Post by Carolyn Sirett, Conservator
Legacies of Confederation: A New Look at Manitoba History, tells many inspiring stories and is supported by several amazing artifacts and specimens. Most visitors to the Museum do not get to see what happens behind-the-scenes in order to prepare our artifacts and specimens for display. Research is compiled, design and layouts are created, condition reports are completed, mounts are built, and in some cases, conservation treatments are performed in order to ensure the safe display of the Museum’s collections.
A significant specimen in the Legacies exhibition is the bison head mount seen in the Discovery Room. Prior to the installation and opening of this exhibition, this taxidermy mount spent about two months undergoing conservation treatment and preparation so that it could be safely displayed.
Before treating the specimen, I conducted research on the history of taxidermy from 1911-1912, the time period when the mount was created by Winnipeg taxidermist E.W. Darbey (You can find out more about this specimen in the Curator of Zoology, Dr. Randy Mooi's blog). This research helped me to better understand the material make-up and structure of the specimen. I then completed a condition assessment which revealed that repairs to the ears, mouth, neck, cape, and the wooden backing board would be needed before it could be exhibited.
The ears of the specimen showed the most visible damage in the form of extreme shrinkage, which resulted in a number of tears and splits in the surface.
The skin had shrunk so much that the internal structure of the taxidermy mount was exposed.
I was able to repair this damage by cutting the exposed wire framework to the surface of the skin without damaging the hide. I then used a piece of Japanese tissue paper sized to cover the split in the skin and in-painted the tissue with watercolours to match the surrounding hide. Using a conservation grade heat-set adhesive, the Japanese tissue paper was adhered in place and set with a tacking iron. The final touches to the ears included placing a few strands of bison fur from a sample to produce a consistent look to the area.
In addition to the ear repair, a large hole in the neck was infilled with plaster, years of dust and dirt was removed, and the original wooden backing board was consolidated.
Before being selected to be part of the Legacies exhibition, this specimen spent most of its time in storage lying flat. But now, visitors to the Museum can see the specimen as it was intended, wall-mounted vertically.
On the day of installation, it took four installation staff to lift this nearly 100-pound specimen into position – five feet in the air. Today, as a feature piece within this exhibition, the bison head mount demonstrates its iconic significance to Manitoba’s history.
The Museum’s Conservation Department is charged with ensuring the long-term preservation of the Museum’s collections by mitigating deterioration before it begins, and responding to damage when required.
Post by Karen Sereda, Collections Registration Associate (Natural History)
Where do all the dead animals come from?
This is a common question we get at the Museum. People sometimes think that Museum staff regularly go out and kill birds and other animals for displays. This is not the case. Birds for example, sometimes accidentally fly into windows and die. We call these “window strikes”. If someone noticed at the time, they may go and pick the dead bird up, put it in a bag and freeze it. At a later date, that person might bring the bird to the Museum. If the Curator of Zoology, Dr. Randy Mooi, accepts the bird as a donation, then it is thawed and a bird skin is made.
The Museum's Diorama and Collections Technician prepares bird skins from the donated “window strikes”. You can read more about the preparation of bird skins in this blog by Debbie Thompson.
Once the bird skin is dry, the pins can be removed and the specimen is catalogued. The information or as we call it, “the data”, associated with a specimen is just as important to us as the bird itself. When I get a bird skin to catalogue the first thing I usually do is find the donor form, and then look up its name. Dr. Mooi would have already determined its scientific name. The bird is assigned a catalogue number, and its taxonomic classification is confirmed.
Where, when and by whom the bird was collected is important information to know. Sometimes the person collecting the bird may have noted the time of day or what the bird was eating, or other interesting information about that particular bird. Donor information is also recorded. All this information makes up the data that is then entered into our digital database.
So why do we collect bird skins?
Collecting birds, or any other natural history specimen, is a record of where and when a particular organism lived. Bird distributions are known to change. Having a particular bird specimen is physical evidence of a bird living in a particular area. This is sometimes a record of how birds have expanded into new areas, or may have become less common in other areas.
Also, not all birds of one species will look exactly the same. Even though they might be of a similar age and sex, birds can be different sizes, and exhibit different colour variations.
Sometimes samples are taken to test for DNA or other chemicals. This is how it was discovered that use of the pesticide DDT was causing the decline of certain species of predatory birds, such as eagles. The decline was because DDT accumulated in the parent birds, and caused thinning of bird egg shells. Then less baby birds would hatch successfully.
So, we never know, someday in the future those birds we collect might serve an unexpected purpose.
Post by Nancy Anderson, Collections Management Associate (Human History)
When the weather turns cold many of us pull out handcrafted quilts and afghans. The comfort they bring often goes beyond the mere physical and can make us feel as if the people that created them are enveloping us in a warm and loving hug. Recently, a very special quilt was donated to the Manitoba Museum. One of thousands sent overseas by the Canadian Red Cross during the Second World War to provide warmth and comfort, it has now returned home to Manitoba nearly 75 years later.
The story of the quilt begins in Steep Rock, Manitoba where local women would have been part of a network of participants in the Red Cross “Women’s War Work” sewing and knitting program. It was likely sorted and packed at a Red Cross facility before being shipped overseas and on to the Dudley Road Hospital in Birmingham. There, a Matron passed the quilt on to Cynthia (Betty) Craddock sometime towards the end of the war. Betty worked as a lathe operator making tank parts in a factory in Coventry. Her husband Joe had completed apprenticeship as a painter and decorator and then was called up for the army in 1940. He worked as a cook for the Army Intelligence Corp, serving in England and Wales. Joe reached the continent just after D-Day and was among the first troops in Belgium. They had married in 1943 and were together for over 70 years. Their only son Anthony was born in 1945.
Following the war, the family moved to Kenilworth and the quilt went along with them. Britain was recovering from the war and rationing was still in place. Joe was working to start his own business. Anthony’s earliest memories are “of this quilt being on my bed and keeping me warm when times were hard.” He recalls that, “with no central heating, frost would often appear on the inside of the window.” The young Anthony was amazed by the colours and patterns and remembers reading the message on a tag on one corner of the quilt, “Gift Canadian Red Cross, Steep Rock Man. Can.”
The Canadian Red Cross Society was founded in 1896. The purpose of the Society, as set out in its 1909 Act of Incorporation, was “to furnish volunteer aid to the sick and wounded of armies in time of war”. Following WWI, the Red Cross expanded its role into public health, especially in remote or newly settled areas of Canada. The two mandates merged in WWII as the Red Cross worked with military personnel and civilian victims of the war. On the home front, countless volunteers worked to high standards creating supplementary hospital and relief supplies.
The Canadian Red Cross Society distributed patterns and lapel pins to volunteers in the “Women’s War Work” program.
Impressed by the workmanship in the quilt, Betty kept it safely in a cupboard for many years. Last year, after Joe’s death, Betty was having a sort out and Anthony saw the quilt for the first time in many years. As the memories came flooding back, they decided that the quilt should be sent home and contacted the museum.
Now that the quilt has been received into the museum’s collection, Roland Sawatzky, Curator of History is looking forward to sharing it with the community and perhaps learning more about the “hands-on” humanitarians who sewed it. As the women of Steep Rock gathered to create this quilt, I’m sure they would not have imagined that it would be treasured by the receiving family into the next century.
120 Years of the Canadian Red Cross at www.redcross.ca/history/home
Biographical and historical notes provided by Anthony Craddock
Post by Cortney Pachet, Collections Registration Associate (Human History)
Twas the week before Christmas and all through the museum,
Artifacts wondered if visitors would see ‘em.
Some historical treasures sat smug on display,
While other objects remained hidden away.
These ornaments once hung on old Christmas trees,
Some dating as far back as the 1920s!
With the curator in his office and I snug in mine,
I catalogued objects from way back in time.
When deep in the vault, exploring I go,
Finding boxes of Christmas lights from long, long ago.
Quick to the shelf, with nitrile gloved paw,
I admire the condition, in a reverent awe.
The box is pristine, it’s practically new!
A string of Noma lights within, in green, yellow and blue.
When what to my wandering eye should I see?
It’s Frosty the Snowman on small cardboard skis!
Then a large mechanical Santa, who seems truly alive,
Bought in the forties from Eaton’s for two-hundred-seventy-five!
Before Winnipeg, Toronto was where Santa got his kicks
-he decorated the home of a man named F. William Nicks.
The wreaths, the records, the garland and more!
Lovingly bought long ago from a store.
Now all a part of our Christmas collection,
Even some doughy Christmas confection!
And not all the things are from days of yore;
Some come from a time when break dancers tore up the floor!
Cabbage Patch Kids and Snoopy to boot...
Our vault contains all kinds of modern-day loot!
I could go on; our collections are vast,
A sleighful of artifacts from Christmases past!
But alas is time to turn out the light,
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
Toy; Christmas, H9-29-818 ©Manitoba Museum
Wind-up plastic reindeer riding a snowmobile.
Post by Janis Klapecki, Collections Management Specialist (Natural History)
[Note: This blog contains descriptions and images that may not be suitable for sensitive individuals.]
In the Natural Sciences Department, we receive hundreds of specimens each year that will eventually be added to the permanent Scientific Collections. The Curators collect specimens through their many research projects, while other specimens are collected and donated by the general public. Most of these specimens require some very specific and time-consuming preparation before they can be in a state for which a researcher can use them. Fossils are exposed with precision tools, insects are painstakingly pinned, plants are pressed and artfully mounted, and mammal and bird study skins are skillfully prepared (See Debbie Thompson’s blog - https://manitobamuseum.ca/main/a-lasting-legacy-of-a-birds-untimely-death/). Skeletons of vertebrates also require a very specialized preparation process that very few people are witness to.
Silver-haired Bat Skeleton, MM 24215 (Lasionycteris noctivagans) ©Manitoba Museum
Located deep within our Zoology research area is a small room that houses, what we affectionately call the ‘bug tank’. It is actually a metal 45 gallon drum that houses a beetle colony that we use to clean the very small or fragile skeletal specimens that may otherwise be damaged using other cleaning methods. These can include birds, small rodents such as mice and squirrels, snakes, frogs, toads and fish. One of my many tasks here at the Museum is to prepare skeletal specimens and maintain the beetle colony by keeping them healthy and well-fed.
This room is kept locked and access is restricted at all times. This is the 45 gallon metal drum that keeps the beetle colony contained – notice the locked lid. ©Manitoba Museum
The beetle species that we use in our colony is Dermestes maculatus (Identified by Reid Miller, 2016) from the Family: Dermestidae, a group that is commonly referred to as hide beetles. The adult beetles of this species are black in colour and can range in length from 5.5 to 10.0 mm. The larvae are brown in colour, hairy and pass through 5 - 11 instars, before they pupate into adults. They are natural scavengers and feed on a wide variety of material including skin, hair feathers, and natural fibers, such as wool, silk, cotton, and linen. With this in mind, I’m sure you can appreciate how careful we are at the Museum with keeping these beetles contained!
Cedar Waxwing, MM 1-2-5003 (Bombycilla cedrorum) skeleton being cleaned – notice the shed larval casings ©Manitoba Museum
Specimens are readied for the beetle colony by first making sure that all of the data has been recorded, including its weight and the standardized measurements that are taken. The specimen is then de-fleshed by removing most of the muscle tissue, internal organs and eyes. It is then placed in a drying cabinet so the specimen does not introduce mold into the colony. Once completely dried, the skeletons are placed in rows on top of a layer of cotton batting within a cardboard box lid. Each skeleton is placed with enough space between them so that if the beetles move any of the tiny bones while they are cleaning them, they don’t become mixed with the specimen next to it. The cotton batting provides a soft ‘matrix’ that the adult beetles and larvae travel through. I can then stack about 3 to 4 of these trays within the drum, which could translate to approximately 150+ small skeletons in the colony at any given time. Depending how active the colony is, skeletons can be completely cleaned in 7 to 14 days. The “Beetle Room” is kept at a cozy 28°C (83°F) to promote their life cycle and every few days I spray the trays with distilled water for added humidity. Then, I leave them alone to work their magic.
Carefully spaced Garter Snake skeletons ready to be put into the beetle colony ©Manitoba Museum
These are NOT free-range beetles!
Adult beetles and their larvae weave their way through the skeletons seeking food ©Manitoba Museum
The Dermestid beetles and their larva are just one of the types of insects that pose danger to our galleries, and the specimens and artifacts that are stored in the collections storage rooms. To ensure that none of our colony beetles escape, special considerations were built into the room. These beetles can burrow into many surfaces/media, so the walls are cinderblock, sealed with 3 coats of epoxy paint, instead of drywall. I’ve installed a perimeter of yellow tape around the room that has a layer of a sticky product applied to it (this product is similar to ‘Tanglefoot’ that is used to stop the Elm Bark Beetle on trees). The bung holes on the lid of the drum have two layers of fine mesh – this allows air exchange, but they can’t get escape.
Escape Prevention Measures – 3 rows of sticky tape by the door of the bug room, and sticky traps are installed throughout the Museum and monitored. Collections and Conservation staff are always on alert to possible insect activity and have scheduled monitoring throughout the galleries and collections spaces. ©Manitoba Museum
1. A perfectly cleaned Northern Flying Squirrel, MM 9979 (Glaucomys sabrinus) skeleton ready to file in the Collections Room, within an acid-free storage box ©Manitoba Museum
2. Systematic storage of skeletal specimens in our Permanent Scientific Collections Room ©Manitoba Museum
Completed skeleton specimens are given a final cleaning with a small paintbrush to remove any debris or shed larval casings. They are then catalogued, and each bone including the skull and mandible are numbered and placed in an acid-free box with its data label. After a final freezing treatment to be sure they are completely free of anything live, they are ready to be filed into our main Scientific Collections storage room.
These specimens are then available for researchers and educational purposes.
That’s right, boos and ghouls, Hallowe’en is right around the corner! And the History collection at the Manitoba Museum does not disappoint when it comes to its Hallowe’en artifacts. Let’s journey back to a time when homemade popcorn balls and plastic masks with tiny air holes prevailed...
Elaborate costumes and accessories of today’s youth would shock the Trick-or-Treaters of yesteryear. While we don’t have any old sheets with eyeholes cut out by someone’s mum, we do have a selection of masks favoured by kids in the 1970s. Masks were often worn with matching plastic smocks and featured small eyeholes for reduced visibility and a layer of condensation on the inside from the wearer’s laboured breathing as they ran from house to house yelling “Hallowe’en Apples!”
Children’s Hallowe’en Masks (H9-12-28, H9-12-29, H9-12-30 )
Commercial Hallowe’en costumes were being produced as early as 1910, when Massachusetts-based Dennison’s began manufacturing costumes out of paper. This Dennison’s “Gypsy” costume was sold locally at the Ukrainian Booksellers and Publishers store, formerly Ruthenian Booksellers, on Main Street. The costume consists of a skirt, shawl, kerchief, and mask; all made from crêpe paper (so don’t forget to bring your umbrella!).
Dennison's "Gypsy" Party Costume (H9-16-44) ; Adult Woman’s Costume (H9-16-44 2 )
Tricks and Treats
Trick-or-Treaters in 2016 can expect to find toothbrushes and miniature containers of Play Doh amongst the candy in their bags or buckets at the end of the night. In the 1970s, homemade treats and apples were still offered to neighbourhood kids making their rounds on Hallowe’en. A handful of sweet treats might be placed in small paper bags like these ones.
Hallowe’en Treat Bags (H9-33-387, H9-33-388)
Instead of sugary goodies, in the early 20th century, a person could send their best Hallowe’en wishes to their favourite trick-or-treater with a seasonal postcard from the George C. Whitney Company, replete with jack-o’-lanterns and black cats.
Hallowe’en Postcards (H9-36-240, H9-36-241, H9-36-242 )
Plastic or paper, card or candy, the question remains, do you go in for the classic “Trick or Treat” or kick it old school with a sing-songy “Hallowe’een Apples”?
Post by Cortney Pachet, Collections Registration Associate (Human History)
[Note: This blog contains descriptions and images that may not be suitable for sensitive individuals.]
Most people pass by a dead bird, rarely giving it a second thought and leaving it where it lies. But there are many members of the public who notify the Manitoba Museum of the dead birds they do find, often from fatal encounters with windows. The Manitoba Museum appreciates the opportunity to salvage these, as it does not hunt birds to add to its Ornithology collection.
Before I start to process a bird, notes are taken: donor, collector, location, date of acquisition, when it was found and prepared; observations (broken bones, external parasites, molting, etc.); then scientific data, including weight, total length, tail length, wing size, beak and leg length. If possible, sex and age are determined by plumage and feather conditions, which are later confirmed through dissection. I use tools ranging from a simple ruler to surgical blades and scissors.
Tools laid out before beginning work on Palm Warbler © Manitoba Museum
The first incision is along the breast bone, and then I free the skin from the abdominal cavity without puncturing the abdomen. I carefully free one leg at a time, removing muscle from the femur (= thigh bone) and then wrapping it in cotton and pushing it back into place with a bit of borax. The cotton recreates the muscle I have just removed to retain the bird’s natural shape. The borax aids in drying and preservation.
Femur wrapped in cotton © Manitoba Museum
Once both legs are done, I work to free the skin from the rump/back, and then cut through below the pelvic area. The wings are done much the same as the legs. During this whole time, I am constantly taking notes on the amount, colour and location of fat deposits, locations of molting, any old injuries and internal parasites and anything else that may be out of the ordinary.
The pattern on the top of the skull can reveal the age of the bird. If a large area is soft and transparent, the bird is a juvenile; if it’s hard and opaque, it indicates an adult. The brain and the eyes are removed and the skull filled with cotton.
The body is reshaped with cotton wrapped around a wooden dowel and the skin is pulled up around it. The incision along the breast bone and abdomen is sewn up. Often, the feathers need a gentle cleaning, with special attention to primp the plumage. The bird study skin is wrapped in a cloth ribbon to hold the wings in place and is pinned to a foam sheet to dry in a special drier.
Left to right: Palm Warbler (#132 DT) - body cavity filled with cotton; body cavity sewn closed and feathers primpted; study skin wrapped and pinned to foam; finished bird study skin © Manitoba Museum
Using a microscope, I confirm the sex of the bird and measure the testes or ovary. Determining whether the female bird has laid eggs, I search for the nearly invisible oviduct. If it’s straight, then the female hasn’t laid a clutch, but if it appears convoluted, she has laid eggs. I also look for internal parasites (such as roundworms), and then examine the stomach contents, noting everything found within. By far, the scariest of the stomach contents have to be spiders. Eye to eye and larger than life under a microscope, I jump every time I find one!
With patience and respect, it takes about 3 ½ hours to prepare a bird the size of a warbler. The study skin and data collected will aid researchers in the future, and any and all information I am able to collect is invaluable, a lasting legacy of a bird’s untimely death. The contributions to research are greatly enhanced when the public becomes involved, sharing with us their own discoveries and interest in the environment around them.
Post submitted by Debbie Thompson, Diorama and Collections Technician (Natural History)
Over the last few weeks, I have been assigned the task of doing inventory, cataloguing, and condition reporting artifacts in "Amy Galbraith's Dress Shop," in the Museum's Urban Gallery. I have also cleaned and photographed the objects. Through this process I have been delighted to learn more about the history behind the artifacts that we see in this 1920's shop. I thought you might enjoy some of my findings!
Hats were a staple of the 1920's wardrobe. The Dress Shop has nine hats that help to portray life and style during the 1920's. Some of the hats stand out in my memory just because of where they are from. For example, the hat with gold feathers [H9-8-396 (1)] is from Holt Renfrew and the green hat [H9-38-496] is from Eaton’s. With some of the hats, we are lucky enough to have a more detailed recorded history. The pink hat [H9-4-451B(1)], which you can see in the window of the Dress Shop, is also from Eaton’s and it was worn by Miss Hazel McMillan as maid of honour at her twin sister’s wedding in 1929. The one with green chiffon roses [H9-5-147] was worn by Mrs. James A. Richardson during a visit to Buckingham Palace in 1919. These generous donations, which the Museum received in the 1970's, help us to understand and imagine Winnipeg in the 1920s.
From left to right: H9-8-396 (1), H9-38-496, H9-4-451-B (1), H9-5-147 © Manitoba Museum
Strolling through the Urban Gallery, one may not at first realize how many artifacts are in each room. Take another look! Each room is an incredibly detailed portal into Manitoba’s past. The Dress Shop has a number of smaller objects that help to complete the room. These items include hatpins, hairpins, mirrors, shoes, sewing supplies and handkerchiefs. On the counter, there are a number of handkerchiefs. Here are some pictures of some of the handkerchiefs that help add to the 1920's feel of the room.
From left to right: H9-5-4-h, H9-5-4-d © Manitoba Museum
My time at the Manitoba Museum has been filled with learning. Sometimes these moments happen in unexpected places. For me, the Dress Shop has something I had never heard of before. The small bowl with a hole in the centre was a common dressing table item, called a “hair tidy” or “hair receiver” [H9-3-720]. Women used these items to store hair that came out in their brushes or combs. This hair would then be used for different purposes. One thing women would use their hair for was to create hair pieces, or “ratts." These pieces would be added to the elaborate hairstyles of the 1920’s to help give a natural volume. A second thing women would use their hair for was to make pin cushions, as hair is less prickly compared to pinfeathers and the natural oil from the hair would keep the pins in good working order.
Hair Tidy, H9-3-720 © Manitoba Museum
Next time you pass by the rooms in the Urban Gallery make sure to stop and look, you might be surprised at some of the interesting artifacts you can see!
Post submitted by Ellen Stothers, Collections and Conservation Assistant (YCW summer student)
Every object you see when you visit our museum galleries, from tiny insects to the Nonsuch, has a special number assigned to it that helps us to track all its movements and link important information to the object. Assigned at the time the object is accessioned – when it officially becomes part of the museum collection – the catalogue number is always inscribed on the object in an inconspicuous place, which is why you’re not likely to see many of these numbers when viewing an exhibit.
Deciding where and how to apply these numbers is part of my job as the Human History Cataloguer. Methods of applying numbers depend mainly on the nature of the object – paper objects like certificates and books will get a number handwritten in pencil, for instance. A number should be removable, in case the object is deaccessioned, meaning we never ever use permanent marker or a knife to etch the number onto an object. Ok, fine, it’s happened once or twice well before my time. Museum practices have come a long way!
Harpoon Head (HBC 11-59). Catalogue number etched into metal, an example of how not to number an object. © The Manitoba Museum
A recent acquisition of material from the C. Kelekis Restaurant allowed me to practice the primary ways we apply numbers in Human History.
C. Kelekis Restaurant Menu (H9-38-491 A). Paper objects are numbered using a No./HB pencil.
© The Manitoba Museum
The most straightforward and simple application is by good old No. 2/HB Pencil. Pencil can be used on paper, wood, Ivorex or French Ivory, some plastics, unglazed ceramics, etc. All I need is a freshly sharpened pencil and I’m good to go!
Above: A selection of supplies used in the numbering process.
Below: C. Kelekis Restaurant Menu (H9-38-490 A). Catalogue number printed on acid-free paper is applied to this laminated menu with Acryloid B-72. © The Manitoba Museum
For metals, some plastics, glazed ceramics, glass, etc., things are more complicated. I use an in-house produced material called Acryloid B-72 to adhere a number printed on acid-free paper to the object. A second coat of B-72 is applied over the number to seal it. Waiting for everything to dry takes longer, but the number is easy to read and reversible, meaning it can be removed even after a long time.
C. Kelekis Restaurant Souvenir T-shirt (H9-38-489 A). Label with catalogue number is sewn onto garment.
© The Manitoba Museum
In the case of fabrics, such as a garment, flag or pillowcase, the number is written in archival ink on a synthetic fabric, called Hollytex, or cotton twill tape and sewn onto the object with a few quick stitches. I’m sure it goes without saying, sewing with Nitrile gloves on is challenging (one should always avoid getting blood on the artifacts).
Why number an object? The catalogue number itself reveals a lot about an object. It could tell us which department is responsible for the object, when the object was accessioned and even where the object comes from, in the case of archaeological specimens. The catalogue number links the objects to all their information in our collections database. Finally, with large numbers of similar objects (like 2,361 bottles or 688 dolls in our History collection, for instance), the catalogue number allows us to distinguish one object from another. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that is collections management!
Blog submitted by Cortney Pachet, Cataloguer (Human History)
Whenever someone walks into the Conservation lab, they are usually awed at all the scientific equipment. Large wall cabinets filled with chemicals, adhesives, paints, glass beakers and flasks. There is safety equipment, such as fume hoods and spiralling exhaust vents hanging from the ceilings to ensure proper precautions are taken. With this complex system, it looks like conservators are risking their lives every day to preserve and protect cultural heritage. However, I am about to share with you one of our dirtiest cleaning secrets that we keep hidden behind these lab walls.
SALIVA. Yes, that is correct. At some point you’ve probably heard of the saying when cleaning something to give it the old “spit shine.” Although we don’t actually spit on our artifacts, nor do we lick anything, conservators do use their own saliva as one method to clean a number of different types of artifacts. The technique is relatively simple in that a cotton swab is hand rolled onto a wooden probe and lightly dampened by placing the swab into our mouth (generally pre-lunch). The swab is then rolled onto the surface that we are cleaning to remove the desired residue. Tests are always done prior to a full cleaning to make sure that other soluble materials that we want to stay on the artifact don’t get swept away.
Now why this technique is used and how well does it really work? Human saliva is composed of amylase, which is a type of enzyme. Enzymes are used to break down particles depending on their make-up, so in the instance of amylase it helps humans to break down food particles. For conservators, amylase is also very useful in removing built-up grime and dirt that are found on artifacts. The benefit of using “enzymatic cleaning” (a more professional term for those completely grossed out) is that it is readily available, free and does not require us to use large safety equipment such as fume hoods.
As mentioned, a range of artifacts can be cleaned using this technique, including leather, beading, oil paintings and wooden surfaces. Now, I probably wouldn’t recommend trying this at home, as there may be an instance that something gets removed from your precious heirloom that you didn’t want to remove, but you are always welcome to contact a conservator here at the Manitoba Museum, who can advise you on the process first. In the images below, you will see a before and after picture of an oil painting that was recently cleaned using saliva. Happy cleaning!
Fort Garry, 1869
Signed L.-S (likely Lionel Stephenson)
Oil painting on artist's board
Oil painting before treatment. Copyright the Manitoba Museum
Oil painting after treatment using saliva cleaning technique. Copyright the Manitoba Museum
Blog submitted by Carolyn Sirett, Conservator