Friday, 17 June 2011

Looking after the Skeletons

One of my main jobs in Bradford is to curate our skeletal collection - which contains over 4,000 skeletons. This includes those from Chichester, some of which have been in Bradford for over 25 years! Over that time, there have been significant improvements in the way we curate skeletal remains. The first innovation in Bradford was the introduction of guidelines on 'How to Pack a Skeleton', which was already in use when I was a student here back in 1999.

One of my MSc cohort, Anwen Caffell, studied the effects of repeated handling of human remains in the collections - her work was published in 2001 in Human Remains: Conservation, Retrieval and Analysis, edited by E. Williams. She noted that the use of blue tack and masking tape damages skeletal material, and often leaves a residue behind on bones. Also, sticking broken elements back together can make them more fragile, and lead to further breakages. Perhaps the biggest concern is using material that is not labelled for teaching and research - although great care is taken that bones do not get misplaced, when it does happen it is much easier to return if there is a unique code on it! As a result of Anwen's work, and concerns of staff, many new procedures have been put in place, reducing the risk of damage to skeletal material and promoting good curatorial practice - and yes, blue tack and masking tape have been banned!

So what do these curatorial issues have to do with the digitisation project? Well the 3D scans will allow us to 'join' fragmented bones back together, or articulate bones of the hands and feet without the need of sticky substances, and handling of the bones will be reduced, as many can be examined digitally. Although there will always be a need to refer back to the original bone, the digital archive will help to preserve the collection for the researchers and students of the future.

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