutes earlier, I had removed the lid to take a close look at the specimens inside before putting the drawer back into the cabinet. It seems that even this small amount of movement was enough to set the ageing adhesive’s failure into motion. Thankfully, no insect specimens were harmed in this incident, but storage equipment failures like this can pose a major risk to museum collections. If the glass had fallen at an odd angle instead of landing flat on the inner walls of the box, or if the glass had shattered on impact, many specimens could have been damaged. At the Museum, we have hundreds of entomology drawers, most of which are several decades old. Unfortunately, the adhesive that was used in their original construction those many years ago has been found to fail over time. While replacing the drawers would be costly and time-consuming, they can be fixed so long as the glass pane and wooden lid are otherwise stable. At the moment, about two dozen drawers have been identified as having loose or detached glass, so it’s high time to get caught up on some repairs!

When people ask me what I do as a Collections Technician, I tell them that a lot of my work could be described as “crafty odd-jobs that keep our specimens safe and stable”, and this is a perfect example! Before starting any repairs, I consulted with our Senior Conservator about which kind of adhesive should be used to replace the original glue. In this case, we went with a non-acidic silicone-based caulk. Once set up with the tools and adhesive, my first step was to remove the remnants of the original glue from the lid and the window.

Image: With the glass removed from the lid, the old adhesive is exposed. © Manitoba Museum

The old glue came off the glass easily, needing nothing more than a firm rub with some damp paper towel, but the lids were more stubborn. For those, I used a utility knife to peel, pick, and pry at the glue until it was all gone. With the old glue out of the way, I cleaned both the glass pane and the lid with damp paper towels, and let both dry. Next, I applied a thin layer of caulk to the lid everywhere that it was supposed to make contact with the glass, and gently laid the window into its place. A bit of gentle pressure was applied to the other side of the glass to spread the adhesive around for complete and even contact between the wood, caulk, and glass. To finish the job, I wiped away the excess caulk leave everything clean and tidy.

Yellow utility knife lying on dark surface next to a wooden frame, surrounded by flakes of scraped-off dried adhesive.

Scraping the old adhesive away, bit by bit by bit. Image: © Manitoba Museum

Close up of a corner of the wooden frame, showing a clean patch of wood where adhesive has been scraped awway.

An in-progress photo, with one side untouched and the other scraped down to the wood. Image: © Manitoba Museum

The repaired lid, glass having been reinserted into the wooden frame and sealed with grey caulking.

A completed lid! The old beige adhesive has been replaced with grey silicone caulk, and the glass is bonded to the wood of the lid. Image: © Manitoba Museum

The repaired lid on a specimen drawer, enclosing multiple taxidermied yellow butterflies.

Repairing a batch of just five lids is a solid afternoon’s work. With the fix complete, the adhesive needs a day to cure properly, but the lids need to sit for thirty days before they can be put to use in our collection space. This time allows any volatile chemicals that may be present in the caulk to off-gas completely, and is an important step for the protection of our specimens. If used immediately, certain chemicals that may come out of the adhesive as gasses that could chemically react with the exoskeletons and dried tissues of the insect specimens in the drawer. This hazard is best avoided, and that is easily done with a little patience.

Once the month for off-gassing has passed, the drawers can be re-introduced to the collections room and swapped out for other lids that need fixing. Before too long, all of our deteriorating lids will be fixed, and I’ll be moving on to other projects to keep our Natural History collection safe and stable for decades to come.


Image: A box of butterflies with a repaired lid–safe and sound! © Manitoba Museum

Aro van Dyck

Aro van Dyck

Collections Technician – Natural History

Aro van Dyck earned her B.Sc. from the University of Manitoba, majoring in Biological Sciences and minoring in Entomology. She has also researched the diversity of wasps and bees Winnipeg’s greenspaces…
Meet Aro van Dyck

Journey Through the Manitoba Museum’s History

The Manitoba Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary at its current Rupert Avenue location in 2020, but did you know that collecting and preserving artifacts and specimens in Manitoba started in an official capacity around 1879? That year, the Scientific and Historical Society of Manitoba was founded, with a mission to research and preserve the scientific and historic work being done in the province.

While a formal museum had yet to be created, both the Scientific and Historical Society and private collectors put on temporary exhibitions throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries at various venues and private residences throughout the province.

In 1932, the collections-specific Manitoba Museum Association, an unincorporated entity, was established and an official brick-and-mortar museum opened at the Winnipeg Civic Auditorium, which also housed a concert hall and the eventual Winnipeg Art Gallery. On December 15 of that year, its inaugural exhibit about butterflies and moths soft-launched with subsequent exhibits opening as equipment, such as glass cases, were purchased. By May 1934, 50,000 visitors from around the world had made a visit to the new Manitoba Museum.

Black and white image of multiple fish specimens mounted on boards hanging on a wall above a museum display case housing various natural history specimens.

Exhibits at the old Manitoba Museum in the Winnipeg Civic Auditorium, circa 1940s. Image: © Manitoba Museum

Black and white image of museum display cases showcasing various Indigenous artifacts, including a kayak.

Exhibits at the old Manitoba Museum in the Winnipeg Civic Auditorium, circa 1940s. Image: © Manitoba Museum

The Manitoba Museum operated with a small staff and a group of volunteers, advisors, and honorary curators. Honorary (volunteer) curators of botany, vertebrates, invertebrates, and “ethnology” were all professors from the University of Manitoba, with honorary assistants to the curators coming from both academia and the community. These roles focused on collecting specimens and artifacts, creating exhibits, and presenting lectures on relevant topics.

Black and white image of a museum display case housing various artifacts related to the fur trade.

Black and white image of a museum display case housing various Indigenous artifacts.

The History and Archaeology departments occasionally still reference the original accession ledgers that date to the inception of the museum. These ledgers detail basic information about objects acquired from the public – listed under the headings of donor (or vendor), locality, object, and particulars. The history objects were divided into four separate categories – Firearms & Military, History & Early Settlers, Ceramics, and Numismatics. The archaeological objects were accessioned into a single ledger by date. Not to worry, our conservation department has since encapsulated the individual pages for longevity’s sake.

Image of an inventory page with multiple columns listing items and their descriptions. Most of the rows have been struck through with red ink.

Sample of page from old Manitoba Museum history accession ledger. Image: © Manitoba Museum

Black and white image of a black rectangular box with closed lid.

Photograph of H8-62-207, a pewter snuff box donated to the old Manitoba Museum on March 29, 1934 by Mrs. Andrew K. Stephens, as listed on the sample ledger page. Image: © Manitoba Museum

Black and white image of a man painting a mural of a gently-hilled prairie landscape; table with various art supplies in the foreground.

In 1965, the Manitoba Museum Association was dissolved by provincial legislation in favour of the incorporation of the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature and the Manitoba Planetarium. Construction of the Museum at 190 Rupert Avenue was underway by the late 1960s, designed by Winnipeg-born architect Herbert Henry Gatenby Moody (leave some names for the rest of us, sir!). While the new facility was being constructed, the existing collections were put in storage.

The new incarnation of the Museum presented its first galleries in 1970 – just in time to commemorate Manitoba’s centennial. The iconic bison diorama greeted the first visitors and ushered them into the former Grasslands gallery. This era also saw the advent of paid curatorial positions for the first time in the Museum’s history.

Between 1970 and 1976, the Earth History, Urban (Winnipeg 1920), Nonsuch and Arctic/Subarctic galleries opened, and 1980 and 2003 saw the introduction of the Boreal Forest Gallery, HBC Gallery, Parklands/Mixed Woods Gallery, and the Science Gallery to the lower level.

Image: Manitoba-born artist Clarence Tillenius is pictured here painting the backdrop of the Pronghorn diorama in the Grasslands Gallery at 190 Rupert Avenue. Tillenius also painted the mural behind the Bison diorama in the museum’s Welcome Gallery. © Manitoba Museum

In 1997, the Museum dropped the “of Man and Nature” from its legal name and became known as the Manitoba Museum once again. Do people still occasionally ask if I work at the “Man and Nature”? Why, yes, they do.

A circular beaded coaster with red

Pictured above is a beaded coaster made by Mrs. Dinah Monias Beardy and donated to the museum in 1979. The coaster depicts the original Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature logo. Mrs. Beardy’s son is renowned artist Jackson Beardy, whose work is featured in the Boreal Forest Gallery. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H4-1-451

Cortney Pachet

Cortney Pachet

Collections Technician – Human History

Cortney Pachet started working at the Manitoba Museum in 2001 as a tour guide while earning her a BA (Honours) from the University of Winnipeg. She quickly realized that she wanted a career in museums…
Meet Cortney Pachet

How Do You Store Your Bison Head?

A common human trait is to obtain and store our belongings. And, maybe without even thinking, storing them in a relational way that makes sense to us, such as in a sock drawer, or stored together in some logical manner for use, like tools in a toolbox. At the very least, items are stored in a place where we know we can find them when we need them.

Museums around the world, including here at the Manitoba Museum, have much the same approach when storing their collections. There are over 300,000 specimens in the permanent collections of the Natural Sciences section, of all different types, shapes, and sizes, and they all need to be stored in a systematic way so that we can find them when they are required for research, education, or exhibits.

Lichen specimens stored in individual trays, with labels bearing their catalogue number, identification and data.

Lichen specimens are stored in individual trays, and have labels with their catalogue number, identification and data.

Two images. Left: An open drawer containing pinned beetles stored in interior boxes. Right: A microscope slide with 60 micro fossils adhered to the surface placed beside a dime for scale.

In scientific collections, we store specimens of the same species together, and then numerically by their catalogue number. This way, a single particular specimen can be easily located. This is the system that is used most commonly for museum collections including insects, mammals, birds, fossils and plants. Other collections, such as minerals, are stored by their chemical groupings. There are also some specialized research collections that are stored together as an assemblage of different species that were all collected from the same site. This system makes it easier for researchers who want to view and compare all specimens from a particular location. For example, all fossils from a Churchill shoreline, or insects that were pollinating a particular field.

Within each collection, the sizes and storage requirements of the different species vary considerably. They are not all the same size, shape, weight, or fragility level, and we need to be able to provide safe storage solutions in our collections areas for specimens that range from microscopic to very large. For example, paleontological micro-fossils, such as tiny shells or bits of coral, are extremely small (sometimes smaller than 1 mm), and too fragile to even handle individually. In order to keep them safe, but also available for study, they are gently adhered to a special type of microscope slide so that they can be safely handled, and then stored.

Images above: Left – Pinned beetles of the Carabidae Family are stored in special drawers with other specimens of the same species, separated by interior boxes. Right – Micro-fossil shells are adhered to special slides with numbered sections in order to distinguish them.

Another type of specimen that we had to devise a storage method for were fungal spore prints. Spores are the tiny microscopic structures that fungi disperse for reproduction and are thus similar in function to plant seeds. The spores are produced on the underside of the spongy or gilled mushroom cap. To assist with identifying the species of mushroom, we collect these spores, and then carefully store them. A spore print is made when mushroom is freshly collected. A piece of black paper is placed under the cap to catch the spores that will be released. The resulting print basically looks like dust in the shape of the mushroom cap. What gives us the information we need to identify them is the colour of the spores – these can be white, cream-coloured, rusty, black or brown. We have found that we can store these fragile paper prints similar to photographs. We place them in plastic CD cases, using photo mounting corners to hold the paper flat; the disk lid closes to protect the print surface from being disturbed.

A white fungal spore placed on a square of black paper inside a CD case.

These cream-coloured spores help scientists identify the species of mushroom that they came from.

Taxidermied head of a Bison stored on a custom-wheeled dolly.

Odd-shaped or very large specimens pose a storage challenge on a whole different level, so we must make special considerations for them. Large mammal mounts, for example, are not easy to store. They are large, heavy, take up a lot of room, and can be fragile too! To add to that list of concern parameters, they can also contain arsenic, which was an effective pesticide used by taxidermists prior to the 1980’s, but is toxic to both pests and humans. We have started to test our collections so we can take the necessary precautions when handling and storing them. Smaller mounts, such as song birds, can be stored in metal cabinets. But larger mounts are a little more difficult, and we have had to develop alternate methods of storing them.

Many of our larger mammal mounts are placed on custom-built wheeled platforms so that they are off the ground, and can be moved if needed. In some cases, we added a wooden framework around the mount so that we can enclose it in poly sheeting, as a barrier for pests and dust. The framework keeps the poly from coming into contact with the fur or feathers of the specimens as it could bend, break, or flatten the structures.

Above: Taxidermied head of a Bison stored on a custom-wheeled dolly for easy transportation. It will be enclosed in protective poly sheeting for storage.

Large mammal skulls, like caribou and elk, can have enormous antlers, and certainly pose another storage challenge. We have adopted a simple and effective storage solution using heavy-duty custom metal frames that are locally fabricated. The frames are spanned with expanded metal centers, and installed where we have open wall space. The large skulls can then be secured and hung on the frame. We are fortunate in that we have large areas of open wall space!

Our next storage challenge is how to store a 25 ft. long whale jaw that weighs 200 lbs!

A Museum staff member kneeling on the ground attaching cable to a large pair of antlers.

Strong aircraft cable is used to hang these large skulls with antlers.

A Museum staff member stands on a rolling ladder platform facing the camera beside seven taxidermied skulls fixed on the wall

Collections Technician, Aro, installing the skulls onto our new metal storage rack.

Janis Klapecki

Janis Klapecki

Collections Management Specialist – Natural History

Janis Klapecki obtained a B.Sc. from the University of Manitoba, specializing in Zoology and Botany. She also holds a certificate in Managing Natural History Collections from the University of Victoria, BC. Janis has over 30 years experience…
Meet Janis Klapecki

Strange History

Our human history collection is full of special objects, highlighting significant points in Manitoba’s past –like Cuthbert Grant’s medicine chest or the replica of the Nonsuch. Yet we also make a point of collecting objects that represent everyday life in Manitoba – cans of soup, well-loved toys and farming implements. These mundane objects surprise people, since most of us consider objects we use routinely to have little historical value. Then there are objects that baffle even the seasoned museologist, begging questions like what and, most importantly, why?

Early in my days working with the human history collection, I was searching for a medical-related artifact in an area of our storage room rife with old medicine and surgical tools. I pulled an unlabeled box off a high shelf to have a look inside and was shocked to find it full of dentures –it gave me quite a start. I wish I could say it was the only time that box of dentures had scared me.

Only one pair of our dentures can be linked to a specific person; the others were donated by the Manitoba Dental Association or have no known source. So if they don’t belong to a historical figure, why collect them? Dentures have been made of various materials for centuries. Wood, human and animal teeth, ivory, bone, and porcelain have all been used to fashion false teeth throughout history. Modern dentures are made from synthetic materials like acrylic. The dentures in our collection capture techniques and materials at a specific moment in time, allowing researchers to make comparisons to older and newer generations of false teeth.

Close-up on the face of an inflatable doll with yellow hair, blue eye shadow, and an open mouth.

A few years ago, some of our staff took part in an AMA on Reddit during Ask a Curator day (#AskACurator). One of the questions asked was “what is the weirdest object in your collection?” I immediately thought of an inflatable doll, which made her way into our collection in 1984 as part of a much larger donation from the old Winnipeg Musical Supply store. The doll is in excellent condition, meaning that she has never been used. And no, she doesn’t inflate – we’ve tried. Her face is coming away from her body, creating a hole where air can escape. This object is close to my heart because when I was in university, doing my Masters in Museum Studies, I wrote a paper about collecting sexual artifacts and discussed the inclusion of the doll in the collection and staff’s reactions to her presence. It’s highly unlikely that “Dolly” will ever be exhibited and her provenance isn’t clear, but she definitely captures a period of time when novelty and gag gifts were popular.

Inflatable doll; vinyl; L 20th C. Catalogue Number: H9-16-182 © Manitoba Museum

The previous artifacts are odd, true, but everyone knows that teeth are needed for chewing and enunciating and everyone loves a good laugh, but this artifact can turn stomachs and bewilder minds better than no other.

During the Victorian era, the popularity of jewellery made of human hair saw a definite rise. Hair would be collected from a loved one and woven into intricate patterns to make bracelets, brooches, earrings and necklaces. Wearing mourning jewellery fabricated from the hair of deceased relatives was common amongst Victorian women. People also made wreaths from human hair to display on their walls, often taking hair from multiple family members to complete a single wreath.

A haighly decorative wreath woven of varying shades of brown and blonde human hair, with occasional accent beads.

Hair wreath, human hair, L 19th C. Catalogue Number: H9-18-67 © Manitoba Museum

Close up on a portion of a highly decorative wreath woven of varying shades of brown and blonde human hair, with occasional accent beads.

Hair wreath, detail. Catalogue Number: H9-18-67 © Manitoba Museum

This example was made in Ontario by Mary Jane McKague and brought to Manitoba in 1881, first to Emerson by train and then transported by ox cart to the community of Coulter south of Melita where Mary Jane and her husband John homesteaded. Mary Jane died in childbirth delivering her sixth and final child in 1895. Her wreath was carefully kept by her eldest daughter and later three of her granddaughters before they donated it to the Manitoba Museum in 1985. It is one of several examples of Victorian hair art and jewellery in our collection. Even if the thought of handling human hair is unsettling, these objects are an important part of our understanding of 19th century society, fashion and the Victorian mourning process.

What commonplace objects that we think nothing of today will give pause to museum collectors of the future? Only time will tell!

Cortney Pachet

Cortney Pachet

Collections Technician – Human History

Cortney Pachet started working at the Manitoba Museum in 2001 as a tour guide while earning her a BA (Honours) from the University of Winnipeg. She quickly realized that she wanted a career in museums…
Meet Cortney Pachet

The Rogues’ Gallery of the Manitoba Museum 

Looking down into a drawer containing boxes and tubes of bugs and insects with appropriate labels.

My first day at the Manitoba Museum began with a guided behind-the-scenes tour through the research labs, workshops, and collections storage rooms that are not accessible to the public. On a tight schedule, I got to see a little bit of everything, but when the tour was over I knew I needed to see so much more. Through the next week I found the time to explore the specimens of the Natural History collections room, starting with my favourite group of animals – the insects! The Museum’s insect collection contains fascinating specimens from Manitoba and beyond, sorted neatly by species into glass-topped wooden drawers which are stored in tall, sealed cabinets. In the course of my thorough investigation, I found amazing wasps, rugged beetles, and showstopping butterflies. Nothing, however, captured my imagination quite like the contents of one otherwise unassuming box simply marked “Museum Pests”. 


As the label suggested, inside I found a collection of insects that are known to be destructive to museum collections. Capable of eating textiles, paper products, dried plants, and furs, these little insects can be a huge problem if allowed to reproduce in the museum. The specimens were old, their data labels yellowed with age, collected between the ‘70s and the ‘90s by watchful staff right here in the Manitoba Museum. 

On an ecological note, it is important to bear in mind that there is nothing inherently “bad” about the organisms we have labeled here as pests. In nature, these insects act as nutrient recyclers and food for many other animals. It is only when their behaviour impacts the livelihood and resources of humans that an animal becomes a “pest”. In this situation, we are simply at odds – our job is to acquire and protect a vast collection of objects with historical and scientific value (or, as the pests would call it, “a huge pile of food with nutritional value”), and their job is to eat well and survive long enough to reproduce. 

All that being said, it is my pleasure to introduce you to the insatiable insects of the Manitoba Museum’s Rogues’ Gallery. 


Clothes Moth – Tineola bisselliella

A small light-coloured moth, with wings folded closed, pinned through a specimen label.

The clothes moth is a small, drab moth that packs a punch. In nature, these moths lay their eggs in the nests and carcasses of mammals and birds, providing their caterpillars with easy access to a feast of fur, flesh, and dead insects. In their capacity as pests, they enter buildings and lay their eggs in the presence of animal-derived textiles, specifically those made of wool, silk, and leather. This behaviour ensures that their young have plenty to eat. Walking through the galleries, you may be able to picture the damage that they could do to the historical garments, animal furs, and insect specimens that are on display for the public along, with our stored collections. 


Interestingly, the adults of this species do not eat at all, so all of the energy they need to disperse and reproduce comes from food eaten by the caterpillar. The adults of the clothes moth tend to crawl rather than fly. This slow and low movement, combined with their understated colour palette and small size, makes them exceptionally sneaky They can avoid detection by humans with ease, making vigilance and pest control measures a must. 


Black Carpet Beetle – Attagenus unicolor

A small dark-coloured beetle attached to a scrap of paper that is pinned through a specimen label.

These beetles are tiny – so small, in fact, that the specimens here are pointed rather than pinned directly. As with the clothes moth, the adults disperse to lay eggs near food sources and the larvae that emerge from the eggs do most of the damage. The tiny larvae of these beetles mostly eat natural fibres like wool and silk, making them a threat to clothing, carpets, and rugs stored and on display in the museum. They additionally can eat feathers, fur, and other animal bits, so it is essential that they be kept away from natural history specimens in the galleries and collections. Larvae of these beetles are able to slow their growth when food resources are scarce. Development to the adult life stage can take anywhere from three months to three years! This makes them very difficult to eradicate completely, and even if an infestation appears to be over resurgence is always a possibility. 


The Larder Beetle – Dermestes lardarius

A small dark-coloured beetle pinned through a specimen label.

The larder beetle (a member of the Dermestid beetle family) may be a familiar insect to some Manitobans. They occasionally wander into kitchens and pantries in search of food, have a distinctive band of yellow hairs crossing their otherwise black bodies, and are generally large enough to be spotted when they move. While they tend to crawl in small, dark spaces, they can also disperse across larger distances by flying. As with the clothes moth, larder beetles are nutrient recyclers in nature, eating plants and animals in various states of decay and returning their nutrients to the soil. If they get into your home, they survive on stored foods such as grains and dried meats, and under the right circumstances major infestations can develop. In a museum, these beetles are able to cause downright havoc


They eat wool, leather, silk, dried plant materials including seeds and grains, animal furs and skins, preserved insects, and even paper. The larvae of this species are particularly hazardous to our collections, as their small size combined with their capacity to climb walls allows them to get to any food that they detect. As if all that wasn’t enough, the larvae are able to bore through solid materials such as wood and plastic. In some cases, they have even been known to bore into tin cans to get at the preserved foods inside! 


Pest Control Measures

A sign in a plastic sleeve with images of a beetle, mouse, and caterpillar beneath text reading, “ABSOLUTLEY NO FOOD OR DRINK ALLOWED IN THE COLLECTIONS ROOM / Thank You”.

Due to the damage that they can cause, keeping pests away from the collections of The Manitoba Museum is a matter of utmost importance as we strive to protect the scientific and historical value of the all that is within our care. However, we cannot simply decide that insects will stay out of our museum, as they can fly in through a window, walk through the front door, or even hitch a ride on the clothing of unsuspecting guests. Once they are inside the museum, our pest control measures are the first line of defense.


As a basic measure, food items cannot be brought into certain areas of the museum. In the galleries, many displayed objects and specimens are behind glass cases to physically prevent insect access. Baited sticky traps in use throughout the museum are an excellent way to catch insects when they are present, and monitoring them closely allows us to detect problems before they get out of hand. When new items are acquired by the museum, they are frozen twice or exposed to carbon dioxide to get rid of any insects that may be hitching a ride, even as eggs or larvae. Items held in our collections storage rooms are kept in sealed metal cabinets that can keep out even the smallest of insects. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, protection from pests relies on the vigilance of our team. Museum staff monitor items on display and in the collections for signs of insect activity such as feeding damage, shed skins, frass (for the uninitiated, that’s a technical term for sawdust from bore-holes and insect poop), as well as live insects. 


Productive Pest

A close-up view into a Museum display case containing a Passenger Pigeon on a roost, and eight jaw bones lined up by size.


With all that being said, you might think that we strive to keep our museum completely insect free; however, this is not quite true. Hidden away deep in the museum and behind three locked doors there lies a small, sealed room that a lovely brood of six-legged museum volunteers call home. While cleaning the bones of smaller natural history specimens is a painstaking and time-consuming task for a human, our family of Dermestid beetles is always ready for a meal. Paid only in food, the beetles get our bones thoroughly cleaned and ready for final preparation. Next time you visit the museum, be sure to remember the roles that pests play as friends and foes in the museum as we strive to keep our collections in excellent condition for the research and enjoyment of generations to come. And please, don’t bring any food or drinks into the galleries; protection of the collections also depends on you! 

Aro van Dyck

Aro van Dyck

Collections Technician – Natural History

Aro van Dyck earned her B.Sc. from the University of Manitoba, majoring in Biological Sciences and minoring in Entomology. She has also researched the diversity of wasps and bees Winnipeg’s greenspaces …
Meet Aro van Dyck

Maximizing Space: Improving the preservation and storage of large mammal skins

A museum staff member smiles up at the camera. On a table in front of them is laid a grey wolf pelt, lined inner side facing up.

Post by Marc Formosa, former Collections Technician of Natural History

A current and ongoing problem for museums is collection storage space. Maximizing space for expanding collections requires Tetris-like problem solving. We are always looking for ways to make the most of the space we have, while improving the long-term preservation of the objects in the collection.

In the spring of 2021, I had the chance to virtually attend the joint American Institution for Conservation (AIC) and The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) conference.  A presentation by Laura Abraczinkas and Barbara Lundrigan titled “Storage Improvements for Tanned Mammal Skins at the Michigan State University Museum” covered folding techniques for large mammal skins to reduce the space they take up, while also discussing how to protect parts of the skin like the paws and head from potential damage while folded.  The information in this presentation inspired a rehousing project for polar bear, grizzly, cougar, grey wolf, and leopard skins in the zoology collection.

Most of the skins that were rehoused as part of this project were attached to a felt fabric backing. This is typically done if a skin is going to be used as a rug. The head is stretched around an armature (made from a variety of materials including wood, foam, and plaster) to maintain a semi-life like position, but it also makes the head quite heavy. The mouth and teeth are created by the taxidermist and are not part of the original mammal.


Marc with the grey wolf skin getting it ready for rehousing. Image: © Manitoba Museum

For each mammal, I started by creating custom mittens for their paws out of Tyvek – a lightweight and durable nonwoven material that is resistant to water and abrasion, and has good aging properties. I used a sewing machine, for the first time, and stitched the Tyvek together with cotton thread so each mitten fit snug around each paw. (Pictured below, left)

The folding method can be simply described as a ‘bear’ hugging itself. Every fold is padded out with volara, a smooth closed-celled polyethylene foam, to add support and prevent creases forming in the skin. Finally, the head sits on top of the folded skin, again padded out with volara. (Pictured below, right)

Two pictures side-by-side. Both show the hands of someone out of frame wearing blue gloves, placing a "mitten" on the paw of  a cougar skin.

The stitched Tyvek mittens fit snuggly on each paw. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A cougar skin folded and padded with supports inside a white storage box.

Cougar skin folded and padded with volara supports inside a coroplast box. Image: © Manitoba Museum

For the cougar and leopard heads, custom pads were created for each head to sit on away from the body in order to alleviate stress and prevent the skin from creasing on the neck where the head armature meets the skin. (Pictured below, left)

The skins were individually wrapped in polyethylene sheets as an additional barrier from dust accumulation and insects. Custom boxes were built out of coroplast which allow for the skins to be more easily handled as they move in and out of their new home in the collections storage vault (pictured below, right). Overall, this rehousing project improved the preservation of the skins and their storage method. It freed up space, but free space does not remain long in museum collections storage spaces.

Close-up of a taxidermied cougar head from the side. The chin rests on a support pillow.

The cougar’s head is supported with a soft Tyvek-covered chin pillow. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A row of dark metal storage cabinaets. The top cabinet doors are removed and lean against the floor. Inside each storage compartment is a box holding a carefully wrapped large animal skin.

The rehoused large mammal skins are safely stored in cabinets inside the collections storage vault. Image: © Manitoba Museum

Collecting Today for Tomorrow

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a central, and disruptive role in all our lives. In the coming decades will COVID become a significant cultural memory, or will we begin to suffer from historic amnesia? Terabytes of information may be deposited in archives around the world. For museums, even ordinary artifacts will become powerful tools to engage visitors.

At the Manitoba Museum, there were no artifacts with which we could relate the story of the influenza pandemic of a century ago. Museums around the world saw the need to begin collecting today for tomorrow. A call was put out for objects that would help mark this event from the Manitoba perspective. To date, over 70 Manitobans have responded to the call.

Over the past months, as I have been integrating these objects and their stories into the permanent collections of the Manitoba Museum, I have been amazed by the breadth and variety of the items. Here’s an initial glimpse our growing COVID-19 collection.

A Unicity Taxi receipt made out on March 13 for $40. The destination address is digitally redacted.

Can you pinpoint the moment that the pandemic became a reality in your life? Leslie Nakonechny’s employer offered to cover her taxi fare so that she could transport her desktop computer as she headed to work from home. Initially she thought the pandemic would blow over in a few weeks and that she could turn in her receipt once they were back to working on-site. As the lockdown continued the receipt became a memento in her wallet.


Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-443

Manitoba’s volunteer spirit was evident early in the pandemic. Sewing machines were dusted off and used to create thousands of masks, gowns, and surgical caps to protect health care workers, friends, and family. We all strove to maintain a sense of community during the pandemic. Signs sprang up in windows, on fences, and along walking paths offering messages of encouragement.

Two images side by side. On the left a colourful handmade surgical cap on a hat stand. On the right is a sign on brown cardboard. In the rough shape of Manitoba text reads,

L: Surgical cap from Surgical Caps for Front Line Care Staff. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-730
R: Sign from Keith Moen, Judy Dyck, Leif & Ruby Moen. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-348

In early 2020, graphic images of a spiked ball began popping up in the media as stories circulated of a new, potentially dangerous virus. Soon the image was being used in inventive ways. The creativity of Manitobans is evident in many of the donations that use a wide variety of media.

Two images side by side. In the left photo are four crocheted COVID molecules with frowning faces. One ball is pink with grey, and the other three are grey with red. In the right photo is a beaded face mask with red, yellow, white, and black quadrents. Over the red and yellow half, a white wold is stitched, and over the black and white half a red paw print.

L: Crocheted COVID balls created by Karen Matthews. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-729
R: Beaded mask created by Kayla Eaglestick. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H4-2-621

The artists’ statements that accompany many of the pieces demonstrate how people seek solace in the arts in a time of disruption. Christen Rachul stamped his pottery with a tiny letter ‘Q’ for Quarantine. Gail Wence took up her embroidery needle, Jacqueline Trudeau her paint brush, and Laurie Fischer returned to writing poetry.

New phrases were added to our everyday vocabulary like “social distancing”, “essential workers”, “lockdown”, “pivot”, and “supply-chain”. The impact on the business community is still significant.  Remember hunting for toilet paper?

A still life artwork featuring various fruits and vegetables soaking with a face mask in a kitchen sink.

“Nature Morte en Eau de Javel/Still Life in Water with Javex” by Gérald Dufault. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-349

A political cartoon of a grocery store shopper pushing a cart past empty shelves labelled "Toilet Paper" and "Hand Sanitizer".

Wall Hanging created by Joan Dupuis-Neal, inspired by a political cartoon by Adam Zyglis. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-340

Genevieve Delaquis spent her time in line capturing many of the decals that told customers where to stand for their safety. There were also new opportunities. U of W students Alex Kroft and Niels Hurst launched a summer business producing 3-D printed face shields for front-line workers.

Manitoba families endured long periods of separation during lockdowns that robbed them of the opportunity to celebrate life’s milestones. Grandchildren were introduced to family via Zoom. Young people graduated virtually.

A collage created of photographs of "Stand Here" social distancing icons on public floors.

“Stand Here” by Geneviève Delaquis. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-347

A clear face shield with a blue headband.

3-D printed face shield. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-716

A red sweatshirt on a mannequin bust. The from of the sweater reads, "Social Distance Club".

Sweatshirt worn by Twila Fillion who was a first-time mother during the lockdown. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-287

With the stores closed for all but essential items, Donalda Johnson created pom poms out of plastic grocery bags and decorated cars for a friend’s retirement parade. 96-year-old Helen Rempel quietly crocheted Christmas ornaments for each of her 26 immediate family members who would not be gathering in person.

COVID themed Christmas ornaments including a gingerbread person wearing a face mask, and pom-poms made of plastic grocery bags.

Some of the most impactful artifacts were created by children.  Many of the items illustrate the efforts of parents, caregivers, and teachers to help young Manitobans cope with the upheaval in their lives. For some, letter writing and drawing allowed them reach out to the community.

Grade 12 student Kendra Radey wrote and illustrated Robby’s Life Lesson to teach children about COVID safety.

Two hand drawn notes. On the left a child's note reads, "Brenley after the virus do you want to play". On the right, a hand drawn comic shows a person in a boat approaching a lake monster who says, "Ach ya bloody idiot! Don't you know you have to stay two bloody meters?!" The comic is titled "The lock-down monster".

L: Note written by 5 year old Charlotte Oldfield. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-450
R: Window sign by Mia Danyluk. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-466

Pages from a hand-drawn book. On the right the page has a drawing of a cat and a dog wearing white lab coats and stethoscopes. In large letters above their heads it says, "We're here to help". Printed text at the bottom reads, "Thousands of people around the world were getting sick and many people needed to be taken to the hospital." The page on the left show paws washing with soap and water in a sink. Printed text along the top reads, "Robby and his family continued to worry, but especially continued to follow the rules and washed their hands whenever they could."

Robby’s Life Lesson written and illustrated by Kendra Radey. Image: © Manitoba Museum, H9-39-692

Public Health officials and politicians tell us we are moving into a ‘new normal’. It is hard to predict when the Museum will be ready to create a retrospective exhibit about the pandemic. As I write this blog, I am aware that I have omitted many of donations. But in the years to come, the COVID-19 collection may be used in museum exhibits and programs or by students, historians, writers, film makers, and others to tell our story.

Nancy Anderson

Nancy Anderson

Collections Management Specialist – Human History

Nancy Anderson holds a B.A. (Hons) in History from the University of Winnipeg, and received her M.A. in Canadian Social History jointly from the University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba. She has over 30 years experience…
Meet Nancy Anderson

Pinning Insects for the Museum’s Collections

As part of the Manitoba Museum’s entomology collection, we house over 60,000 pinned insects, true bugs, and arachnids. In addition, there are a further ~3000 invertebrates preserved in alcohol, also referred to as “wet” specimens. While the majority of the collection are pinned insects in their adult form, there are also examples of the many and varied life stages that occur prior to the adult form, including egg, larval, nymph, and pupal forms. It is important that a scientific collection contain representatives of these life stages (including males and females of each), as they can and do look very different within any given species.

The Manitoba Museum is a research and collections-based museum whose mandate is to collect and preserve both the natural and human histories of the province for present and future generations. Curators conduct research throughout the province in their respective fields of expertise. Specimens are collected during field seasons and are brought to the museum for preparation and subsequent study. Before specimens can be handled and made accessible for study, they must be prepared to maintain their long-term preservation. Fossils need to be exposed from their matrix, plants need to be dried and mounted, and birds and mammals transformed into skins and skeletons. Insects too, must undergo a preparation process in order to stabilize them for storage, and to make them safer to handle. This is where skill meets a bit of art, and sometimes a little luck!

Open storage drawers  containing many neatly organized pinned butterflies.

The Manitoba Museum’s entomology collection represents most of all the very diverse groups and species that occur in Manitoba. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A small pile of winged ants on a white surface next to a hand-written note reading, "Collected by R. Mooi / Sept 10/2020 / Winnipeg - on wall".

It all starts here – Dr. Randy Mooi, Curator of Zoology, has brought in some dead carpenter ants with collection information. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A Confusing Bumblebee specimen hanging upside-down from a the pink and yellow flower of a Darkthroat Shootingstar plant model.

Once specimens are carefully collected and brought to the museum, a decision must be made on how a particular insect will be preserved. Part of this decision is based on what type of insect (invertebrate) it is, but also how we may want use the specimen afterward. Typically, insect specimens for scientific use are pinned in a traditional manner according to international museum standards where all parts are positioned symmetrically, and anatomy used for identifying characteristics are not obscured. If a specimen will be used for educational purposes, or included in an exhibition in one of our galleries, the pinning is slightly different so that a more life-like pose is achieved. Certain groups or forms, such as a caterpillar (larva), or other worm-like animals, would simply shrivel up if it was pinned, and would not be very recognizable. These types preserve better as a whole body stored in a vial with alcohol as a wet specimen.


I pinned this Confusing Bumblebee (Bombus perplexus) in a life-like pose, as it would naturally be, collecting nectar. Our Diorama Specialist, Deborah Thompson then attached it to a Darkthroat Shootingstar plant model she expertly made. This pair is now installed in the new Prairies Gallery. Image: © Manitoba Museum

Three plastic cups placed inside a larger plastic container with a snap-lid. In each of the plastic cups are a few insect specimens.

When adult insects are collected, they typically become very dry and brittle by the time they are brought into the museum. Handling them is difficult without causing damage, as tiny legs and antennae can easily break off. In order to manipulate and pin them in the correct position, they must first be re-hydrated into a softened state. Plastic containers with good sealing lids are used as a re-hydrating environment. The container is filled with a couple of centimetres of distilled water with some alcohol added to guard against any mould growth. Insect specimens are then placed on top of a piece of rigid foam which is floated within the container.  After a few days, the specimens are checked to see if they are pliable enough for the wings and legs to easily be moved. Small flies could be ready in a few days, large beetles with thick exoskeletons and strong ligaments, could take several days.


Insects are placed in a re-hydrating container to soften, and make them pliable for the pinning process. Image: © Manitoba Museum

Once in a softened state, the insect is ready for the pinning process. The insect is gently held while a main pin is inserted through the thorax, just below the base of the forewings, and placed perpendicular to the plane of the body. Special entomology pins are used as they are made of metals that will not corrode when in contact with the insect. They come in different gauges to be used with the varying sizes of insects. A large insect, such as a butterfly, will require a thicker pin for sturdiness, and a very thin gauge pin would be used for smaller insects. Anything even smaller, or extremely fragile is “pointed”. That is, where an insect is too small to have a pin inserted, it is instead carefully glued to the ‘point’ of a small triangle of archival card stock and the main pin is then inserted through the point. This main pin is now the only way the specimen can safely be handled.

A monarch butterfly specimen positioned on a pinning board with strips of glassine and straight pins. In the background are a magnifying glass and various pinned insects in storage containers.

A pinning board is used to properly position a large butterfly specimen. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A close up on a fly specimen held in place with several straight pins.

Numerous support pins are used to position the legs and wings of this fly specimen. Image: © Manitoba Museum

When the main pin has been properly placed, the legs, wings, and antennae must then be positioned. A pinning board made of soft balsa wood or dense foam is used for specimens with large wings such as butterflies, moths, dragonflies, or grasshoppers. It has a trough where the body can be lowered, and the wings can then be spread over the flat surfaces of the boards on either side and supported. Spreading the wings properly is a bit like the game “Twister” for the fingers. Insect wings are incredibly fragile, so carefully coaxing them away from the insect’s body without damaging them takes some practice. Add to that, the wings of Lepidopterans (butterflies and moths) are covered in fine, microscopic scales that aid in flight, waterproofing, and coloration that will break off, like dust, if touched. Forceps are gently used to spread the forewing out from the body on one side, and while holding that in place, the hind wing on the same side, is brought out and positioned. Once both wings on one side are in the proper position, a strip of glassine is placed gently over them. Glassine is a smooth translucent paper that will not abrade the scales of the wings. Pins are then inserted just through the paper and into the underlying pinning board to hold everything in place. This process is then repeated with the wings on the other side. The antennae and legs are then moved into place, slightly away from the body, and support pins are inserted into the board to hold them there. This is done so that the legs do not obscure any important identifying characteristics.

After the insect is pinned into the correct position, it is left to dry. Depending on the size of the insect, it may dry in a few days, larger beetles and dragonflies could take over a week. When it is dried, the positioning pins are very carefully removed and it is now ready for data labels to be attached on the main pin below the specimen. Labels are printed on archival paper and contain all the pertinent data about the specimen such as the identification, who collected the specimen, and when and where it was collected. This data is also entered into our collections management database. As with all specimens in our collections, it is extremely important to keep each specimen together with its data. The data proves that this exact species occurred in this time and place – it’s recorded proof of that biodiversity snapshot of that time. If the data labels ever became separated from its specimen, its intrinsic scientific value is greatly diminished, or completely lost.

Looking down a corridor at a glass display wall of pinned insects.

The vast diversity of insects of Manitoba’s Boreal Forest is showcased in the Boreal Gallery and contains over 700 invertebrates. Image: © Manitoba Museum/Ian McCausland

Museum collections all over the world apply these same international techniques and standards when preparing and storing specimens for study. This aids in maintaining consistency between museum collections, and have changed very little over the past several hundred years.

Two images side by side. On the left is a black and white photo of rows of pinned insects. On the is a colour photograph of similar insects pinned in a similar fashion.

Left: Sir Joseph Banks Insect Collection (1743-1820) Image: © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London. Licensed under the Open Government Licence

Right: Present-day insect collection at the Manitoba Museum. Image: © Manitoba Museum

Janis Klapecki

Janis Klapecki

Collections Management Specialist – Natural History

Janis Klapecki obtained a B.Sc. from the University of Manitoba, specializing in Zoology and Botany. She also holds a certificate in Managing Natural History Collections from the University of Victoria, BC. Janis has over 20 years experience…
Meet Janis Klapecki

How to Polish a Jellyfish

By Debbie Thompson, past Diorama and Collections Specialist 

More than 440 million years ago, during the Ordovician Period, northern Manitoba was at the edge of a sea near the equator. Among the many invertebrates that swam and lived in the salty waters were jellyfish. Their fossilized remains are the focus of ongoing research at the Museum.

After years of collecting, specific specimens were chosen to undergo a process called thin sectioning. This process creates ultra-thin slices of rock and fossil, supported by epoxy and glass slides. They are thin enough to allow light to pass through, revealing details about internal structures, which can then be studied using a microscope.

The fossils selected for this process can range in size from one to four centimeters in diameter. Every block is trimmed using a rock saw, so that the block will fit onto a glass slide.  The fossil surface then needs to be polished smooth and to an accurate scale in millimeters written on two sides of the block.

Five individual sitting and standing looking for fossils on a rocky outcropping with buckets and palaeontology tools at hand.

Palaeontologists and volunteers search for fossil jellyfish during Museum fieldwork. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A foil covered hot plate with three objects on it. With a red arrow pointing to it, on the left, is a fossil block, with foil peeled back from the top. WIth a purple arrow pointing to it, on the lower right, is a glass slide, and with a yellow arrow pointing to it, on the upper right, is a recycled yogurt container.

The red arrow points to the fossil block, note the scale (numbers written on sides of block).  The foil is peeled back to reveal the polished fossil surface. The purple arrow points to the glass slide, which has been polished so that epoxy glue will stick to it. The yellow arrow points to a container that is warming one part of a two-part epoxy. The hot plate heats up these components to aid in the even flow and setting of the epoxy. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A polished white fossil block from the side. On the top surface a specimen number is handwritten in black. On the short side a size scale is written in place showing 5-25 mm in increments of five.

Each slide is labeled with the data regarding that particular specimen. If too much epoxy is applied, it will flow over the edges and seep underneath the slide. Here the polished fossil surface has been epoxied to the glass slide. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A fossil block epoxied to a glass slide. A blue-gloved hand from out of frame scrapes the surface with a razor blade.

After the adhesive sets, but before it cures hard, any epoxy that seeped underneath is carefully scraped off using a razor blade, and solvent removes remaining residue. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A fossil block epoxied to a glass slide. A blue-gloved hand from out of frame polishes the surface with a small piece of light blue material.

Normally, a whole day will be spent just gluing the specimens onto the slides.  To help pass the time, it helps to listen to country music while doing this (although the Curator would strongly disagree with my choice of music). Image: © Manitoba Museum

A work station set up with various tools and equipment including earplugs, ear muffs, safety glasses, blue rubber gloves, a sponge, and a high-quality face mask.

Before starting the rock-cutting saw, the radio is turned off, much to the Curator’s delight! The thin section machine is noisy, creating the need for ear plugs and heavy-duty earmuffs.  Safety glasses are a must, guarding against stone chips.  The gloves protect the hands from being water logged for extended periods of time.  A mask is needed to prevent breathing in the water spray laden with sediment, as the water is recycled and gradually becomes dirtier the more it’s used.  The sponge is used to clean up the sludge that accumulates in the tray. Image: © Manitoba Museum

From out of frame a hand wearing a blue rubber glove holds a fossil specimen in place on a machine arm, near a saw blade. The saw is in a green, high-edged container, with murky water at the bottom.

The block is held on the thin section machine’s arm, and gently pushed into the saw. Very thick blocks will require several cuts from each side. Being extremely cautious, this could take me about 5 minutes to cut. Image: © Manitoba Museum

From out of frame a hand wearing a blue rubber glove holds a cut piece of a fossil specimen block. The remainder of the block is attached to the machine arm, near a saw blade. The saw is in a green, high-edged container, with murky water at the bottom.

The cut is finished. The glass slide with the thin slice of rock and fossil is still attached to the arm while I hold the remaining block. On both surfaces, the paler, circular fossil jellyfish can be seen. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A saw in a green, high-edged container with a blue blade on the left side, and an orange-ish blade on the right side.

The saw, with the cutting blade on the left and the polishing wheel on the right. The gauge in the middle indicates the thickness of the slide being polished. The slide will now be moved to the right-hand arm of the thin section machine, where it is polished on a diamond wheel. Image: © Manitoba Museum

Gloved fingers carefully holding the edges of a fossil slice.

The fossil has been cut and partially polished so thin that light begins to pass through it. It is nearly thin enough for microscopic study. The final hand polishing will be done by the Curator, using a slurry of fine grit on a glass plate. The slide is then placed in a protective envelope. In this example, the fossil is near the top left corner of the slide. Some of the internal features are a dark reddish colour, due to the presence of iron oxide. The faint pale outline is the edge of the jellyfish’s bell. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A fossil block laid on a metallic surface. The top fo the block is smooth from a fresh cut. On the short side is written a size scale, showing 5-25 mm in 5 mm increments.

The newly exposed cut surface is re-polished, and the whole process is repeated. Depending on how deep into the rock it goes, each block can yield 4 to 6 thin sections, creating thin slices that are just two millimetres apart. If a new fossil appears, we keep making thin sections. If the fossil disappears, one more slide is made to confirm that we have reached the end of sectioning for that specimen. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A thinnly slices fossil specimen with light shining through from behind. A jellyfish bell is in the centre.

Light passes through a finished thin section, revealing such intricate details as the rust coloured internal canals (due to the presence of iron oxide), and the margin of the bell with faint traces of its tentacles around the outer edges. Ruler is in millimetres. Image: © Manitoba Museum

After sectioning, the slide is scanned on a photographic flatbed scanner. A computer program then digitally assembles the thin section photos for each jellyfish to generate a 3-D image of the body, including internal structures and in some cases, tentacles.

Glass Menageries

A wood and glass parlour case containing several dozen preserved animal specimens posed around a tree branch and ground reconstruction.

Amongst the many and varied Natural History Collections at the Manitoba Museum, is a most unusual collection of ‘cases’. These unique display cases of glass panels held together by dark varnished wood frames, are commonly known as parlour cases. The contents combine the artistry of fabricating faux habitats, with the expertise of creating life-like mounts through taxidermy. Some are as small as to only contain a single mounted Least Weasel, others are several feet tall, and may contain dozens of birds and mammals.

Parlour cases became highly popularized during the Victorian era, from about the early to mid 1800s into the early 1900s. This was a heightened time in the discovery of the natural world, and also coincided with, and was stimulated by, the great scientific exploration voyages of Darwin, and his contemporaries. Parlour cases were born out of this time of fascination and the desire to collect and display specimens.

It was commonplace to display these cases in the reception parlours of well-to-do households, thus the name. Owning and displaying these in your private collection reflected on their owners as having attained a certain level of good taste, intellect, and an aire of affluence; “parlour cred” if you will.


A true menagerie – this beautiful example of a traditional parlour case was donated to the Museum in 1973. Image: © Manitoba Museum, MM 3-6-501 to 3-6-532

However, displaying taxidermy mounts was a practice not only reserved for the rich. They were also displayed in schools for educational purposes, and in the houses of commoners, possibly to demonstrate hunting prowess, or as an attempt to be perceived as affluent.

A wood and glass display case containing a pair of Woodcocks, tawny birds with long thin beaks.

This very simply prepared case of Woodcocks was possibly a grade school project – see label “Presented by Dudley Fraser”, date unknown. Image: © Manitoba Museum, MM 3-6-5578, 5579

Early taxidermists were indeed artists and masters of many trades. Expert taxidermists of the time would have been in demand and could command high prices for commissioned work. Not only would they need to know the techniques involved to properly preserve the skin, but they must also have knowledge of anatomy, and aspects of animal behavior. It is extremely difficult to obtain the exact correct posture, or facial expression to match the particular theme of the case, whether it be animals at ease, or reconstructing a predator-prey scenario.

A blue jay specimen posed on a tree branch with wings partially extended and head tilted up with open beak.

Excellent taxidermy of a Blue Jay that mimics John J. Audubon’s artistic vision. Image: © Manitoba Museum, MM 3-6-476

An artist's drawing of two blue jays on a tree branch. The lower of the two birds is posed with wings partially extended and head tilted up with open beak.

Plate 102, from John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-1838). Image: National Audubon Society

Knowledge of ecosystems must also be appreciated. For example, which animals and plants would actually be found together in the same habitat, or even in the same season. This knowledge and skill executed in taxidermy scenes, and even the large dioramas in our museum, makes for a highly believable portrayal.

However, some of parlour cases ignored that concept of realism out-right and had mounts of birds and/or mammals that would never have seen each other in a given day, or even in a lifetime.

A bull elk is situated in a parkland habitat full of grasses, herbs, shrubs and trembling aspen trees in the fall at the Birdtail Valley in Riding Mountain National Park.

Expertly prepared life mount of an Elk. This diorama in the Museum’s Parklands Gallery depicts rutting season in Riding Mountain National Park. Image: © Manitoba Museum

A wood and glass parlour case containing a Goshawk specimen standing over its prey, a Vesper sparrow, in a snowy landscape.

Goshawk with Vesper Sparrow prey is an example of two species that might not encounter each other in a North American winter. Image: © Manitoba Museum, MM 3-6-534, 536

Recently, we had to move our entire collection of large parlour cases from where they were stored in our main collections storage vault. Long tracks of ducting were being installed for the new environmental control unit, and we wanted these far from any danger. We took advantage of this move to inspect, photograph, clean, repair (if necessary), and ensure the database information was complete for each one of these large, fragile cases. The taxidermy specimens, faux substrate, glass panels, and the wood framing were expertly cleaned and repaired by the Museum’s conservator Carolyn Sirett.

Two photographs of the same parlour case side-by-side. In the photo on the left, the glass is opaque and white masking tape holds the front panel in place. On the right the glass and case are clean and the tape has been removed.

Before conservation treatment photograph on the left shows the old masking tape “holding” the glass panel in place, and the after conservation treatment photograph on the right shows a much improved parlour case that has been cleaned and repaired. Image: © Manitoba Museum, Parlour Case #3

A close-up on an ermine specimen with teeth bared.

During conservation treatment, the cases were also tested for the presence of arsenic. We were not surprised to find that many of the specimens tested positive.  Now that specimens have been identified, we take extra precautions when we have to handle them, such as wearing gloves and masks.

Arsenic was a common and favoured compound used by taxidermists from the late 1700s to at least the 1980s.  Eventually its use was banned due to its high toxicity to humans. It was prepared as an arsenical soap, and applied to the inside of prepared skins that not only preserved the skin, but also provided protection of the mount from insect damage.  This is the reason why so many of the old taxidermy mounts have survived in such splendid condition!


GUILTY! Ermine mount tested positive for arsenic! Image: © Manitoba Museum, MM 24116

Janis Klapecki

Janis Klapecki

Collections Management Specialist – Natural History

Janis Klapecki obtained a B.Sc. from the University of Manitoba, specializing in Zoology and Botany. She also holds a certificate in Managing Natural History Collections from the University of Victoria, BC. Janis retired from the Manitoba Museum in January 2024….
Meet Janis Klapecki