Dealing with breaks – best practice

Something a bit more practical this time out, what to do when you break a bone. Breakages are pretty much a matter of course – no matter how careful you are and how robust the bone, things will break. I don’t know of a single professional who has not broken something, and while I’m not exactly proud of the record, I can think of perhaps a dozen specimens that have breaks in them now that didn’t before I was working on them. You will also come across specimens that are broken too, either where old glue has lost its bonding powers or the specimen has simply broken under its own weight (or of course where someone else broke it and didn’t realise or didn’t tell you). Still, for all the frequency that this happens, I’ve yet to see anyone lay out what you should do afterwards so here’s my attempt.

First off, don’t just reach for the glue to fix it as many will be tempted to do. Try not to move or disturb things – there are often small bits that have hung on and will break or come off if you touch them. So be careful and put the thing down as best you can to avoid making anything worse.

If there are a number of larger pieces, try and lay them out such that it’s clear how the thing should be put back together. This will make life a lot easier for whoever has to repair the specimen. If there are any very small pieces, try and collect them – don’t let any bits go to waste (even if these can’t be glue back, they could be used later for SEM work or isotope analysis, and it will save people having to take a sample if there are broken bits already available).

Next, take some photos and notes on the specimens. Write down what broke, where and how and do a little sketch if necessary. Again, this will really help make sure the repairs are done correctly. Photographs are especially important as often for the integrity of the whole piece the specimen will be glued back together so this is perhaps the one and only opportunity to get good images of the internal structure of the bones or see the cross-sectional shape of the broken part. Include a scale bar and try to take good photos, you may want to publish these later.

Obviously you should tell the curator what has happened and let them decide how to proceed. They may want to repair the specimen immediately, or it might be better to wait until all your work is done, but it’s their specimen so they should decide how to proceed. If it’s your specimen, or you are asked to do the repair work yourself, take time to assess it. Pick a good glue – preferably a commercially available one that is easily soluble so it can be taken off later if necessary. Try to be consistent as well such that the glues used on the specimen are all of one type (if they are mixed, then using one type of solvent might free one glue but cause a bad reaction with another). Any pieces that cannot be fitted should be put in a box with the original specimen with the specimen number on it and note as to where they came from.

In addition to taking notes for yourself, write a short note to go with the specimen itself. Put the date, your name, the specimen number / bone on it and then just a few words to explain what broke where and how it was repaired (a print out with photos is even better). That way, anyone coming to the specimen in future will therefore know that the specimen has a weak point to watch out for, how it was glued back, and that there are notes and photos available from you if necessary.

That should cover it and give you more than a few pointers on the way forward. Hopefully this will help keep our specimens in the best condition possible for as long as possible. Accidents will happen, but we can intervene to make them as painless as possible, both to the specimens and the curators who look after them and the researchers that follow us into the collections.

2 Responses to “Dealing with breaks – best practice”


  1. 1 Casey 18/02/2010 at 12:04 am

    Sounds like some recent personal experience inspired this blog post :)

    • 2 David Hone 18/02/2010 at 8:50 am

      No more than usual. Actually I’ve not broken anything for, ohhh a good couple of months. But I do often come across things in collections that are broken and were not when I last saw them , or have been repaired in such a way that i don’t know what happened, when or how and what may or may not have changed. This is rather annoying when all you have is a 30 year old description that didn’t bother to illustrate the specimen so it’s impossible to know what breaks or features the author might have been referring to.


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