Clean-up at the museum

Conservator Kate Pocklington repairs animal specimens from the Raffles Museum's collection
grace chua Straits Times 21 Dec 11;

The pair of orang utans, one male and one female, had languished in the closet for years - their hides drying, cracking and splitting down the seams.

Not till museum conservator Kate Pocklington arrived at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research were they retrieved from storage, surprising even the museum's project manager, who had not even known they were there.

Ms Pocklington, 25, who is here till the end of the month, is stitching up, glueing together and touching up the primates, which are part of the museum's collection. The taxidermist, biologist, chemist and artist is helping the Raffles Museum repair and spruce up its collection before its big move to the future Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore campus in 2014.

The collection of about half a million specimens, including mammals such as the rare Golden Babirusa pig, birds, fish and other aquatic creatures has been shunted from pillar to post over the years.

It was once housed at the then-Raffles Museum, which was renamed the National Museum of Singapore after independence.

Some years later, however, when the Government changed the museum's focus, the collection was dented on its journey between the Science Centre, the then-University of Singapore, Nanyang University's library building and finally, its present location in a modest corner of the NUS science faculty.

Now, Ms Pocklington is fixing the specimens most in danger of deteriorating further, whether from shrinkage and cracking, fungal attacks or being ravaged by insects.

Nothing seems to faze her. At the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where she has been based for the last four years, she has picked apart tiny birds with corroded wires in their legs and a leatherback turtle that caved in and was stuffed with newspaper. 'You can still get bites from snakes that have been preserved in jars, if you catch your hand on the fangs,' she says.

The Briton, who comes from the agricultural flatlands of Lincolnshire, said growing up 'in the middle of nowhere' sparked her fascination with all creatures alive and dead. 'There was a lot of roadkill. And once I found this bird that was naturally mummified,' she said.

Her father runs a haulage company and her mother does crafts, but an aunt had a taxidermy collection and her grandfather was a butcher - so perhaps the attraction to meat runs in the family.

At the University of Lincoln, she did a degree in conservation and restoration, which trains students to assess an art or museum object, stabilise it and repair it for display. She was drawn to the science and natural history aspect of conservation. The discipline is different from taxidermy, which involves preserving and mounting fresh specimens, though her business card says 'mild taxidermist'.

'People are always asking, but I don't want to do people's pets,' she said.

In between restoring large mammal specimens, she also goes through jars of crabs and fish, checking for deterioriation, and has given the museum advice on how to store its birds better (lower temperature and relative humidity).

When the Lee Kong Chian museum opens, it will feature 150 to 200 specimens on display with a focus on South-east Asian biodiversity, said Dr Tan Swee Hee, its project manager.

Ms Pocklington's next project: replacing a tiger's ears, whiskers and claws, and making several spare sets of replica claws for when the claws are stolen.

She has worked on rhinoceros heads, whose horns are also prone to being stolen, thanks to the black market for traditional medicines.

Asked if she ever senses a conflict between protecting animals in the wild and collecting specimens for science, she said: 'For science research, it's important so that we can see how things change.'

For instance, the Raffles Museum has a specimen of a cream-coloured giant squirrel, a large tree squirrel now thought extinct here. So collecting live animals is out of the question if they are endangered. She said: 'If you want to get an orang utan now, you have to wait until one dies naturally. I think it's important that we keep preserving, but it's also important to look after what we have.'


Where: Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, National University of Singapore

When: Weekdays, 9am to 5pm, closed on weekends and public holidays

Admission: Free. Bookings for one-hour school or corporate tours must be made at least seven days in advance. Tours start from $50 for school groups