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What do you do with a broken Orangutan? (Podcast 49)

Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast.  The show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s Heritage.  I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.  In this podcast we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with conservator Fran Ritchie about her work with taxidermy collections.  Fran is a former NCPTT intern in the Archeology and Collections Program.

Church: So I’m here today with Fran Richie and Fran you were a former intern at NCPTT so we are sort of catching up with you finding out what you did back then and what your are doing these days.

Ritchie: Thanks.  Well it’s great to talk to you.  I was at the NCPTT for the summer of 2005.  Which it’s hard to believe it’s been that long.  I worked with Dr. David Morgan in his first summer having an intern in the Archaeology and Collections dept.  We kind of did a bunch of different projects as we were figuring out what it meant to have an intern.  One of the more significant things for me was learning how to use GPS and GIS and then basically just learning what the National Park Service does and what the NCPTT does.   And that’s been really beneficial for me, being in the field of conservation,  to know what kind of research you guys provide.

Church: And so what are you doing these days?

Ritchie: Well, I’m completing my masters in art conservation from Buffalo State College.  I’m in my 3rd year.  That means I am off for a kind of apprentice ship for the full year at the Harvard Peabody Museum where I’m working on organic objects; things from our coastal Alaskan collection.  Which has been really exciting and really fun and we’ve been collaborating with people from Alaska on our treatments and materials.

Church: I know I’ve seen a recent ANAGPIC presentation that you did and you’ve also been working on other types of collections as well.

Ritchie patching the Orangutan

Ritchie patching the Orangutan

Ritchie: I have yes.  I’ve tapped into my experiences in the south and I’ve cultivated a love of taxidermy.  I’m hoping to become a taxidermy conservator so I’ve been presenting on a project I did as part of my Grad program; conserving a broken taxidermy orangutan from the Buffalo Museum of Science.  Which has been very enriching and it’s definitely been an ice breaker for people.

Church: So exactly what do you do to a broken orangutan?

Ritchie: Well that one was very interesting because there were modern materials added to a traditional taxidermy mount.   So the amateur – well I think he was an amateur based on my research and looking at other taxidermy specimens.  This taxidermist replaced the palms of the hands and the pads of the feet with latex rubber.  He just nailed the specimen to a heavy piece of driftwood back in 1966.   Over time that rubber has degraded like it does and it pulled away.  The specimen has pulled away from the mount and it ripped all the hands and the feet to shreds basically.  I even had to recover finger fragments that were left on the wood – nailed there.  So I just recovered those fragments and I lined the latex rubber with Japanese tissue infused with BEVA film which was very successful and in some places you could tell the latex rubber couldn’t – it needed a little manipulation before it would adhere to the Japanese tissue but over all it was a good process. We also had to add internal armature pieces to this specimen so we could attach it to a new display mount without having to nail into the latex again.  It’s a great project, it involved many different techniques and materials and I even got to talk to a taxidermist about what to do and a new display mount and things like that.  Fortunately there were no heavy metal pesticides which is common in these types of collections.  We used x-ray florescence and x-ray radiography to confirm that.

Church: What were your armature pieces made of?

Ritchie: We used wooden pegs inserted into one of the hands and then a threaded metal rod inserted perpendicularly into that and both of those were held into place with Araldite epoxy.   We then reconstructed the palm around the threaded metal rod using lightweight spackle. It’s micro balloons in acrylic emulsion adhesive.  For the other areas it was just threaded metal rods that we inserted directly into the feet and into the legs and into the palm of the hands.  We drilled into the new display mount and inserted the rods from the specimen into those new holes.  We then covered them with washers and nuts and camouflaged it in the mount which was fun too.

Church: And did you have to treat the fur or the body of the orangutan any?

Ritchie: Surprisingly I didn’t.  Orangutan have sparse hair so the juvenile female orangutan looks a little weird but there’s no hair missing.  Some hair did detach a little bit but that’s to be expected with something that old.  Fortunately we didn’t have to deal with that.  The top layer of the skin was flaking off so there was a lot of skin consolidation and inpainting to give it a more visually uniform appearance.  Taxidermy specimens are valued for their aesthetics so I got to do extensive aesthetic compensations just to make it display worthy again.   This is the only specimen that the Buffalo Museum of Science owns of an orangutan.  It’s probably the only one it will ever own because the species is endangered.  So it was very important that they are able to display it because otherwise it is of no use to them.

Church: So what is the future of our orangutan?

Fran Ritchie and her Orangutan

Fran Ritchie and her Orangutan

Ritchie: Well, I think she is going to be going back to the museum and then hopefully not only used for display but also for teaching purposes.  They have some curators there that are very interested in human evolution so they like to have these different primates to illustrate that with students and whatnot.  I think that’s really great because not many people have seen an orangutan and not many people know what they are.  I have been very adamant that it is not a chimpanzee and its not a monkey or a guerrilla or things like that.

Church: Well I know any conservation project you get really attached after the hours and hours you spend on it.  Have you named the orangutan?

Ritchie: That’s such a great common question.  This speaks a lot about me.  I was so adamant that I wanted to know this was an orangutan that I kind of refused to name it.  I wanted to continue to refer to it as the orang or the orangutan.  But one of my classmates in grad school – in my grad school you become very  close with your classmates and I loved the comradery – I was very close to many of them and one of them immediately named it ChimChim before it even came to the lab. I was like NO NO NO it’s not a chimpanzee.  People are going to be so confused but of course that name stuck and that’s what almost everyone called it.  Everyone, professors and students, were a little weary when she first came into the lab because she looked pretty bad.  Some people were not used to taxidermy but by the end people were calling her ChimChim and giving her nicknames and what not.  But I still go with orangutan.  Which is interesting because when I first started working on taxidermy I did name everything.  There are several specimens at the Biltmore estate in Asheville Carolina that have names but I think at this point I’ve worked on so many that – And I am very much into the biological side of it.  That’s one reason this intrigues me too.   I can learn about each specimen as I’m working on them.  I maintain that professionalism.

Church: So you’ve got your year fellowship that your finishing up.  What do you hope to do after that?

Richie: Well I will be a Mellon Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indians.  I am really excited about that because not only will I be able to work on Native American objects – which are very intriguing to me and have been my whole life – but there is also a research component to that.  I will be researching how to consolidate attaching hairs on hides and furs.  Not only does it relate to Native American collections but also continues with taxidermy.  No one is really – as far as I can tell with my personal research – people haven’t really tapped into that and it’s something that is very necessary.  I think that all these taxidermy collections – they are kind of coming of age and they are in many different types of locations not just national history museums; historic homes, discovery centers, educational centers.  They have these collections and I think they are just starting to realize – like “oh wait a minute there’s hair below that caribou over there.  What do we do about this?”  It’s a very difficult problem so I’m hoping to start to tackle it.  I’ll be a fellow at the NMAI and then we will see where I go from there – That’s for a year or maybe two.  I am very much looking forward to working in Washington DC and tapping into that network of conservators.  I’ve never worked there and I’ve always wanted to so its kind of a dream of mine that’s coming true.

Church: Good.  Well if you could talk to people who are thinking of getting into conservation what recommendations would you give them?

Richie: Getting into conservation can be a little bit daunting.  This is definitely a path that I have been following since I was an undergraduate at the University of Delaware and I was very lucky I just kind of fell into conservation.  I didn’t know about it before accepting to go to Delaware.  I was looking at their program right before starting my freshman year and saw they had this and was learning about the field right from the beginning.  But the main thing is to get your academic prerequisites out of the way as soon as possible.  The main things: chemistry, general chemistry, organic chemistry, a slew of art history and studio art classes.  I actually took the more anthropological route and took anthropology classes instead of a lot of art history classes.  So you can do that as well.  And you need to look at the different schools and see what they require.  So get those out of the way as soon as possible because it’s difficult to go back.   Especially when you are busy working you don’t necessarily want to go take organic chemistry at night and deal with those labs and what not.  But then the next hardest step is to just get your experience.  Sometimes that might require you volunteer in labs because there aren’t an overwhelming majority of possibilities that are paid.  That’s just an unfortunate reality of the field but there are many people that are willing to take on volunteers in turns and they know what that entails; what to teach them, the basics of the field, not only techniques but also ethics.  That can be difficult but if you go to AIC’s website and you can find a conservator you might be able to find people in your area and then contact them and begin your networking to see who is available to have interns and volunteers.  You should expect to have at least a year, probably more, of pre-program experience before applying to grad school.  I just think that’s so necessary because you need to know what you are doing – we were working on priceless artifacts.  You need to have the confidence and the skills and the humility to be able to work on these.  But I would stick with it even though it’s been a long winding road for me but it’s been very rewarding.  I’ve been able to travel to many different places and countries to do conservation work.   Even though it’s a small field within the United States there are a lot of opportunities for some exciting adventures.

Conservator Fran Ritchie inpaints the Orangutan

Conservator Fran Ritchie inpaints the Orangutan

Church: We hope you the best and we hope to hear from you in the future.

Richie: Thank you.  I really appreciated my time in Louisiana.  It was a great time in my life and I recommend it to many other young people.  I’m happy that this project has continued this internship program.

Ammons: If you would like to learn more about today’s podcast, visit our podcast show notes at Until next time everybody.

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