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Canid skull from the US Exploring Expedition (1838-42), treated with mercuric chloride.

Canid skull from the US Exploring Expedition (1838-42). The skull had been treated with mercuric chloride as a preservative during the expedition. Later exposure to ultraviolet radiation from window light or fluorescent lamps caused the mercuric chloride to convert to mercury sulfides and metallic mercury. Photograph by the Conservation Section.

Skull of a single-tusked male narwhal (Monodon monoceros); photography credit: Alyx LeBlanc
Skull of a single-tusked male narwhal (Monodon monoceros).
Photography by Alyx LeBlanc.

Narwhals made their grand debut in National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) at the beginning of August 2017. The exhibition, Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend, delves into the Arctic world of this mysterious animal, presents Inuit perspectives on their connections to narwhals, and connects narwhals to the changing global climate. Behind the displays of real narwhal tusks and skulls along with intricate Inuit artifacts, Alyx LeBlanc and the museum's Conservation Section worked hard to prepare, safely care for, and install the exhibit's exciting (but fragile) objects. This interview goes into the behind-the-scenes conservation that it takes to bring natural history objects into NMNH's halls for the public's enjoyment.

What exactly did you do as part of Conservation in helping with Narwhal?

Alyx LeBlanc (AL): I mainly did preventive conservation, which consisted of condition reports and photo documentation of the three narwhal skulls, narwhal tusks, a print detailing the legend of a woman becoming a narwhal, and the external soapstone sculpture loan. Otherwise, I assisted with small treatments: (e.g. consolidation and repairs on one of the male skulls). Lastly, I helped with the installation, focusing on safely moving objects and ensuring sound collection care when overseeing physical installation of objects.

It seems like Conservation had to work intensively with Exhibits in executing the Narwhal exhibition. Can you speak on how Conservation interacts with other parts of the museum?

AL: When people think of conservation, they think of treatments, but the majority of what I do is preventive: safe handling, safe storage, documentation, monitoring environmental conditions, and ongoing preventive care.

There's someone who represents Conservation in everything and anything the museum does involving objects or specimens. Our biggest goal in conservation is to be representative of objects. Whereas exhibits might think of aesthetics first, we're primarily thinking about the welfare of the objects—it takes both to put together the exhibit in the end.

What were the biggest conservation challenges with Narwhal?

Side view of male Narwhall skull
Side view of male Narwhall skull. Photo by Alex LeBlanc.

AL: The biggest conservation challenge object-wise was dealing with the skulls. Narwhal skulls are interesting shapes and thus difficult to handle! One was very fragile—I had to be mindful about the safest ways to support this skull when allowing it to go on display. Natalie from Exhibits Fabrication was amazing at finding the best ways to support all of the objects. All credit goes to her for making incredible, creative, and safe mounts in the Narwhal exhibit.

Some of the biggest general challenges in conservation involve the unpredictability of what might happen to objects. There are tons of units and staff from different frameworks: everyone is focused on the work they must prioritize while all working together. It's really important for transparent, clear communication and thoughtful collaboration on all fronts to ensure the safety of objects.

When we do work with external groups, making sure to communicate the museum's needs (and specifically conservation's priorities) becomes increasingly important. Even when one small bit of information about an object's case somehow gets lost or isn't communicated well-- that could pose a serious risk to fragile objects such as narwhal skulls. My job was to protect the skulls while also being cognizant of the work schedules that both internal and external groups still needed to adhere to. We're lucky to have such a phenomenal exhibits department that is especially sensitive to conservation concerns! This makes my job a lot easier.

Even in this relatively small exhibit, there are a variety of diverse objects—from natural specimens to anthropological objects. How did the diversity of objects impact what you and Conservation did to ensure the safety of these objects?

Ultraviolet examination of single-tusked male narhwal skull. UV light is used to see previous repairs, since bone will autofluoresce in UV light while black areas (see near tusk) are coated in restoration materials
Ultraviolet examination of single-tusked male narhwal skull. UV light is used to see previous repairs, since bone will autofluoresce in UV light while black areas (see near tusk) are coated in restoration materials. Photo by Alyx LeBlanc.

AL: I only had five objects. Cathy Hawks, the sole conservator of NMNH, determines lighting, desiccants, and scavenger needs. I'm not trained as a conservator, which is what Cathy is. I'm in charge of knowing how to safely move, store, and otherwise handle objects.

Conservation is extremely important—without conservation, the objects in Narwhal could sustain damage over time, and all these people who love the exhibit wouldn't be able to learn from and enjoy the material objects. It takes people like me and Cathy to ensure that future generations will be able to experience what these objects have to offer.

How do you balance tensions between prioritizing care for the objects and allowing the public to accessibly and aesthetically enjoy these objects?

AL: There will always be tensions between displays and conservation—putting any object on display inherently increases risk. For example, light fundamentally damages an object over time, but lighting is unavoidable when you put an object on display. We hope to minimize risk by thinking about all agents of deterioration and mitigating them as much as possible.

Narwhal is such a fun exhibit—there's even a pop culture section. Do you have any especially poignant memories of working on Narwhal?

AL: Installation and exhibit opening are always fun! There was an all-day installation that was, of course, long and stressful, but closing the case and officially finishing the install was gratifying and fulfilling. Knowing that I played a crucial role in installing this fun exhibit made me remember why I enjoy being in conservation so much.

I always love photo documentation; photographing the double tusked skull was especially fun. Photo doc is satisfying because you focus on making an object look professional and beautiful to other people—it's sort of a silly thing to love. There's something about being able to capture a natural history object's unique characteristics in a photo, so even if you're not actually in the presence of these objects, you're able to admire an almost accurate representation of a one-of-a-kind object.

You worked on Objects of Wonder, a large exhibition on the Second Floor that opened earlier in 2017. How was your experience working with Objects of Wonder in comparison to Narwhal?

AL: With Objects of Wonder, I was an intern, so I simply did what Cathy told me. With Narwhal, I was more independent, and it was a process through which I proved to myself that I was a competent and capable member of conservation. I proved to myself that I could take on the responsibility of speaking for the objects.

Conservation doesn't seem to just end with installation – what are some things that you, as part of Conservation, will keep in mind as the exhibit continues on?

AL: Conservation is ongoing monitoring of environmental conditions, such as humidity and temperature. We have environmental data-loggers in cases that we'll check periodically. Depending on the needs of the objects, we'll monitor the humidity closer. It's more about ongoing responses to any slight damage to objects on display

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