Behind The Scenes, 20 March 2019: The secret life of pickles
by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History
Behind the scaffolding our curators are working feverishly on the new galleries that you’ll be able to see when The Box opens next year. For me, as natural history curator, this means working on an enormous range of specimens. From pinned insects to beautiful minerals, and age-old fossils to stuffed birds. There will be a stunning variety of life on display!
Preparing the new galleries involves a huge variety of tasks, including developing the stories, choosing the specimens to tell those stories, writing labels, working with the designers and developing a number of digital interactives. All these different elements are separate ingredients which will come together to make a really delicious cake (aka visitor experience) that will be enjoyed by everyone!
There’s an unsung hero amongst all this work on the galleries: conservation – the care of the collections and the preparation of them for display. It’s something that doesn’t always get talked about and it’s rarely something the public sees but it’s so important.
Collections can be fragile and the conservation team works with curators to assess whether a specimen is in the right condition for display. Sometimes things may need a little work, like dusting, retouching or reattaching broken parts.
Amongst hundreds of other specimens, the gallery I’m in charge of will be displaying over 400 spirit preserved specimens (what we call the ‘pickle collection’). These 400 examples are a small fraction of the scientifically and historically important ‘pickle’ collection we have in Plymouth.
In 2000 the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom donated a large collection of pickled marine animals to Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. The donation of around 3000 jars holds specimens collected along the Plymouth coast dating back to 1888.
One of the stories I want to share in the new gallery is the richness of life along our coastline. It’s difficult for us to know how pollution and climate change is affecting life, when it’s hidden beneath the waves. Using our pickled marine specimens shows that richness better than any photo could. It will help show how fragile it is too.
Lots of these specimens are very old – some are more than a century old. I’ve been working to make them ready for display and we were kindly provided with some lab space at the University of Plymouth, where I was able to work on them.
I’ve been trained in how to carry out this specialist conservation work, which involves dangerous chemicals, old specimens and very fragile labels. Risk assessments were completed to make sure all the work was carried out safely!
Some of the old jars had little fluid left in them. In some cases they had no fluid at all. In others the fluid was horribly discoloured. This specialist conservation work involved transferring the specimens into new jars, and going through several procedures to ensure they were properly preserved in the new alcohol.
It’s not an easy job and each specimen takes time but it’s extremely satisfying to see the end result. That beautiful marine creature, over a hundred years old, now safely preserved in a new jar. With 400 of these on display in the new gallery it’s going to look pretty impressive.