On a rainy Friday afternoon, my co-worker Alcamy and I began cleaning Simon the Rooster. Simon is a prize-winning, taxidermy rooster, and the unofficial mascot of the Rare Books Room. He was graciously donated to us by his previous owner and namesake Sandra Simon some 15 years ago, and he was in desperate need of a cleaning. Thus began the journey to Simon’s spa day.
There were a few bumps on the road to cleaning Simon, the biggest one being arsenic. See, Alcamy began doing research into all things taxidermy to prepare for Simon’s big wash day. She began by reading Elizabeth Glennon’s (a conservator from the West Dean program in England) blog about conservation, and she discovered that up until about 1980, most taxidermy was done using arsenic soap, and sometimes even mercury. She also referenced the American Institute of Conservation and Fran Ritchie, an objects conservator with the National Parks Service! Mercury is a well known madness inducer (Mad Hatter, anyone?), and arsenic is famous for causing cancer. This was not great for us cleaners because, well, arsenic is no laughing matter, so Simon had to re-live 2020 and go into quarantine until we could test him for poisonous substances.
Alcamy ordered an arsenic testing kit and on Monday, May 22nd, we began testing Simon. Arsenic can sometimes be seen on taxidermy as white flakes that eventually move down the mount due to their weight. See, as time passes, the arsenic falls from open areas on the taxidermy, such as the eyes or bottom, and show up as white crystalline structures that indicate its presence. Simon had suspicious white flakes on him, which is what made us nervous in the first place, because they could be arsenic, or also crumbling pigment, the base structure coming undone, or basic wear and tear, and we wanted to check what it was in case it could kill us. So, we gently scraped the flakes off him and mixed them with distilled water, let it marinate for 24 hours, then came back and mixed the flaky solution with the chemicals in the test kit, and after a half hour of shaking the test tube every five minutes, it was time to see if Simon had been inadvertently poisoning the Rare Books Room workers since he came to us. Luckily, the test was negative! No arsenic to be found on dear old Simon! It’s worth noting that we would have cleaned Simon whether we found arsenic or not, we just had to know how much protective gear we would need to wear in order to do it.
Alcamy (left) and Elise (center) testing for arsenic using an Osumex testing kit. On the right, you see them matching the color of the test strip with the test diagram.
After the test, it was time to clean! On Friday, May 26th, Alcamy and I met in her office and gathered all the materials needed to clean Simon. This took some running around campus to collect everything, and we would like to thank Photoland for letting us borrow a couple lab coats so that we didn’t get Rooster dander on our clothes while cleaning. Also, for making us look very scientific and professional, which we sometimes are. The lab coats made sure we didn’t bring Simon’s unhygienic fowl dust home, and we also got gloves to protect our hands from Simon’s dust, as well as Simon’s feathers from our oily hands. Because he was negative for arsenic, we didn’t need respirators or a fume hood, so that made our lives easier. Once we had all the protective gear we needed, we set up a special vacuum called a Nilfisk, affectionately nicknamed Fisky by Alcamy, that conservators use to clean various collections because it has a very good filtration system and you can control how much it sucks. It also costs more than a used car. Because the vacuum is extremely powerful even on its lowest setting, we placed a piece of remay over the opening and secured it with a rubber band, which allowed us to clear away dust and other small debris without accidentally sucking up anything large, like a feather. We grabbed a small fan brush, steadied Simon, and began our work.
Close-up images of the dirty bird himself, showing specks of detritus accumulated over the years.
Elise (left) and Alcamy (right) in the process of surface cleaning.
We started at the top of Simon’s head, beginning with his feathers, and very carefully began lightly brushing the dust that had collected away with the fan brush. The fan brush allowed us to get into narrow spaces, as well as cover whole areas. The vacuum was held in one hand, and the brush in the other, that way we could scrape the dust into the vacuum without directly sucking up Simon’s being. Alcamy and I took turns brushing Simon, making sure to always brush with the direction of his feathers, never against them, that way we didn’t dislodge any or make him look ruffled. We made sure to document our work throughout the process, taking photos of Simon in his original, dusty state, the halfway mark, where it’s very easy to see the progress we made, to where we ended for the day. We managed to clean all his feathers and most of his body, and then a week later Alcamy went in with a Q-tip and distilled water and very gently cleaned his eyeball (he only has one, he’s a winking rooster) as well as his talons. She cleaned the base he is mounted on using a larger, denser brush with the vacuum on a higher setting and no remay- she really got into the wood grain. We’re hoping that after this, Simon will get a spa day at least twice a year, though quarterly would be even better.
Close-up images of a so-fresh-and-so-clean-clean Simon.
To come visit Simon in person or to contact the Rare Books Room staff directly, visit our Rare Books Room Guide.