Hand-sewing hide and inventing new filling materials from a mix of the finest Japanese tissue and artificial sausage casing is all in a day's work for Museum Conservator Valerie Tomlinson. In this blog, Valerie details the work involved in getting two enormous beasts ready for their close-ups.

Early 2021 will see the opening of Imaginarium, a new series of learning galleries that will be home to hundreds of collection objects, some of which have been under wraps for many years. In preparation for this big reveal, thousands of collection items had to be reviewed, selected, and assessed for condition.

If an object was chosen for the new displays, it would then need to undergo the relevant conservation treatment. Such a big job demanded a dedicated Gallery Renewal team, so a group of contract conservators was hired and set to work busily assessing and treating the many specimens and collection objects – from antelopes to ants and everything in between – chosen to go out in the new galleries and displays.

The team’s amazing work was well underway but, unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic caused the work to grind suddenly to a halt in March. You can’t work from home when you’re conserving a full-sized bull moose – Zoom just doesn’t cut it – and you can’t simply pack it in your bag and take it home with you. In the financial climate of the pandemic, when the contracts of the team brought in to carry out the work ended, all unfinished work fell to the four permanent conservators at the Museum.

This is where the moose entered my life.

Meeting the moose

Alces alces, or Moose, had already been well looked after by the head conservator of the specialist team. It came into the lab with numerous large holes and tears in its face, but there just wasn’t enough skin left to completely close the large losses. This presented a problem for the Exhibitions and Display teams: the new display had the moose in a prominent location, at a height where the missing patches would be visible front-and-centre.


Alces alces, or Moose

From a conservation perspective, the treatment my predecessor applied was perfect: the object was stable and no longer falling apart; all of the original object had been preserved without removing or replacing any parts; no re-interpretation of the history of the object was being done by the treatment. It was an honest representation of the original object. From a display perspective, however, the moose still looked a little moth-eaten.


The moose before any treatment.

The moose after its first conservation treatment.

The request I received stated that the repairs were failing in a few places and asked if I could just pull the skin together a bit better. Now, museum conservators can perform some magical repairs sometimes but conjuring something that isn’t there is not something we can do. There was no spare skin to pull together and hide the holes and besides, I could also see that the earlier repairs were stable enough and there were no significant fails in them.

I could have just sent the moose back and said it was as good as it was going to get. As luck would have it, I had been searching around the leather crafters in Auckland to see what species of ungulate (hoofed mammal) hide I could locate and found a very helpful leather crafter in South Auckland who said he had some deer hide offcuts that I could have if I wanted them.

This presented some opportunities, and also some decisions. I could use the deer fur to fill the gaps in the moose’s face but, as conservators, we try only to preserve what is still there and make it last as long as possible, not re-interpret history for viewers. For example, if you take an antique car and replace the worn out engine, the rusted out body parts, the cracked leather seat and repaint the peeling old paint, at what point does it stop being an antique car, and start being an artist’s interpretation of an old car? Using the deer hide would make it “restoration”, where we try to make something old look like it did when it was new.

However, there are cases where, as conservators, we are allowed to add fill material and cover over gaps, especially if it helps support and stabilise the original artefact. The fills I was thinking of fell in the grey area in between conservation and restoration, but they would improve the display of the moose immensely.


Getting to work

First, I outlined the size and shape of the holes in the moose’s face on a sheet of plastic. Taking care to note the grain direction, length, and colour of the fur, I used this outline to cut fills of deer hide. I shaved down the thickness of the leather to make it easier to fit the piece to shape and hide the edges. Using ethanol-soluble fabric dyes, I tinted the fur to match the various shades on the moose’s face more closely. The deer fur was more speckled in appearance than the moose fur, but at museum light levels, and from the distance in the display cases, this would be difficult to see.


The moose with the losses highlighted in red (on the image - not on the moose itself).

Then, with much regret, I had to destroy the beautiful work of the previous conservator. She had tacked the fur down over the edges of the losses in the skin to make them less visible, but I had to lift the edges up in order to slide the deer hide patches underneath to help disguise the join. I finished up by adhering the patches in place.


The moose after its final treatment.

I left the holes in the upper areas of the moose face unfilled, partly because those holes were smaller, but mainly because those areas would be less visible from the angle of viewing.


So when Te Whiwhinga, Imaginarium, opens in February, hunt out the moose in Curious Collections display cases and take a very close look. See if you can tell which parts of the moose are actually deer!

No fake gnus at Auckland Museum

The next ungulate needing some attention was Connochaetes taurinus, the Blue Wildebeest or Gnu. This is a full-size adult beest and at a towering two metres tall it just managed to scrape through the doorways and elevators to get into the Museum’s conservation labs.

Decades spent within the controlled humidity levels of the museum had resulted in the gnu’s skin shrinking with age and splitting from head to tail, leaving a gap several centimetres wide. To make matters worse, the original taxidermy mount was only meant to be seen from one side, so no effort had been made to hide an unsightly seam up the right-hand side of the neck and face. The gnu had been designated a “hero” object by exhibition designers and was intended to be the focus of a walk-around display where it would be admired from all sides.

The split in the gnu ran from head to tail.

Like with the moose, the skin will never be able to be brought back together invisibly. To fix the gaps, I used a combination of artificial sausage casing (synthetic collagen formed into a tube-shaped skin) and extremely fine Japanese tissue, a long-fibre, traditional paper, which is very thin and very strong. These were cut into strips, covered with a particular adhesive and allowed to dry. Small strips of this material were adhered behind each side of the split in the gnu’s skin. When dry, I pulled the tabs on either side of the split together as much as possible and adhered together. 

There was still a significant gap left between the sides of the split. This was filled with a custom-designed filler that I created and tested for the purpose of filling gaps in gnus. I then tinted this with acrylic paints to a generic gnu-coloured background shade.


(Left) Strips adhered together to close the gap; (Right) Tinted infills on the belly.

I considered flocking in (dipping individual hairs in glue and gluing them in place) some of the tinted deer fur sourced for the repairs of the moose mentioned in the last part, but after asking Conservation and Display colleagues to weigh-in with their opinion on fur versus no-fur, I decided to leave the bald spots as-is. 


Valerie consults with her Collection Care colleagues.

The Blue Wildebeest will feature in one of the enormous new Curious Collections display cases and take a very close look. Have a look from all sides and admire Valerie's work!


You can see more of the work going on in the new Conservation Lab on Stuff.co.nz here.