From Wirelesses to Wagtails – a conservator’s lot

1. Pickled Jellyfish and other party snacks

Welcome Facebook followers to my new blog, in which I will endeavour to unfold the mysteries of the work carried out “behind the scenes” at our museum sites.  The title “From Wirelesses to Wagtails” is a nod to the diverse range of artefacts we house here and they are a veritable pot-pourri of delights (although some of them don’t actually smell so good!).

As museums conservator and part of the curatorial team, I am responsible for the continuing care and preservation of the collections, ensuring they are stored safely and displayed beautifully.  It’s a strange old job with no one day the same, but extremely rewarding when the fruits of our team’s labours can be appreciated and enjoyed by our visitors.


Some of the strangest artefacts we have here are what I like to call our “pickled pets” and before I feel the sharp daggers of disapproval thrust between my shoulder blades from the Natural History curators out there, I use this term affectionately for a rather unloved section of the museum collections community – the spirit / wet collections, i.e. specimens preserved in fluid.  These collections are important and preserving such delicate items (and in the case of plankton samples, miniscule ones at that!) is a skilled job.


We have a relatively small collection, the majority of which are preserved in an alcohol solution (Industrial Methylated Spirit and water) but there are many older specimens that belong to the Damien Hirst School of formaldehyde preservation and it is these that we must treat with the most caution.

Before the discovery of formaldehyde in 1859 by a Russian chemist, specimens were preserved in concoctions such as “spirit of wine” and apparently some of the best preserved DNA has been found in specimens over 100 years old, preserved in this wine-based solution!  (I know what I’ll be doing after work this evening – preserving myself in a cheeky bottle of Pinot; you can’t argue with science!)

Formaldehyde-based preserving solutions were a popular choice for this type of work as they not only preserved the specimen but had a fixative quality that kept the tissues firm, thus holding the original shape of the creature or plant and preventing shrinkage.  Stored in glass or jars or Perspex containers, these specimens are kept for scientific purposes and certainly for marine flora and fauna, storage in fluid is the only way to keep them.  However, when it comes to their on-going care, this type of collection can prove very challenging as there are health and safety concerns when working with chemical solutions and the processes involved in changing or topping up a specimen’s mixture are complex.


Along with my current conservation volunteer, Felicity, who is a very experienced conservator of Natural History specimens, we are carrying out an audit of our wet collections in order to ascertain what state they are in.  We have created a comprehensive list which includes the specimen type, details of where it was collected, historical / scientific information and very importantly, what it is preserved in.  Once listed we can categorise the collection and identify which ones are a conservation priority and which ones are well and truly past their sell-by date!  Fortunately, so far the majority of the collection is absolutely fine, so that’s one less sleepless night for the curatorial department!

It is a fascinating, if a little stomach-churning, aspect of museum work and gives for a somewhat eerie feeling in the lab at the moment, as I literally do have several sets of lifeless eyes burning into the back of my neck! I have attached some images which I hope won’t give anyone nightmares but will give an insight into the Natural History collections at Southend.


Next time I will be sharing with you some of the work that still continues with the Beecroft Gallery’s art collection whilst the doors are temporarily closed – See you soon!