The repair and conservation of a Python skeleton for the Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London. Nigel Larkin.

This specimen was cleaned and conserved as part of University College London Grant Museum of Zoology’s Bone Idols Project (funded by NatSCA, Arts Council England's Museum Development Fund and various members of the public).

Condition of the specimen: This very fragile and fiddly skeleton was dirty with dust and ingrained grime and required very careful cleaning. Repairs were needed to replace four ribs that had become detached as well as the tail section that had broken off. Many ribs were pointing in inappropriate directions and needed to be realigned and some ribs were missing. This specimen was simply sitting on Plastazote foam and cardboard so a permanent rigid wooden plinth needed to be made of a suitable size, painted black and with feet or batons on the underside so that fingers can get underneath to pick up the plinth with the specimen. Supports needed to be added to hold the specimen up so that it does not crush itself where its coils overlap, and so that sections do not flex and break when the specimen is moved (it is used for teaching purposes).

Cleaning: The whole specimen was carefully ‘dry cleaned’ first to remove dust and loose dirt, using a variety of very soft artists’ brushes and a vacuum cleaner with gauze over the nozzle. Then the specimen was ‘wet cleaned’ with Synperonic A7 conservation detergent diluted in water, applied by swabbing with small cotton buds, cleaning small areas at a time and patting the area dry with paper towels, followed by ‘rinsing’ with clean water also applied with small cotton buds and patted dry again quickly. This was repeated until all dirt and water was removed.

Repairs: The detached ribs and tail section were joined back in place by applying the reversible methacrylate co-polymer Paraloid B72 either side of each break and arranging the pieces to set in the right position.

Above left, the python before work started. Above middle left, the vertebrae on the right side of the image have been cleaned. Those on the left have not. Above middle right, where one of the ribs had become detached. Above right: the displaced tail section, where glue had failed on an old break.

Plinth and supports: A plinth was made from 30mm thick MDF. This had two coats of Dacrylate applied to reduce the emission of volatile organic compounds. Thin batons of wood were glued to the underside with PVA adhesive to lift the plinth up so that it is more easily picked up and moved without risk to the specimen. Thin rods of appropriate lengths were inserted into holes drilled in appropriate positions in the plinth (glued in position with Paraloid B72) and these were shaped to provide some support to the most vulnerable portions of the skeleton. The vertebrae simply sit upon the shaped tops of these rods. Before the skeleton was lifted carefully in to position, the plinth and the rods were painted with a black satin paint.

Above left, cleaning the bones. Above right, the cleaned and repaired skeleton sitting on its supports on the new plinth.

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