You can see the work of MV's preparation department before you even walk in the door of Melbourne Museum. Hanging in the front window there is a food chain of predators chasing a school of fish. Our preparators created over one thousand individually painted fish for the school and the brilliant prehistoric animal models in the Science and Life Gallery are their work, too.
One of specialist tasks of the preparators is taxidermy: preserving the skin of an animal specimen and preparing a mount that records exactly how the animal looked in life. Taxidermy is truly an art that takes many years to learn and even longer to master. At Museum Victoria, our master taxidermist is Senior Preparator Dean Smith.
We visit as he is putting the finishing touches on a taxidermy mount of a male koala. This individual was the unfortunate victim of a road accident; Dean reported that its skull and jaw were fractured from the impact. It's a reminder for all of us to drive carefully in areas where animals roam, but this koala will now have a second life as a teaching aid in the museum's Outreach Program, our mobile outreach service. Says Dean, 'it will go to the elderly, the disabled, little kids... they will be able to touch a koala.'
Dean learned how to prepare mounts from a former taxidermist who worked at the museum for 40 years. He's now passing on his skills to other staff in the Preparation Department, describing it as 'the cycle of learning'.
From start to finish, a specimen like this takes several weeks. First Dean removed and tanned the skin. He cast an exact copy of the koala's body and stretched the skin over the cast, pinning it it place. He recreated the fine structure of its head beneath the skin. After three weeks of drying, he cleaned the fur and airbrushed the fleshy details of its ears and mouth. The result is an exquisite specimen that is incredibly lifelike.
Another project for the Outreach Program is a Wedge-tailed Eagle. He says that birds are much more difficult to prepare than mammals because their feathers lose their structure. 'You have to sit for hours and comb the feathers.'