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Collections on the move: Our Skulls are Precious

09 Jun 2017

Susan Isaac

Skulls: 1 SkullJohn Hunter is famed for his experiments in comparative anatomy, which enabled the study of the similarities and differences in the anatomy of different species. The Hunterian Collection contains approximately 3,500 specimens and preparations from his original collection. The 28 large animal skulls from this collection have been displayed in the Crystal Gallery in the Hunterian Museum to show Hunter’s work on large animals. They were taken down in preparation for the recent Transplantation Exhibition but we are planning to continue to display the skulls in the new museum space when we reopen in 2020. You can read more about the plans for the new museum in an earlier blog post, “How Project Transform will improve RCS’s Library, Museums and Archives Services”.

Skulls 2: Martyn

The skulls were mounted above the lower display cases in the Crystal Gallery, sitting on purpose built mounts within large front opening cases. A scaffolding platform was used to safely remove the skulls which are both heavy and bulky. In this video clip, Martyn Cooke, Head of Conservation Unit, can be seen moving the mandible of an elephant from the mount in the display case onto the scaffold platform. The platform is then lowered to the floor and the skull moved onto a hydraulic trolley to be transferred to the workroom. It’s important that, at every stage, the skull is supported in what is a precarious working space. This stage of the packing process was difficult but completed fairly quickly.

Once in the workroom, each skull is measured so that a customer-built crate can be made for it. The crates are wooden and made in such a way that the skull can be safely accessed by removing the top or any side of the crate. The wood is painted with an acrylic coating to seal it, stopping naturally occurring gases in the wood building up over the closure period and damaging the specimens.

Skulls 4: Skull packed

The base of the crate is lined with Plastazote foam to cushion the skull. This material has been engineered to be both light and strong, making it particularly suitable for this type of work. Wooden supports and bracing are built and edged with more Plastazote foam to provide support for the skull, ensuring that it won’t move during transport. This is vital because, no matter how carefully the crates are moved, the vehicles used to transport them can still encounter speed bumps!

Skulls 5: Workroom

Skulls 6: Museum measuringOne box will usually be used to house each skull, but in cases where the skull has a mandible a second box may be built depending on the size or weight. The mandible, or jawbone, is the largest, strongest and lowest bone in the face. In the case of an elephant with all the teeth in place the mandible is surprisingly heavy. This is one of the cases when a separate crate has been made.

The crates will now be stored before being transported into temporary accommodation until we are ready to return to our Lincoln’s Inn Fields home. We will be posting more stories on the progress of this massive project - look out for the tagline “Collections on the move” and please get in touch if you have any questions or to leave us a comment.

You can find out more information on the future of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields building here. Or read “How to move an elephant” to learn about more of Hunter’s collection of specimens.

Susan Isaac, Information Services Manager

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