Among the dramatic taxidermy appearing in the new Museum galleries is a Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus). The bear will stand on a model iceberg in the Arctic tundra exhibit as part of the Global Journey Gallery.
Currently in storage in the Collections & Research Division, the specimen needed to be removed from its stand and prepared for exhibit. As part of the process, the Museum hired local company Harvard Environmental, Inc. for testing of the taxidermy. Asbestos was found in the simulated ice used on the base, and remediation was necessary.
Made from mineral fibers, asbestos known to be an incredibly dangerous carcinogen causing long-term health issues including asbestosis, a chronic lung disease, and mesothelioma, a malignant and incurable cancer. Its use is now regulated by the federal government as well as state governments, and when found must be abated.
Asbestos was frequently used in taxidermy preparation in the past. A 1979 report by the Center for Disease Control of Jonas Brothers Taxidermy Co. in Denver, Colorado noted: “Ground asbestos is used to mix with plaster and dextrine in order to form a putty mixture. These ingredients are mixed while dry and with little or no ventilation. The asbestos itself is contained in an open vessel where workers use it by the handfuls. When this mixture has hardened, it is often times sanded to achieve proper contours. The resulting dust filters through the air.”
Asbestos is no longer used in taxidermy preparation, and is now primarily an issue when the material is disturbed, such as in the case of the removal of the polar bear’s stand. While the history of the polar bear specimen is not known, there are other objects in the collections prepared by the Jonas Brothers Company, including a walrus taxidermy and the elephant head model, both planned for the Delaware Museum of Nature & Science galleries.
As part of abatement, the feet of the bear were carefully wrapped to keep them safely isolated from any dust created during the process. County Environmental Company removed the asbestos, with Harvard Environmental conducting air monitoring. A “bubble room” was created to contain any airborne particles, and the team working on the project wore protective gear. After the simulated ice was removed, the base was cleaned and treated with a sealer to encapsulate any possible remaining dust and make it safe for museum staff to work with.