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Rock collections in the UK are an asset worth millions of pounds. Many exploration companies drill into the Earth’s crust and extract cores for analysis – often at a cost of around £1,000 per meter of core. These provide the basic information before a commercial case for mining or extraction can be made and form part of the companies’ commercial archives.

Museums also look after collections and many hold large numbers of valuable geological samples. A common misconception is that rocks are stable, they do not decay or get eaten by pests. Which is why fossils, minerals and rocks surely must be easy to look after.

But think of minerals found in caves or mines: not just dark, but also cold and damp. Many hydrated minerals occur here, for example melanterite or halotrichite. Take them out of the mine, put them in a museum store where they are protected and well looked after – and they will dehydrate. Lose water molecules, decay, and are lost.

There are many similar examples. Depending on the mineral species they will take up or lose water molecules, recrystallize into something else, react with air pollutants or oxygen. A bewildering range of chemical processes can lead to the destruction of geological specimens. Fossils are affected, too: lovely pyritised ammonites turn to dust. Many specimens of scientific or historic importance can be lost in this way.

Museums do their best to halt the decay but are hampered in their efforts by many questions yet unanswered. What levels of indoor air pollutants are safe for geological collections and how good do our air filtration systems need to be? At what point do museum conservators need to deal with a specimen damaged by chemical reactions? How do we even monitor collections of tens of thousands of specimens for damage routinely?

These and many other related questions will be investigated in a new research project at National Museum Cardiff. A recent pilot study (manuscript in preparation) demonstrated the complexity of potentially damaging processes in a typical museum store that are thought of usually as benign. Further expertise in the form of academic and industrial partners is now sought to develop the potential for addressing elementary questions of appropriate storage of geological collections.

The knowledge generated by this project will be of wide-ranging interest to cultural institutions and industrial companies alike. Scientific specimens and commercial collections will be kept safe with the set of guidelines and standards which the project will develop. We will have the proper tools to enable us to care for our geological heritage appropriately - whether kept in museums or as commercial assets.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

 

 

This week is Chemistry Week and our Preventive Conservation team got involved. Two local high schools (St Teilo’s Church in Wales High School and Cardiff High School) were invited to participate in a workshop with live demonstrations and hands-on activities.

We organized the workshop in a collection store and one of our analytical laboratories at National Museum Cardiff. Neither space is laid out for large numbers of people and it’s always a bit of a squash. But once we had squeezed the last of the year 12 and 13 students into each room and closed the doors, there was no escaping the exciting world of analytical chemistry.

The students learned about Wales’s largest and most important mineral collection, the challenges of caring for it, and some of the analytical tools that help us: X-Ray diffraction (XRD), gas detection tubes, infrared spectroscopy (IR) and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). The XRD is part of the National Museum's own analytical facilities, operated by Tom Cotterell and Amanda Valentine-Baars in the Mineralogy/Petrology section. The other two technologies are covered by the curriculum and the students enjoyed the opportunity to prepare real samples, analyse them and interpret the results. To them, this made the subject a lot more real than just learning about them from books. It was also important that the analyses were undertaken not simply as a method per se, but in the context of answering genuine research questions at the museum.

What does chemistry have to do with the care of collections? We undertake our own research on objects and specimens in the collections, and we collaborate with researchers at universities. In addition, the act of preserving our common heritage often throws up problems, as objects degrade and conservators need to work out why, and how to stop the degradation.

Often we cannot do this on our own, in which case we work with partners to investigate, for example, the corrosivity potential of indoor pollutants and their effect on mineral specimens in storage at National Museum Cardiff. These partners include Cardiff University’s Schools of ChemistryEngineering and History, Archaeology and Religion (Conservation Department).

One of these collaborations sparked yesterday’s schools engagement project, run in conjunction with the museum's Conservation and Natural Sciences departments and kindly supported and funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry (South East Wales Section). The Royal Society of Chemistry provided an entire bench full of portable analytical equipment for the day, which the society's Education Coordinator, Liam Thomas, set up in the Mineral Store. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the project, additional support came from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

 

The @CardiffCurator Twitter account tweets the latest news, research and events from the Natural Sciences Department at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales. This can be anything from shells, insects, plants and fossils to minerals and birds. From specimens in our collections, to an insight of the research that happens every day just beyond the museum gallery walls. So what are our followers most interested in?

Here's a look back at the TOP TWEET and TOP MEDIA TWEET of each month during 2016 from the the account: TOP TWEETS 2016

 

One of the many challenges curatorial departments face, especially within the natural sciences, is making specimens that are stored in our collections accessible to the wider public in a form where they can get a real sense of the what these specimens actually look and feel like. There is no real substitute for having specimens on display in the galleries and being able to see the texture, shape and scale at first hand, but this not always possible as gallery space is limited and only a tiny proportion of the 3 million specimens we hold in our natural sciences collections can ever be out on display at any one time.   

The Museum is undertaking a large-scale project to make our collections visible online in terms of collection data and images, but an exciting technique is now allowing us to produce and display 3D models of our specimens in fantastic detail, which is probably the closest you can get to having the specimen in front of you.

3D scanning has been around for sometime now. Back in 2012, the Geology Department (now part of the Natural Sciences Department) was a lead partner in a JISC-funded project to digitise all Type fossils held in the UK. Many of our type fossils were scanned in 3D during this project and are avalible to view on the website (3d-fossils.ac.uk). However, the technology for 3D scanning has moved on rapidly in the time since, and we are fortunate to now have the one of the the most up-to-date 3D scanners available at present - the Artec Spider HD. Our new scanner allows us the capture detail beyond the level we could previously achieve, and in much less time.

The Museum now has a presence on the popular 3D model web platfom SketchFab, which is host to thousands of models produced by the public as well as other museums and galleries across the world. Making the 3D models we produce available on the is platform allows us to promote our collections to a large audience who although may already be engaged in 3D modelling, may not necessarily be engaging with museums.

Dracoraptor hangani by Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales on Sketchfab

By no means would we expect to create models of our entire collections (the time and resources required would be huge!) but scanning some of our more scientifically important or, perhaps, charismatic specimens allows us to get parts of our collections out there for the public to engage with in a new way.

We are still learning the capabilities (and limitations) of our new scanner, and discovering which specimens and objects are best suited for scanning, but over the coming months more models will be added to the museum sketchfab site and will begin to be integrated into our own online collection websites.  

When you turn a corner in our Evolution of Wales galleries don’t be surprised if you find Dracoraptor hangani, the new Welsh dinosaur, peering down on you from its perch on a rock.

The skeleton of this small meat eating dinosaur, currently on display in the Main Hall at National Museum Cardiff, has fascinated the public, but palaeontologists at Amgueddfa Cymru wanted a life-like model of the animal to really show how it looked when it was alive 200 million years ago in the Jurassic.

Bob Nicholls, a Bristol–based palaeo-artist, was commissioned to undertake this task. First Bob had to undertake extensive research to enable him reconstruct the dinosaur. He examined the bones and drew an anatomically accurate skeleton, comparing it to other species. He then added the soft tissue and considered how it would have lived before making an anatomically accurate model using steel, polystyrene, and clay. This was then moulded and a cast made of fibreglass and resin.

It was important to make sure that the reconstruction was as scientifically accurate as possible. Palaeontologists think that the body might have been covered in a feathery down, and possibly with quills along its back and Bob carefully applied feathers to the surface of the model and long quill-like feathers on the back, tail and neck. This was a meticulous process because they all had to be attached in a way that looked natural.

The project took over three months of painstaking work and after it was completed Bob said “There is no greater honour for a palaeo-artist than to be the first to show the world what a long extinct animal looked like”.

The result is incredible - you can imagine Dracoraptor jumping down into the gallery and running around.