Monday, May 2, 2016

The Reality of Things in Jars

The talented Britta Miller is no stranger to these pages. Beyond producing some choice Mythos artifacts she also happens to work in an actual museum filled with shelves of preserved biological specimens. Ms. Miller was kind enough to share some insights based on that experience.

Thought I'd drop an email on the subject of Things In Jars, as I have been working for the past 1 1/2 years in the Holy Grail of Things In Jars, a museum specimen collection.

It's pretty glorious.

Since Things In Jars is a popular prop making project, I thought I'd share some observations from my time spent among the ghastly dead. I have yet to make any pickled things props, but perhaps anyone setting out for realistic "museum specimen" props could get some use out of it.

Most everything is stored in 70% ethanol. The primary color of alcohol with things in it for a long time is golden yellow, from dissolved fat. New alcohol is clear, but the longer something is in a jar, and the "meatier" it is, the darker yellow the alcohol ends up, even shading almost to orange with blobs of fat floating on the surface. Never green, despite how popular it is in prop making. I suppose a case could be made for alien biology, but neon green preserving fluid always looks more "sci fi B movie" than convincing. 
An aside to this is a preserving fluid not as widely used now called "Bouin's solution" which is almost neon green-yellow and stains horribly. Cracked open a jar of things in Bouin's solution without realizing that's what it was, and the stain didn't come out of my fingers for a couple days.

Aside from large gallon jars with plastic screw tops, the primary sort of storage vessel is canning jars with rubber gaskets--often the kind with the logos right on them. (also, never metal screw tops). Keeps a much better seal--and never sealed over with wax, like I see often in prop making (good for props to keep evaporation down, but in an actual specimen collection you need access to everything to add/use/study specimens, and unsealing/resealing would be a major time suck) Alternately, the collection used to be housed in glass jars with glass tops (antiques, now) before being modernized to the rubber-gasket variety.

Some interesting observations on color: Naturally, things fade after being preserved, but they fade pretty specifically. Bright colors go quick--reds and yellows end up dulled to brownish/whitish. Greys/browns/whites and patterns tend to stay visible, unless something is poorly preserved/left in the light for too long, then it'll fade almost to nothing. Green is an interesting one--due to the nature of how green coloration works, it simply doesn't exist in preserved specimens. Preserve a bright green frog or snake, and it winds up a dusty blue color, which is actually quite attractive.

In life, these are brilliant green tree frogs.

Also, tags! Tags are never stuck to the outside of jars, they'd eventually wear off/fade to nothing. They're typed--or handwritten, on the oldest specimens--in waterproof ink on regular old paper and dropped right in the jars. Even things collected in the 20s or before have their original hand-written tags in the jars, still legible. And individual specimens within the jar have their catalog numbers tied right on them. In a museum you can have a hundred of a single species in one jar. This actually was somewhat of a surprise the first time I was in the collection, my main exposure to Things In Jars previous to this having been film/displays where a single specimen is arranged nicely for display--here, jars are often packed full of dozens of individuals. It's a striking effect, in a completely different way. In the case of really tiny things, like tadpoles or larval newts, individuals tend to be stored with their catalog number in a vial, stuffed with cotton, in the main jar. 

This is probably all information readily available elsewhere on the internet, but I thought I'd share anyway.
I'll leave you with this lovely alligator heart in a jar.


Odd Fallweather said...

Awesome article. Very interesting and useful information. Thanks for posting.

CoastConFan said...

It’s always useful to read an authoritative first hand narrative on modern specimen bottles. I hadn’t heard of Bouin Solution and was pleased to find a Wikipedia entry on the subject. It’s nasty stuff all right: “Since Bouin solution contains formaldehyde, picric acid and acetic acid, appropriate safety precautions for these substances should be taken and regulations followed. In particular, noting that picric acid can be explosive, sensitive to friction and shock when dry and in contact with some metals can form unstable metal picrates.”

I know in the past “drinking” alcohol was used in ad hoc preserving. The hero of Trafalgar Lord Nelson had his body placed in a cask of brandy for transport back to England in 1805. No word on what happened to the liquor, but if I know the tars, they drank a tot in his memory, unless the camphor and myrrh made it unpalatable.

In my youth, I remember reading an article about the head of Murrieta (Joquin Murrieta Carrillo) and hand of Three Finger Jack (aka Tres Dedos), controversial early California bandits who were killed in 1853 and the portions were placed in whiskey. After being on display in mining camp, the grisly relics eventually ended up on display in a San Francisco bar, but apparently destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906.

In the Disney film Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Kirk Douglas’s character is seen tossing out the Captain’s biological samples and drinking the alcohol, but then again, it’s just a movie.

Honey was also used as a preservative in ancient times, most famously with Alexander the Great’s body, but I think I am straying -- sometimes I feel I am like David McCallum’s character on CSI.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was interesting!
Film and reality, they almost never match.

Pocko said...

So generous of her to share her knowledge. Some really great information here!

Markus said...

I have also a collection of animals in jars, which are part of my private zoological collection. I use them also on occasion as anatomical references, for exmaple for drawing or sculpting. It also includes some former aquarium fish which had deceased, but also some squids I bought either frozen or fresh. They make great references for models and drawings, especially if you want to have a better insight for rarely depicted anatomical details. For this reason I also made several different jars in which I can see the squids in different position, for example with their arms and tentacles hanging down, or the other way around, so that their arrangment of the arms, the beak and the membranes in between can be seen in detail.

Alysson Rowan said...

Real Wax-sealed specimens only exist in a single context, to my knowledge ...

Once a jar was filled with pickled specimens on an extended expedition, it was usually sealed with wax for long-term storage until the voyage was over and the specimens could be unpacked and studied/distributed/ placed in permanent storage.

In this case, the wax seal was as much to act as a reminder that a specimen jar was full as to seal the contents.

Markus said...

Some of the old jars are actually sealed with pig-bladders, and it seems that this bladders were at least sometimes also impregnated with some kind of varnish or wax: