MWAH Lead Art Handler, Brian Hegarty preparing delicate bird specimens for packing.

Ireland’s sole ICEFAT agent, Maurice Ward Art Handling, has for the past year been involved in decanting one of Ireland’s most famous museums, the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History (NMINH) – the “Dead Zoo”, in Dublin. As an example of ICEFAT’s work around the world, we are placing a spotlight on their operation to remove part of the taxidermy and animal collection from the Museum and into storage while their normal home is refurbished.

With close liaison with the Museum’s Keeper, Nigel Monaghan, and Senior Curator, Paolo Viscardi, the deinstallation, packing, removal and transport of specimens began in August 2020. Senior Art Handler Niall Brennan was involved in the decant operations at the Museum, having a hand in safe packing of animals such as the walrus, hippo, giraffe and skeleton specimens. Despite the large sizes of many of these animals, for Niall, “the most complex specimens to pack and transport were the taxidermied bird specimens with long, highly delicate tail feathers”. Like all ICEFAT agents, Maurice Ward’s staff show the utmost care for the objects for which they are responsible, no matter the size.

Some of the most delicate specimens in the entire collection, the long-tailed tropical birds, secured in their casing and prepared for transport and storage.

As with Niall’s bird specimens, removal of the Museum’s Arachnid Collection was a challenge for their complexity rather than weight or size. Gina Eichmüller, the external conservator appointed by Maurice Ward Art Handling, was responsible for overseeing the packing of these pieces, taking time to “observe the fragility as well as their mass, geometry, and material properties.” She says “the challenge with the Arachnid Collection was that these specimens were so delicate that you could barely touch them. Therefore, it was impossible to attach cushions or padding on the object surfaces themselves.” Gina worked with NMINH Entomology curator Dr Aidan O’Hanlon to refine a “cross-pinning technique” to safely stabilise the tarantulas, scorpions and other eight-legged creatures for transit and storage. Her method used specific foams and pins to brace the less delicate parts of the creatures and support their structure, ensuring that these decades-old objects would remain protected during their multi-year stint away from their museum home.

Part of the Arachnid Collection in their display cases before being cross-pinned and prepared for safe transport and storage

At the other end of the size spectrum were the two whale skeletons, which had been suspended from the Museum’s ceiling for almost 100 years. Prior to deinstalling the humpback whale’s skull, Niall Brennan and his colleagues only had estimates of the weights involved and the locations of the strongest and weakest parts. Brennan says, “it was clear timber had been used in the construction of the upper part of the skull and we did not know if this was secure,” so they were unable to say for sure how the skull would be encased in a storage crate. Working with external taxidermy specialists, Maurice Ward’s art technicians “learned more about the composition of the skull and, with the advice of the taxidermy team and Museum staff, a basic concept for the crate was decided.” The skull was successfully encased, and adjustments made onsite, following a week-long process of crate design.

Conversations between NMINH and MWAH regarding stillage construction and the humpback whale skull safely in its stillage case

The specimens, once crated or encased in bespoke stillage frames, were removed from the museum in a staggered process. Maurice Ward utilised two of their fleet of specialised air-ride trucks for the operation. Normally used for transporting art, they were the ideal vehicles to transport the highly delicate specimens. Some packed specimens that needed extra protection from the impact of shocks and vibrations during transportation had to be secured directly to the truck floor to avoid damage. More than 20 trips were made between the Museum and the NMI Collections Resource Centre (CRC) in Swords, north of Dublin, where everything will be stored for the duration of the refurbishment works. Each 35-minute journey to the storage facility was trouble free and all specimens arrived as they should.

Upon arrival, each specimen was put through a pest control process. With many of the objects having not been moved for a century, this was the ideal time to ensure that there were no insects eating the highly friable specimens, dangerously damaging their structural integrity. Gina Eichmüller explains: “depending on their material properties and fragility they were either frozen or put into quarantine where they are going to be monitored over a certain amount of time.” Eimear Ashe, Documentation Officer at the CRC was on-site during the treatment, managing the quarantine freezing cycles and ensuring that all specimens were safely and correctly stored by the Maurice Ward team.

The Dead Zoo’s rich taxidermy collection was successfully stored, and Museum staff involved were satisfied with the year-long operation. Maurice Ward Art Handling and all participants were proud of their involvement in it too. Maurice Ward Project Coordinator Margarita Vásquez Cárdenas says that “being able to care for the objects that are so present in people’s memories is an honour, even if in my case, it is from behind a computer screen or phone most of the time.” From an “on-the-ground” perspective, Niall Brennan felt the operation was “very rewarding [and] in particular, to see the whale skull placed safely on the back of the truck after was very satisfying.” The intricacies of the project certainly brought their challenges, but Gina Eichmüller summarises it well, saying it was “thrilling, challenging, and absolutely satisfying to work with the Maurice Ward team and such an exciting collection.” As the refurbishment of the Museum continues, more parts of the Dead Zoo will need to be decanted and safely stored, with the entire building completely emptied by 2023.

Before and after: from August 2020 to June 2021, the first stages of the Dead Zoo decant now complete.

ICEFAT agents across the world work with complex collections daily. Maurice Ward’s successfully completed operation at the National Museum of Ireland Natural History is the latest example of our commitment to quality in fine art and exhibition logistics in the museums and heritage sector.