Thoughts on Restoration of Boxed Natural History Collections

Written by John Cooke, Mineral Enthusiast and Part-Time Volunteer Curator

The Victorians were great collectors and hoarders. There are those collections assembled by talented professionals and amateurs and others who purchased ready-made collections as a sign of their interest in Natural History. The subject matter of these collections was extremely varied and included minerals, fossils, beetles, butterflies, moths and even stone-age axe heads. Because my passion lies in collecting mainly Victorian boxed mineral collections, I would like to use these as the basis for my wandering thoughts.

Many of these collections, once purchased and shown to one’s friends, become the ubiquitous dust-gatherer and lie on a book shelf (if lucky) in an atmosphere of toxic coal dust, sulphur compounds and other noxious chemicals liberated by the ever present coal fire. Mixed with a damp environment, it is a wonder that any specimens survive to this day. Much has been written on pyrite decay, acetic acid liberation by certain timbers and the hygroscopic and deliquescent nature of some minerals. In the process of degradation much damage may be inflicted on nearby specimens, not only on the same drawer but also those lying above and below. I noticed once in one National Trust property that there was a stacked collection of minerals under a glass dome. One of the lower specimens was a native sulphur which over the course of time had deteriorated and “drilled” a hole in the mahogany base. A salutatory lesson in giving sulphur and sulphur compounds much respect (and ventilation!).

Whilst I have been collecting these specimen boxes I have noticed that many in their past must have been inverted as the specimens become distributed in a random disorderly fashion. One can only imagine that this was due to an inconsiderate removal person during a house relocation. Most collections would originally have had an associated catalogue but in my experience, I would suggest that about 60% have lost their catalogue by 100 years later. Were these left on the bookshelf during the final clearance? A collection without the catalogue is of little scientific value even though, as I have found, most specimens may be identified through a combination of experience or borrowing an XREF machine from the local university. Even then, without a location the scientific value of the specimen is diminished.

Restoration issues

I am a keen collector of mineral collections, which in Victorian times meant that the specimens were enclosed in a wooden box which was generally constructed from mahogany or pine, with other woods infrequently encountered. I am not a professional conservator but have a regard to sympathetically restore, where applicable or necessary, to ensure the continued longevity of any given article. Recently, I witnessed the transformation of a Victorian writing slope to restored perfection. For the purpose of Natural History collections, I do not find this approach welcome or necessary. If the enclosed specimens were substituted with higher quality material, would this be regarded as restoration?

Wood, over the years, can bear many scars, either from chemical decay of specimens and hence an attack on the wood, to biological agents, to physical attack from the dreaded over-watered plant pot. It is my intention to indicate what I would be prepared to restore and how, then to invite a discussion as to how others would wish to tackle the vagaries of time.

Primarily the timber carcass of the box can suffer from a number of problems, not least of which is splitting. Some polishes can easily cope with filling the smallest of cracks and I prefer to leave it at that. The larger cracks are a different “animal”. Disguising these can be a mammoth task and I take the view that these are part of the history of the item. There are many fillers on the market that will do the job admirably. My view is that the split is a piece of history and prefer to choose a filler that has a different shade to the timber, so that when the restoration is complete, the “scar” is still a well-defined feature but has completed the job of denying dirt ingress. One such example is shown below, where the splits occur in pine and were so numerous that the contents of the box were covered in 1-2 mm of dust. There are going to be criticisms over this technique but I would stress that this technique is reversible if future owners take great exception. Stained wood, where some of the stain has suffered damage or flaked, is another example (see below). I prefer to clean the surface thoroughly and then polish so that the imperfections of the original stain are clear to see.

Splits in this pine box were so numerous, the contents were covered in dust.© John Cooke.
The staining on this wood is flaking off. © John Cooke.

Many of the dove-tailed joints become loose over age as the timber shrinks and this is easily remedied with an appropriate glue but I prefer to clamp the wood with plastic modellers’ clamps as I find these are more forgiving than the metal braces used by carpenters. Also, a small piece of waste wood can be used at the interface between the jaws of the clamp and the timber.

When boxes are left on prominent surfaces, there is a strong possibility that it will be used as a prop for other household ornaments- a china cup, a Doulton figure, a plant pot with or without the crocheted doily. These blemishes will all leave their mark over the years and it then begs the question- do we remove them or not. In order to rectify the blemishes a layer of polish and/or wood may need to be removed by sanding, leaving a totally restored surface. Should there be a difference in rectification between a coffee cup stain in the 1960s versus an aspidistra pot from the 1860s? (see below). It is a personal view, but I feel that what is done is done and any marks are part of its history. A good polish is all the “tea and sympathy” required.

Was this damage caused in the mid 1800s or the mid 1900s? Would you restore it, or leave it as a part of the object’s history? © John Cooke.

To polyurethane or not to polyurethane, that is the question.

In general the fine grained hardwoods are best served with a generous beeswax polish but some of the pine carcasses have a surface which appears to have a powdery coat and strands emerging from the surface.  In these situations I feel it is justifiable to administer polyurethane as it binds and stabilises the wood giving it a strong surface. A matt finish appears to be sympathetic to the timber.

Internal fittings within the box.

Many boxes have thin wooden trays to hold the specimens and these are at “the coal face” when chemical attack occurs. Often the chemicals have drilled holes into the thin timber and major intervention is required with the removal of the offending specimen, so how are the trays to be restored, if only to maintain their strength to carry the specimen burden? I prefer a strong but thin card of appropriate colour to cover the area, and under the associated specimens. In some older specimen boxes that have been restored many years ago, some owners have tried to re-establish strength with a variety of tapes stuck into place with glue. One, a woven canvas, has stood the test of time and is discreet. Another looks like brown duct tape which does nothing to enhance the aesthetics of the collection. Under these circumstances, I prefer the idea that any intervention is non-destructive to the structure and can, if necessary, be easily reversed. Does anyone remember those interesting glues administered to broken pottery that eventually turn the surface brown and unattractive?

Hinges and Locks

I find that a number of boxes have lost their keys and worse still some previous owners in desperation have forced the lock or hinges to open the box (see below). If there is not too much damage, this problem is not fatal. Hinges normally break bringing a slither of wood with it, so it is not too much trouble to repair the wood with a fillet of appropriate timber. There are occasions when inappropriate screws have been introduced. There is no excuse for replacing the slotted screw with a “pozidriv” or a steel hinge for the brass original. A well-known online auction site is full of offers for appropriate hinges and screws. Locks are a different ‘kettle of fish’. Many years ago I did have a locksmith who made a replacement key for an antique lock but the second time around he had closed down… obviously not too much call for antique keys! There must be someone who has a large collection of antique keys, I just haven’t found that person yet!

© John Cooke.


Luckily, I have never had a box with woodworm (says he crossing his fingers), so I have no experience and would welcome any observations on this topic for future reference. Is the lack of woodworm because these pests are susceptible to the contents, such as sulphur, chlorides, radiation etc? Is there a project here for some intrepid researcher?

Health and Safety

We are all now aware of the dangers of certain minerals, not least of which are the members of the asbestos family. In my view, enclosing these within a sealable plastic envelope is a necessity and possibly with a note advising caution. Many old collections contain radioactive materials and I prefer to make boxes from lead roof flashing for containment purposes. Not everyone will have access to a Geiger counter and the more active of these minerals may require disposal. I am no expert in this field and it is possible that professional advice may be gained from the Health and Safety Executive.

This short article is written in the knowledge that many readers will have vastly more experience in restoration than me and the views expressed are from my own amateur experience using techniques and products easily available to the general public. Many more techniques must exist and specialist materials available to professionals who are well versed in restoration. Nevertheless, if this has provoked interest I would welcome other enthusiasts to put pen-to-paper and share their own experiences.

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