Cleaning a walrus isn’t much different from cleaning a Chinese water deer. Or a European mole, for that matter. In each case, all you need is a few simple tools and a lot of patience. Bringing along a few other mammals – species Homo sapiens–to help will make the job go faster.
On February 12, the Museum’s entire exhibits department, including project managers, exhibit developers, graphic designers, fabricators, audiovisual specialists, modelmakers, and us writers, did some early spring cleaning in the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals.
While the Museum’s janitorial staff cleans outside the cases on a regular basis, the interior of the cases and the specimens themselves hadn’t had a thorough cleaning in a while. That’s because it’s a slow, careful task that requires significant time. It also requires that the Mammal Hall temporarily close. Sure, visitors came to see mammals, but exhibits staffers climbing around inside the cases are probably not what they had in mind.
The goal for the day was to spread out and cover as much ground as possible. To start, modelmaker Natalie Gallelli taught us how to lightly stroke a specimen’s coat with a soft brush in the direction of the hair growth, while holding a special vacuum tube attachment a few inches away from the specimen’s fur. Dirt and dust loosened by the brush get picked up immediately by the vacuum, but the hose never touches the delicate specimen.
One of the most challenging specimens to clean was the giraffe, whose head stretches nearly 19 feet above the ground. AV specialist Patrick Rey used a mechanical lift to meet the giraffe at eye level, and then gently cleaned its head, neck, and upper back, while other staffers worked on the lower extremities.
To clean specimen eyes and other delicate but rigid areas such as tongues, an alcohol-and-water solution is applied with a soft cloth. The fennec (a small Saharan fox), whose eyes had been coated with a fine film of dust, looked bright-eyed and alert again after a quick eye wash.
It wasn’t just the mammals themselves that needed a good cleaning. Team members also swept and vacuumed case interiorsand cleaned exterior and interior case glass. One of the most time-consuming tasks of the day was cleaning each artificial leaf in the African Rainforest case. Six exhibits staffers spent several hours sitting cross-legged inside the case, painstakingly cleaning every individual leaf with cloths moistened with water. The difference was striking—afterward, the leaves glistened as if they were really part of the flora in the southwestern tropic region of Africa.
At the end of the day, our team hadn’t cleaned every case. But we had made great progress, and the Mammal Hall looked fresher and brighter. We’re planning to do another all-hands cleaning day in the coming months, and hope to make these periodic efforts a staple of the department’s work. After all, it’s not just mammals that get dusty. There are gems and ocean creatures and fossils and…
Laura Donnelly-Smith, writer/editor, NMNH Exhibits Department
Photos by NMNH Exhibits Department