Think you have a steady hand? Try cleaning the bristles of a 2mm-long fly.
When she was hired, the Collection Care and Conservation team had no idea that their new conservator was an old hand at working with tiny things. In a previous life as a visual artist, Clare Kim created her works using a magnifying glass – miniature pencil drawings of morphing, textual shapes. Now in the lab at the Australian Museum, Clare once again brings her steady hand and lasersharp concentration to minute objects – this time, insect specimens under a microscope.
Clare is undertaking a special job as part of the Museum’s Collection Enhancement Project. Working closely with scientists in the Entomology Collection, Clare is assessing and treating the Museum’s tiniest specimens and preparing them to be photographed for their new digital record. Three years into the project and Clare has examined hundreds of entomology specimens, often just millimetres long, to discern whether they need treatment or if they can be stabilised without excessive intervention.
“There are different reasons as to why we’d be assessing a specimen,” Clare says.
Some are type specimens (the highly valuable specimens used to describe a new species) and require detailed documentation and photography. And some are fragile specimens at risk of being damaged or destroyed by corrosive acids or fungal growth. Clare Kim, Collection Enhancement Conservator, Australian Museum.
“We assess the specimens first to ascertain whether or not they need treatment. Treatment comes with risks. So, if a beetle has lost a leg, for example, but scientists can still study it in parts, the beetle and its leg can simply be safely re-mounted. We will avoid undertaking further intervention if we can.”
The accumulation of verdigris on some specimens is a primary problem. Verdigris is the blue-green substance that seeps out of metal alloys. In museum specimens, a reaction can take place between an old pin that fastens an insect to its label, and the fats and oils from the specimen itself. The result is verdigris and, if left untreated, it can build up and break the fragile creature into pieces.
“We remove the pin. Then we clean the verdigris off the specimen and insert a replacement pin made from stainless steel, or use a conservation-grade adhesive to stick it to a card, if that’s what the entomology team prefers. Every specimen is different!” Fungal growth is another big problem for these little bugs – spores can become active and destroy the specimen. Any fungal growth must be cleaned off. “This is very satisfying,” says Clare with a laugh. “It’s like I’m giving them a shower.”
Australian Museum entomologist Dr Shane McEvey is clearly appreciative of Clare’s skill and patience. “Clare has been tasked with repairing insects in “the hospital drawer,” he says, referring to the specimens that have been damaged while on loan to other institutions for study, or have been identified as being in danger of degradation.
“Cleaning and rearticulating minute animals comes with risks. In flies, the bristles are very important, as they’re often the feature that is used to identify a species. Thinner than a human hair, bristles are incredibly fragile. The work must be done under a microscope, and with extraordinary care and skill,” he says.
When Clare has finished her work, she will photograph the newly cleaned and mounted insect from all angles. A technical officer will transcribe its label – sometimes hand-written a hundred years ago when the specimen was collected – and together this data will create a digital record that will last forever. In this way, scientists all over the world can continue to study the amazing biodiversity of our planet, far into the future.
Entomologist Russell Cox sees Clare’s careful work as an artform in itself. “Watching Clare restore a centuryold specimen brings to mind an artist reconditioning a Rembrandt painting; these are the same skills and expertise she uses to breathe life back into a diminished butterfly,” he says.