15 December 2015

Materials Identification Workshop




On Thursday 15th October, museum professionals and academics journeyed from far and wide (London and Derby!) to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter for a workshop in identifying the natural materials museum objects are made from. The event, which was jointly run by the Natural Sciences Collection Association (NatSCA) and the Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG), was led by Paolo Viscardi, from the Slade Museum, UCL.

The workshop was made accessible to all museum professionals and students who work with ethnographic and natural history collections but who don’t necessarily have a background in biological science.  This free session was well attended and provided important breadth and depth information pertaining to the workshop’s theme of identifying claws, teeth, horn, ivory and bones.

Paolo began the day explaining the relevant facts relating to existing CITES  (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and HTA legislation, (Human Tissue Act) it helped to clarify the what-to-do scenario for museum professionals if they cared for items that needed to be registered, even licensed. This led to a discussion in how to correctly identify chemicals museum items may have been treated with, both for health and safety and for ethical reasons.

With the help of comparative images and a vast array of practical examples from RAMM’s stores, Paolo illustrated the subtle but recognizable differences between the different types of materials. This even included a successful identification of one item that had been described in the original documentation as a ‘leopard tooth amulet’ that had been given to a military officer in northern Nigeria by a local chief who asked him to wear it because it would protect him from harm.  This item did not have the expected curvature of a feline tooth but its straight shape, which was partly covered in leather, appeared to resemble the tooth of a crocodile!

Another highlight of the day was solving the mysteriously labeled “rhino horn?” clubs in RAMM’s Ugandan collection. These two objects were unassuming plain batons topped with a heavy round head and appeared to resemble a dark wood. How does one discern wood from rhino horn?  Producing a flashlight app on his phone, Paolo demonstrated that the best way to do this was to shine the light against the item.  It was clear that the light could be seen glowing through the fibrous material, which confirmed both clubs as being made of this material.  As a consequence the database has not only been updated but the artifacts are now in a more secure location; the theft of rhino and elephant horn from museum collections is unfortunately a sad reality.


The workshop was a success and served as a practical introduction to material identification. Hopefully many attendees were inspired to return to their own collections with a refreshed and enriched perspective.  What the session had highlighted was that training sessions such as this one was highly valued and that there was a need, especially for those who weren’t able to attend that day, for further sessions to be run. This MEG will do in 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Just a small correction - I'm based at the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL rather than the Slade.

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