Making Archival Plaster Jackets
At the Smithsonian Institution the Department of Paleobiology's exceptional collection of fossil vertebrates is very important to the science and history of Paleontology. The National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and its Museum Support Center in Maryland house some of the earliest collected fossils in the United States (as early as the 1840's), as well as some of the most scientifically valuable. The care and storage of these fossils for current and future research is the shared responsibility of the preparators, collection managers and research staff within the Paleobiology Department.
Brief History of Our Storage Jackets
Fossil bones sitting on shelves often break under their own weight, as their excavation removes the ground or rock that had evenly supported them for millions of years. So museum preparators have used plaster cradles in one form or another to support these fragile skeletal elements ever since they were first collected. During the past twenty years, preparators at NMNH have been developing and innovating the storage methods for many different types of fossil animals: from dinosaurs and whales to mammoths, horses and even turtles. The variation of sizes and shapes is challenging.
One of our goals is to make the care and handling of the large fragile fossils safe for the scientists as well as for the specimens. We have developed the jackets more like a clamshell, incorporating padding into the top and bottom halves. This eliminates the need for handling the specimens directly. One side of the jacket may be removed for study, then re-covered and turned over for examination of the other side. Future generations of scientists and the public will continue to enjoy and study the fossils with the same ease that we now provide.
As is true with almost any fossil preparation method or technique, improvements and suggestions are always being considered and incorporated. Our video demonstrates the methods the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum is using to produce these padded plaster support cradles.
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