Half a million specimens in her care

Half a million specimens in her care

It is a task as mammoth as filling Noah's Ark - except with dead animals, not live. And just as in the biblical tale, the clock is ticking.

With just six months to go, work is intensifying at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research to restore and prepare about 2,000 animal specimens for display ahead of the big move to the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, ready in mid-2014. The work on the specimens is just over halfway through.

After these are installed, another 488,000 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates in the collection lie in wait.

The "Noah" behind this gargantuan move is 27-year-old British conservator Kate Pocklington, who arrived in Singapore in May last year. She has been single-handedly tasked with restoring and fixing up the museum's trove of specimens.

Many are more than a century old, and some have fallen into disrepair from being moved between institutions over decades.

"Quite a traumatic history," notes Ms Pocklington, who used to work at the University of Oxford's Museum of Natural History.

A saltwater crocodile from 1887, for example, has had some claws pulled out, probably by mischievous children, she said. These she has had to recreate. Its dried skin has also shrivelled over time, requiring her to custom-make an aluminium frame to support it.

She has also had to clean a dugong skeleton from 1885 that had been artificially whitewashed, and painstakingly reconstruct an orang utan skeleton stored in pieces.

Many old specimens also suffer from mould growth, and from fur falling out and leaving bald patches. Work on a specimen in great disrepair can take her up to a month, she said.

Ms Pocklington often finds herself having to spot and correct ghastly errors made in the past.

The dugong skeleton had its pelvis in the incorrect place, while the last three bones in its tail bone were missing. In another case, a tiger had been stuffed so unrealistically that it resembled a stuffed toy, while a school of parrotfish had been painted in garish, glossy colours to make them look more real.

"They just looked like terrible Christmas decorations," Ms Pocklington says of the parrotfish. "But I left it like that as an example of how not to restore a specimen."

The roll call of specimens may seem never-ending, but it is the move to the new museum that daunts her more. "Hopefully, we will have enough time so it won't be one mass panic, like a flood is coming," she laughs.

She and other staff at the Raffles museum will have to check, wrap, pack and label all the 500,000 specimens. These would then be taken in a convoy of trucks to the new museum across the National University of Singapore campus.

The avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist sees her work here as fundamental, particularly in small, urban Singapore.

"A natural history collection like this is for people to realise the diversity of nature," she said.

"I want people to see what is out there around them. It is quite easy to, but people don't realise it. Many just work, then go home, work, then go home."


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