The Wesleyan University Ward & Howell Collection and Its Impact on the History of Science

We are excited to welcome Melanie McCalmont to Wesleyan.

Melanie McCalmont is a geographer and data scientist. She has a Master’s degree in Geography, and a Master’s degree in Life Science Communication, both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Melanie is the national expert on historic 3-dimensional relief models. She has been a relief model consultant to the Library of Congress, Yellowstone National Park, the Chicago International Map Fair, American Geographic Society Library, the MacLean Collection, and numerous universities and private collectors. She is a frequent speaker on the Ward’s Natural Science collections and the history of geovisualization.

Her book, “A Wilderness of Rocks: The Impact of Relief Models on Data Science” (2015) is available through Friesen Press and on Amazon.

Melanie is visiting the Earth & Environmental Sciences Department for in the week of April 16-23 April, to study its historic relief maps, as part of her research for her upcoming book, a biography of Edwin E. Howell, a master maker of relief maps as well as fossil casts, and one of the group of people who installed the Wesleyan fossil casts in the Judd Hall Museum of Natural History in 1870.

She will talk about the Wesleyan collections on Thursday, April 19, 11:50am-12:50 pm, in Room 405, Exley Science Center, Wesleyan University. Lecture open to the public.

The Wesleyan University Ward & Howell Collection

and Its Impact on the History of Science


Wesleyan University has a rare and historic asset of 19th century natural science specimens and geologic relief models. The supplier, Ward’s Natural Science, was a driving force behind establishment of most US natural history museums from 1865-1915.  Using primary sources (diaries) from 1870-1871, this presentation describes how Wesleyan’s collection was crafted, installed at Judd Hall, and along with other Ward specimens had a lasting impact on education and the public since 1870. We will also cover Wesleyan’s historic geologic relief models (3D maps). Crafted before aerial photography and space imagery, these models were the first accurate geovisualizations of government datasets, and have surprising links to modern technologies. Today’s researchers are mining these historic collections to create new insights and even discover new species!

Unseen Wesleyan: Penthousing

The labyrinth of tunnels beneath the carefully manicured landscape of Wesleyan has inspired the imagination and indulgence of many generations of students. There is always something about the Forbidden that beckons.


One of the pieces you pick up; profound life quote from a concerned well-meaning trespasser, perhaps after one too many Bloody Marys. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Yet there is one secret that our campus holds to which many may not be privy to. Above Level 6 of Exley Science Centre lies a Penthouse, where lies a large swathe of treasures, and other glamorous junk. Professor Ellen Thomas affectionately coined the term “penthousing”, meaning the activity of purging the space of decade-old decaying items, in search of the next star exhibit.

A significant portion of the former Wesleyan Museum’s collections were flung into the Penthouse of Exley upon its completion in 1970, while others continued to collect dust in the Foss Hill tunnels since the museum’s resolution in 1957. In the summer of 2017, students working on the inventory of museum objects first started to look around that penthouse, and found the first evidence for the existence of our Glyptodon – its tail.


Lost meandering down the hallways of reminiscences. How many chapters of Wesleyan history do these halls keep? Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

The interesting thing about unseen spaces is that people who have access to them often put very little effort into making them presentable. In the penthouse lies a ludicrous number of expensive old scientific equipment in what some of the museum Inner Circle calls “Scientific Purgatory” – atoning for the sins of being outdated in hope of exodus some day in future. These include a sonar imaging device, x-ray tubes, and distillation contraptions – any brewers out there?

Even so, the Penthouse is chock full of other little treats, and some not-so-little ones. We found by a bit of an accident, a beautiful skull that belonged to some kind of elephant relative. The identity of the animal that had it is still a mystery to us. Some are whispering about how it looks suspiciously similar to the skull of a baby Mastodon, especially in view of its teeth – we’ll keep you posted. Stay tuned.


The Penthouse of Exley is one of the many hidden storage spaces of treasures at Wesleyan. Recently, a gorgeous elephant skull came out of storage in Shanklin. Note the flat-topped teeth used for grinding. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.


Cover photo: Cage lock and stray crates in the Penthouse of Exley. Andy Tan ’21.


Oeningen Formation: Science, Sink or Swim

Science was not like it is today in the 18th and even 19th century: things people used to do in science at that time – not too long ago -may  appear very odd to us. In Wesleyan’s collections lie several keystone artifacts to this rather fascinating episode in history.  Before science (as we consider it now) existed, people thought  that living species of animals had always existed and will always exist – the idea that there was such a thing as ‘extinction’ was not realized. It was not until the 1830s that one of the most important figures in the history of paleontology played a role in awakening the world of science to the actuality of extinction. She was Mary Anning, the daughter of an English cabinet maker, who discovered groundbreaking specimens pivotal to this paradigm shift, but she was not given credit for her important contributions during her life time.

Ichthyosaurus communis, a replica of a fossil specimen found by Mary Anning on the coast of Lyme-Regis, in Southern England; third floor, Exley Science Center.

Even when the celebrated star in paleontology, Georges Cuvier, published a first authoritative paper on extinctions in 1879, the general public did not take it lightly that Divine Providence was  doubted by the idea of extinction of creatures, which had been designed and made by that Providence. Even when described by a man who mesmerized the European public with the fascinating animals he put together from a box of disarticulated bones, the community did not warm up to the concept of extinction. Why would God create animals only to wipe them out later? This idea was contrary to the prevalent notion that everything created has its permanent, perfectly designated place and purpose in the world, fitting  into the Great Chain of Being.

Cuvier’s brainchild – the osteology collection in the Natural History Museum in Paris. The spectacle is impressive today, and one can easily be imagine that it was  mind-blowing in the 1800s.

The Oeningen Formation in Germany contains a vast trove of beautifully preserved fossils, including some spectacular plant leaves, with leaf veins visible, and what have been called ‘perhaps the richest insect deposits in Europe’, dating back to the late Miocene (~6-11.5 million years).  In the 1700s, long before the research by Mary Anning or Georges Cuvier, an odd fossil was dug up from these sediments. The identity of the remains was an enigma. To the contemporary scholars, this could only be the remains of something that still existed on Earth, because the concept of extinction had not yet been worked out. Swiss scholar – scientist was not a job title back thenJohann Jakob Scheuchzer gave the scholarly community the most obvious answer to this conundrum in 1726, illustrating the tension between science and religion. This must have been “The Man Who Witnessed the Biblical Flood”, in Latin ‘Homo diluvii testis’.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling fresco panel depicting the Great Flood according to the Bible. All living things were killed except two of each kind, and the family of Noah, who found grace in the eye of God. Which of these men were fossilised?

Other naturalists expressed doubts on the human origins. Johannes Gessner (1758) though it was a catfish, the Dutch naturalist Petrus Camper (1777) thought it was a lizard – at that time, the distinction between amphibians and reptiles had not been made. Georges Cuvier looked at the fossil in 1811 (at which time it was on display at Teyler’s Museum in the Netherlands -where it still is). He removed sediment covering part of it so he could see a larger part of its skeleton, including its front legs. This was a man who boasted he could reconstruct an animal from a single tooth, and he quickly determined that the fossil was that of a giant salamander which no longer lived on Earth. The fossil was named Salamander scheuchzeri by Friedrich Holl (1831), then given a new generic name, Andrias, in 1837 (by Johann Jakob von Tschudi). Perhaps taking a jive at Scheuchzer’s ideas, the new name, Andrias scheuchzeri, meant “image of man of Scheuzer”. The Joe Webb Peoples Museum on Level 4 of Exley houses a cast of this giant salamander, measuring about 3 feet in length.

Picture of Homo diluvii testis as published by Scheuchzer


Andrias scheuchzeuri, an extinct giant salamander once thought to be the remains of the man who witnessed The Flood. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Science has come a very long way in a very short period of time, but people are still catching up.  Science ‘as we know it’ has had a place within the last 10% of the ~ 5000 years of recorded history only. It has only been 300 years since we first looked at the Moon and decided that there are no people living on it. It has only been less than 100 years since the advent of modern medicine. 50 years since the first moon landing. 15 since the first human genome sequenced. Today, we still sometime struggle with beliefs that fossils are the work of the Devil.

The Oeningen Lake Beds from where our salamander hails is one of the world’s richest site for plant and insect fossils. Note the intricate venation still preserved. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21

Living in a time when the authority of science as a source of empirical truth (or even the existence of such a thing as ’empirical truth’) is undermined by political and religious leaders, the increased understanding provided by scientific pursuit is under daily threat.

Come to the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History on Level 4 of Exley, and feast your eyes on our fossils with a beauty superseding any text written in stone.

We stand on the shoulders of Giants…

Cover photo: Andrias scheuzeri spine details from the Wesleyan Joe Webb Peoples Museum natural history collection. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Deinotherium: Stranger Than Fiction

Working with fossils, it’s not difficult to think that science is often stranger than fiction.

Wesleyan’s new star – our Glyptodon – is something that defies our every expectation of an armadillo. With her domed carapace, exquisite scutes and odd bone projections on her cheeks, she looks like a creature from a science fiction film.

Another odd piece that we recently plucked out of the Penthouse of Exley was another odd customer. With short proboscis – trunk-like structures like that of an elephant, and an unusual, downward curving pair of tusks, she was quite an odd sight.


The uncrating of the Deinotherium jaw and tusks from its 60 year-old crate. Dusty. Photo courtesy of Miah Tran ’21.


This creature has a rather unfortunate name. She was called “terrible beast”, derived from the Ancient Greek, deinos meaning “terrible” and therion meaning “beast”. She was a Deinotherium, a giant extinct elephant relative that lived from the middle Miocene (about 12 million years ago) to the middle Pliocene (about 3 million years ago). There is no consensus, even today, as to how these beasts used their peculiar-looking tusks that apparently serve no apparent purpose apart from prodding themselves when they nod their heads.


Artist reconstruction of Deinotherium featuring “self-prodding” tusks and oddly short proboscis. Illustration courtesy of LD Austin.


Nevertheless, this creature is by no means the oddest thing the fossil record has in stock. Evolution is a large series of experiments in nature where many body plans have been put to test. The Burgess Shale collection at Wesleyan holds some of the  legendary and mind-blowingly strange fossils from the middle Cambrian, about 550 million years ago. Stranger things lurk on Level 4 of Exley in the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History awaiting your discovery.

After the summer, this grand Deinotherium will join the Glyptodon on the museum’s developing series of exhibits around campus. Leave a comment and tell us where you would like to see this animal on campus!


Two inquisitive youngsters paying homage to the formidable Deinotherium in the former Wesleyan Museum. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives.


Cover photo: Deinotherium teeth detail showing premolars used for crunching. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Our Star Glyptodon

After almost a year of collaborative efforts, our Glyptodon, a copy of an original in a museum in Dijon, France, is finally in her place. Come gaze at her gorgeous scutes and adoring smile – it’s there, look carefully. Her favorite spot outside the Science Library, in the lobby of Exley, is decorated with pebbles that resemble those in the bed of the River Lujan, by which she was found in 1846. The screen next to her will tell you about her tumultuous journey from being hunted, to being neglected to finally being loved by all at Wesleyan.


The skull of our Glyptodon is a resin replica made by Gaston Design. It was painted to look like fossilised bone, and to match the rest of the cast. The original skull and feet are still missing. Photo courtesy of Olivia Drake.


The biological sex of our Glyptodon cannot be determined from the skeletal remains. In honor of the many hidden women figures in the sciences, and in a tribute to a tradition practised by Sir David Attenborough, we assume that our Glyptodon was female.

We are very heartened that our hard work has been appreciated by the community in many ways. Here are some rather comical, but nonetheless appreciated reactions to our GlypGlyp.


Alison Gross’18 shows her appreciation of Glyptodon. Video courtesy to Xandra Ellin’18.


A little dated, but we couldn’t resist adding this photo of a young prospective Glyptodonologist from the early 1900s to our list of people appreciating the Glyptodon. Photo courtesy of Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives.

If you are wondering, there is so much more in the Wesleyan storage places from where Glyptodon came: she is a mere tip in the sea of icebergs in our collections. The Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History collections on Level 4 of Exley holds over 100,000 fossils, minerals and meteorites. Many of these are world-class specimens that are held by few other institutions in the world. Come feast your eyes on some of nature’s most elusive treasures.

Don’t forget to propose a name for our Glyptodon so that we know what to call her when we walk by.


A shout out to everyone who brought the exhibition to fruition. Dr Ellen Thomas and Dr Ann C. Burke, for their mentorship and expert insight. Bruce Strickland, our Glyptodon Engineer, for mounting the pieces together and advising on restoration. James Zareski, for building her a marvellous pedestal like the one on which she used to stand  60 years ago. Joel Labella, for advice and enthusiastic help in restoration. And in a flourish of self-praise, Master Glyptodoners, Yu Kai Tan and Andy Tan restored the cast to its former glory.


The Glyptodon Crew. From left to right: Joel Labella, Bruce Strickland, James Zareski, Yu Kai Tan (me), Andy Tan, Dr. Ellen Thomas, Dr Ann C. Burke, David Strickland. Photo courtesy of Olivia Drake.


Cover Photo: Frontal portrait detail of Glyptodon skull. Photo courtesy of Olivia Drake.

Swimming with Monsters


Would you like to snorkel with giant predator reptiles the size of a small airplane?

Visit Level 3 of Exley Science Centre, where these spectacular beasts adorn our walls. And fear not, they are models, and the originals from which they are made have been petrified in stone for more than 100 million years.


Magnificent beasts revived from obscurity. From left to right: Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, Rhomaleosaurus macroocephalus, Temnodontosaurus platyodon. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

These fossil casts of animals which many children grew up knowing as Plesiosaurus and Ichthyosaurus have been plucked out of the obscurity of storage in the penthouse of Exley, where they had been collecting dust and mildew since 1957. Restoration efforts have brought these creatures back to their ferocious selves.


Sculpting a large missing chunk from the Mosasaurus hoffmani mandible back in place with plaster. Mosasaurs were marine lizards; we still need to find a place for this large specimen. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.


Once apex predators of the Mesozoic – the Age of the Dinosaurs – they have often been misrepresented as swimming dinosaurs. Ichthyosaurs were powerful swimmers that dived to great depths,  their eyes  protected from the high water pressure by bony shields. Plesiosaurs have such bizarrely long necks that their discoverer, a village girl named Mary Anning, was at some time accused by Georges Cuvier of fabricating a fossil by combining disparate body parts.

European scientists from colonial times are notorious for assuming the property of the conquered as theirs. Many of the world’s best fossils reside in institutions in Paris and London. In the 1800s, American professor Henry A. Ward decided that paleontologists in the US deserve to study  the best fossils in the world without having to travel across the Atlantic, a long and expensive trip, and suffer bouts of seasickness. Apparently, rock folks weren’t that good with the choppy waters. He traveled to Europe and made copies of some of the most celebrated fossils of his time, and sold them to institutions in the United States.


A spread from Henry A. Ward’s catalogue of fossil casts from the 1800s showing two of the Plesiosaur specimens now on display on Level 3 of Exley.


The World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago showed a full series of these marvellously rendered casts, which were later showed as featured exhibits in the Field Museum. Wesleyan acquired a full series of these casts for its Natural History Museum in 1871 as a donation from Orange Judd. When the museum closed in 1957, they were crated and tossed unceremoniously into tunnels and penthouses around campus, where they remained for 60 years, until they were recently brought into the daylight once more.


An unfamiliar sight to most Wesleyan residents today, this is a photo of the natural history museum in Judd Hall, until 1957. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University Library.


Cover photo: Spinal processes of Rhomaleosaurus macrocephalus. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan’21.

The Glyptodon (and other casts): Shining New Armor

Our star Glyptodon is getting a new coat of paint after we stripped her of a large quantity of 60 year-old dust, with plenty of elbow grease. As with the other Ward Casts in our collection, she will be repainted with archival artist acrylic paints. The color of our Glyptodon is rather bleached from the harsh  lighting during its days in the Wesleyan Museum (1871-1957). Archive photos from Special Collections and Archives at Olin Library at Wesleyan University, and photos of the same cast on public display in the Manitoba Museum show that she once sported a shinier and darker coat.

The sex of our Glyptodon cannot be determined from the material we have on hand. Hence according to a fairly recent tradition in assigning sex to these undetermined specimens in major museums and documentary productions, we are assuming that she was female when she lived. #davidattenborough

The Glyptodon on display in Judd Hall, at an unknown time before the closure of the Wesleyan Museum in 1957. She appears to have once sported a much darker carapace than she does today. Image from Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.

A  chunk of missing plaster was taken out of the right side of the creature, at some time during its long storage. We filled the shallow hole with Plaster of Paris and hand-sanded it to match the contour of the dome carapace. With a traditional Chinese stone seal carving knife, we carved the scutes (bony plates or osteoderms) on the Glyptodon into the newly filled plaster. Some artistic license went into the reconstruction of the damaged part, which we adjusted to the surrounding area, as our  research of Glyptodon scutes did not yield information pertinent to their restoration. However, each species of Glyptodon had its own unique pattern of scutes.

A traditional Chinese seal stone carving knife is used to etch and carve new scutes onto the fresh plaster fill-in. Measures are taken to ensure the interpretive restoration fits in well with the morphology of the old scutes.

To match the color of the original cast, we performed a spot test on and around the plaster fill. This spot was chosen in part because we were excited and a tad anxious to see how the restoration would turn out. Using an old worn-out brush with stiff bristles to stipple various shades of browns and darks over an undercoat of yellow ochre, we painted in the plaster restoration. It turned out rather satisfactory, with the color not  distinguishable from the surrounding areas.

Many more tubs of paint away from completion, the results are looking  encouraging. In the mean time, we are also working on restoring a cast of the holoytype of Mosasaurus hoffmanni, a source of political drama and contention between European governments. But more about that next time. – or see here for a first start of the saga of the mosasaur Our cast of this fossil was in a tremendously lamentable state when we found it in the penthouse of Exley. #déjàvu

Still far from being finished, our Mosasaurus hoffmanni is beginning to look rather spiffy after about 30 hours of work. Note the unpainted plaster fill-in on the lower mandible and the makeshift palette on the upper left. (Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21)

Large pieces of plaster were missing, including a broken tooth and a missing piece from the broken mandible the size of a tortilla chip. We have since sculpted the missing parts in plaster, which happens to be a notoriously challenging medium to work in. Once prepared, the plaster is workable for only 15 minutes before it cures, and it has a creamy consistency akin to that of mashed potatoes. Once the plaster cures, it is slowly hand-sanded to shape and painted with a matching colour mix.

A cling film is used to guide the plaster into place and hold the unstable medium in place for shaping and curing. The fill-in will later be carved and hand-sanded to shape. Other major plaster restorations can be seen in the background. (Photo courtesy of Andy Tan’21)

The careful reconstruction of these fossil casts play a significant part in reconstructing the history of paleontology. When fossil hunting was a trending field of study in Europe in the late 1800s, fossil specimens were found all over Europe in large numbers, with paleontologists in the US catching up in the late 1800s, specifically with the construction of railroads into the US west. In the 1860s, a visionary in the field, Henry A. Ward, an American geologist and naturalist and professor at Rochester University (and the founder of the present Ward’s Science company) , felt that the US public missed out on the opportunity to see the  most famous fossils, and made  an effort to provide access for scholars in the US to important fossil material: in 1866 he published his Catalogue of Casts of Fossils from the Principal Museums of Europe and America. His ambition and foresight laid the foundation for a generation of American paleontological work and public awareness on evolutionary theory based on these materials. Orange Judd provided funding to buy the complete series of casts when the Orange Judd Hall was finished in 1871, including the Giant Ground Sloth, Megatherium cuvieri, and Plesiosaurus cramptoni, 22 ft long; sadly, these two giant casts have  been lost at the dissolution of the Wesleyan Museum.

Not a dinosaur! And not a Jurassic animal either. An example of a sensationalist reconstruction. Mosasaurs are dominant predatorial marine lizards of the Late Cretaceous, many millions of years after the Jurassic. This one had a dorsal crest (not known from the fossil record) and is twice as large and the largest specimen ever found (Jurassic World, 2015)


Cover photo: Glyptodon carapace detail prior to repainting from the Joe Webb Peoples Museum collection at Wesleyan University. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.

Name Our Glyptodon Contest

Waking from a 60 year-old torpor, our Glyptodon no longer remembers her name. Nevertheless, she would love to hear you call her each time you walk by, so do come up with an exciting name that she will love! The contestant who nominated the chosen name will win a genuine fossil from Wesleyan’s 190 year-old natural history collection. CLICK HERE TO JOIN THE CONTEST! More information below.


The biological sex of our Glyptodon cannot be determined by looking at her remains. In honour of the hidden women figures in science (and a tradition practised by Sir David Attenborough), we will assume that our Glyptodon was female.

We are looking for a name that reflects her natural history, archaeological interest, and unique identity as a Wesleyan resident, in addition to any other important and fun aspects you may think of. Get creative!

The nomination process will be online until 2359 hours on April 8th, 2018. A committee consisting of 5 members of faculty, students and staff will then shortlist a number of appropriate entries for voting. The shortlisting process is anonymous.

A public vote will be run from the 11th through 25th, of April 2018, and will be accessible with the same QR code. Keep an eye out for it and get your friends to vote for your proposed name!


Visit by Dr. Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

We are very excited to announce a visit to Wesleyan by

Dr. Kirk Johnson

Sant Director,  National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Dr Johnson will give a public lecture:  

Natural History in the Age of Humans.

The lecture is scheduled for 1 March 2018, 7:30 pm, in room Shanklin 107, and will be followed by a reception in the Woodhead Lounge at 8:30 pm.


Natural history museums represent a fundamental tool to understand and preserve Earth’s natural and cultural heritage. The public perception of museums as educational experiences masks their deeper value to human society as the creators and keepers of our knowledge of the natural and cultural world. With a rapidly growing world population, food insecurity, infectious diseases, and invasive species are problems that may find their solution in the genomics of biodiversity housed in museum collections. Minerals, meteorites, and fossils are the physical evidence of the planet’s history, climate, biological evolution, and resource base. In an increasingly digital era, museums are one of the last bastions of the real thing.

Dr. Johnson oversees more than 440 employees and a collection of more than 145 million objects—the largest natural history collection in the world. Kirk Johnson is a paleontologist who has led expeditions in 11 countries and 19 states that resulted in the discovery of more than 1,400 fossil sites. His research focuses on fossil plants and the extinction of the dinosaurs. He is known for his scientific articles, popular books, museum exhibitions, documentaries, presentations, and collaborations with artists to reconstruct ancient ecosystems. In 2010-11, he led the Snowmastodon Project, the excavation of an amazing ice age site near Snowmass Village, Colorado. This dig recovered more than 5,400 bones of mammoths, mastodons and other ice age animals and was featured in the NOVA documentary, Ice Age Death Trap, and in Johnson’s book, Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies. His latest book, Ancient Wyoming, explores the prehistory and geology of the Bighorn Basin.

For Wesleyan, it is especially exciting to welcome Dr Johnson, because he is the present occupant of the position first held by the man who started his museum career as the first curator of the Wesleyan Museum of Natural History and the son in law of Orange Judd, ichthyologist George Brown Goode.

By that time, we hope to also celebrate the return to public life of Wesleyan’s cast of Glyptodon, as discussed in several earlier blogs. She will be exhibited in the lobby of Exley, between the entrance to the Science Library and Tischler Hall. 




Restoration: Terror of the Oceans

Wesleyan’s remarkable series of fossils casts includes two large specimens of ferocious predatorial reptiles- Plesiosaurus and IchthyosaurusThe fossil casts were in a dishearteningly deplorable state when they were rediscovered, crated in the Penthouse of Exley. The casts were put in crates when the Wesleyan Museum closed in 1957. We did not know where they were stored, but they were moved to the penthouse of the Exley Science center when the building was occupied in 1970. After 60 years of chill and thaw in the uncontrolled environment, large cracks were running across the surfaces, and the paint was chipped in many places. The Ichthyosaurus communis cast even had a number of jarring holes in various places. We probed the possibilities of salvaging these treasures, conducting extensive research into reversible restorative methods.

Being part of the Ward Series of Fossil Casts, this series of early large casts were once celebrated feature exhibits in major museums worldwide from 1866 onwards. Orange Judd donated a full series of these casts to the Wesleyan Museum when it opened in Judd Hall in 1870. The Plesiosaurus macrocephalus was an early cast of the holotype specimen of its species, and the second of its kind to be found. After almost 150 years since their making, the plaster has shrunk from off-gassing and evaporation, causing the inflexible paint layer to peel off and crackle, and simply “floating” above the plaster instead of adhering to it.

As with all the other fossils casts that are out of storage for the first time since 1957, this Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus Ward cast bears the unflattering signs of age- cracked plaster, peeling paint, unidentified stains and a thick coating of 60 year-old dust. (Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21)

Given their historical significance, great care was taken to employ the least intrusive methods in their restoration. We strove to minimise the changes made to the original, retaining as much of the old paint as possible. The casts were carefully inspected for unstable paint flecks, which were glued back down using acrylic medium. An airgun was passed gently over the casts to remove dust without abrading the fragile paint layer.

Each speck of missing paint is matched by mixing an identical colour with its adjacent regions from artist acrylics. The paints are then painstakingly stippled onto the plaster. (Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21)

A non-shrinking putty was used to fill in the larger holes and cracks in the plaster, some of which were created by early curators nailing labels into the cast itself. The missing paint chips were carefully colour-matched using archival acrylic paints, and filled in using meticulous stippling brushstrokes- a long painstaking process. Artist sponges are used to fill in parts of the background with major blemishes to recreate the natural texture of the casts. As the acrylic paints dry to a finish that looks glossier than the original, distressing of the surrounding matrix was done using fine grit sandpaper buffers, aiming for an earthy texture that is faithful to the original. Each cast took about 20 hours to restore to their formal glory. After applying a thin coat of archival breathable sealant, the casts are ready for show.

Ichthyosaurus platyodon Ward Cast in all its splendour after 30 hours of careful cleaning and restoration. (Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21)

Perhaps the modest, undemonstrative splendour of even the most major museums are so ingrained in our minds that we often don’t realise the strenuous effort put into each piece in an exhibition. Perhaps next time, you will take a moment to wonder as you wander, down the galleries of deep time past.


Cover photo: Freshly restored Ichthyosaurus communis cast detail from the Joe Webb Peoples Museum collection at Wesleyan. Photo courtesy of Andy Tan ’21.