Executive Director and CEO Kim McKay in conversation with Sheldon Teare, Natural Sciences Conservator at the Australian Museum.

Sheldon with Eric Pliosaur
Sheldon Teare observing and working on Eric the Pliosaur in the Material Conservation laboratory. Shot in March 2018. Image: Nick Langley
© Australian Museum

Want to know how to move a giant whale skeleton? Restore a ceremonial Malaga Mask? Reassemble an Irish Elk, restore an opalised Pliosaur, or stick a Sea turtle skeleton back together? The AM’s Natural Sciences Conservator Sheldon Teare, is the expert!

Sheldon works in Collection Care and Conservation across the AM's Collections, and specialises in Natural Sciences Collection materials. He was recently given the opportunity to study in Spain as part of the AM's Staff Awards, recognising his outstanding contribution to the AM.

"Even something as large as a lion can be affected by something as small as a pest, a little beetle that could eat the skin or fur or feathers, things like that, so while we deal with things on a macro scale we also deal on a very micro scale," Sheldon Teare.

Kim McKay: Hello, and welcome to AMplify, I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO at the Australian Museum, and AMplifyis our regular podcast where we get to know some of the incredible staff who work behind the scenes at the Australian Museum, and also meet some of our scientists who are doing extraordinary work. Of course this year is our 190th anniversary. Yes, the Australian Museum was founded in 1827, making us the first museum in Australia, and really the first museum charged with recording the fauna of our continent. To do that work on a daily basis takes an extraordinary team of people, and today we're going to meet one of those who does work behind the scenes and sometimes so far behind even inside some of the incredible specimens that the museum holds.

Sheldon Teare is a natural science conservator with the Australian Museum. He works in a department called Materials Conservation, so he's got responsibility for helping maintain the entire collection and, let's face it, we've got something like over 18.5 million objects and specimens in the collection, so it's a lot to look after. So Sheldon and his colleagues do that on a day-to-day basis, and also work a lot in prep for exhibitions, making sure those specimens and objects that go on public display are in the best way maintained for the future. So what does it take to be one of these people and what are the skills? Welcome Sheldon.

Sheldon Teare: Thanks for having me today Kim.

Kim McKay: It's great to have you. And I should just point out that Sheldon won our staff prize last year for being the person who had contributed most in his particular area. And as part of that, he went off and did a wonderful course in Barcelona. Let's start there. How was Barcelona?

Sheldon Teare: Barcelona was wonderful, it was great to have the opportunity to go over. I learnt a lot, it was fantastic.

Kim McKay: So what did you do there?

Sheldon Teare: I had a workshop on the care and management of natural history collections. So we were learning from some very important leaders in the field.

Kim McKay: So what is conservation of natural history? Tell us about that.

Sheldon Teare: I guess my role is to ensure all our specimens last that much longer so they will be around for future studies, for future audiences to enjoy and to learn from. So we balance access and preservation. So the deterioration, trying to limit the amount of damage that happens.

Kim McKay: You're probably going to hate this analogy but I remember my mum having a fur coat, it was hanging in her wardrobe, and over the years as a little girl I'd go and try it on and play dress-ups, and then one day I did that and it sort of fell apart in my hands. You stop and our specimens falling apart, don't you.

Sheldon Teare: Yes, that's our main goal, that's what we definitely try and stop happening, we don't like it when things fall apart.

Kim McKay: No. And we've got some very large specimens in the collection, rhinoceros for example, that have been in the collection for well over 100 years, and lions for example. So how do you go about looking after these specimens?

Sheldon Teare: I guess with those very large specimens it comes down to how we handle them and how we store them. So we always try and move them around in…

Kim McKay: Stillages? They're packed in boxes really aren't they.

Sheldon Teare: Yes, the transportation and the movement, which I manage the risks involved in moving something that size, but it also comes down to even something as large as a lion can be affected by something as small as a pest, a little beetle that could eat the skin or the fur or feathers, things like that. So while we deal with things on a macro scale, we're also dealing on a very micro scale.

Kim McKay: That's right, so if there was an infestation of pests in our collection it could be disastrous, right?

Sheldon Teare: Yes, they can tear their way through a lot of material in a very short time.

Kim McKay: Well, we see in Australia how often termites can tear their way through a house.

Sheldon Teare: Exactly, and a lot of people do think of insects eating organic material like fur and feathers, that's where I encounter it the most. But because we have such a vast and beautiful Pacific collection, which is largely full of wood, we have had in the past borer and termite issues, and they can be a lot harder to get rid of, as anyone with borer at home will understand.

Kim McKay: That's right. So you play a really significant role because that collection which is a very valuable collection, not just economically valuable but valuable to our understanding of our history as a continent and the region of protecting and preserving that. So just in the same way we often hear a lot about in libraries, conservators there looking after the paper, this is a similar sort of skillset but really dealing with sometimes some very, very large or very, very small creatures.

Sheldon Teare: That's one of the things I find the most rewarding about my position as a natural scientist conservator, it's not one material type, I'm not tied to just paper or just paintings. If you think of a natural science collection, we've got birds, we've got mammals, but we've also got a geological specimens, we've got fossils, things preserved in a fluid. So I get to jump around all sorts of material types which, when we come down to it, that's what conservators love, we love the materials of the objects, and problem-solving how to best preserve and understand the chemistry of the objects as well as their significance and scientific value.

Kim McKay: Exactly. Sometimes it looks, when I've observed you working, it's quite a solitary pursuit at times, isn't it.

Sheldon Teare: Yes, you do conjure up those images of the painting conservator at an easel very methodically working away, and sometimes our treatments are very delicate and solitary. But again, one of the lovely things about my role is because I do work on rhinos and bison and whales, I do have to collaborate a lot with other people. It takes two people, three people even just to move the objects, so I'm quite lucky, I often get a buddy to work with on those long hours.

Kim McKay: That's right, and it is painstaking work, isn't it. But you also need a bit of an artistic bent too, don't you.

Sheldon Teare: Yes, a lot of people come into conservation with a visual arts background. I didn't, but it can be a steep learning curve.

Kim McKay: So let's talk about how you got into this. Were you fascinated by natural science as a young man?

Sheldon Teare: I started my uni degree doing ancient history, classics, that kind of thing, with archaeology. And while doing archaeology I discovered these people who get given all the treasures that are dug up, and they are the ones charged with making sure it's going to last and cleaned up and put into a beautiful display. And I thought that's much more…it spoke to me much more strongly. I thought my hands aren't made for digging, so I investigated and found a museum in my hometown that would take me on as a volunteer.

Kim McKay: Where was that?

Sheldon Teare: That was in Dunedin in New Zealand.

Kim McKay: In the South Island of New Zealand, almost right in the Southern Ocean there.

Sheldon Teare: Yes, brushing up against Antarctica.

Kim McKay: So you volunteered at the museum. In fact we see a lot of people today who volunteer at our museum here and then they end up getting jobs here, so that really…

Sheldon Teare: It is a great way of entering a museum because we have so many diverse fields that are quite unique and niche, and you might not hear about them. So I was very lucky to get time with a conservator and to find out that that is what I wanted to do, because it is a bit of an undertaking, a very unique branch to go down. And that I was lucky enough to go over to Melbourne to study conservation and ended up here.

Kim McKay: So you did a masters, didn't you, in Melbourne?

Sheldon Teare: Yes, and Melbourne Uni offers a masters degree in conservation. I believe it's one of the few in Australia.

Kim McKay: Right. And you worked for Museums Victoria.

Sheldon Teare: Yes, I was lucky enough to get a short contract there for about a year and a half before I managed to make the change and come up to Sydney.

Kim McKay: And we're so glad you did Sheldon, because we have an extraordinary collection here and the museum is…it's sort of captivating, isn't it.

Sheldon Teare: It is, it's a great place to be, and it was really the only…it gave me the opportunity to focus in to natural science. A lot of museums don't have that role. I think there's only two of us in permanent roles in this country. So it definitely gave a brilliant opportunity for my career.

Kim McKay: Isn't that wonderful. It's great to have you as part of it. And of course at the moment we've got so much redevelopment happening at the museum, and of course for our 190th we are working now on the Long Gallery transformation. We were lucky to get support from Westpac and the state government and donors, and our beautiful neoclassical three-level gallery is completely being restored and we are putting the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in there. And I know you've been working on some of those treasures.

Sheldon Teare: Yes, it's again another fantastic opportunity. Almost every year since being a staff member here there's been wonderful exhibitions year after year that have had such a massive natural science component, and the Long Gallery, hundreds and hundreds of natural science specimens are coming across my desk.

Kim McKay: That's right, I should say to people that while there are 200 treasures being highlighted, in fact we've got literally probably over 800 different objects going into that gallery on the ground floor where the objects are going to be housed in different thematic ways, and they are some of the true treasures of this museum. So it's so exciting to get them out, isn't it.

Sheldon Teare: Definitely, it's sort of those objects that have always been sitting on a shelf in a store and now I get to have them on my table and check them out in great detail. It's wonderful.

Kim McKay: So, you're very busy, obviously, conserving those specimens at the moment, getting ready. The Long Gallery reopens in October and will really become that must-see gallery in Australia for visitors to our country, to Sydney, but for everybody just to enjoy. You could dwell in there.

Sheldon Teare: I think so, it's going to be marrying the cultural objects and the natural history objects together in one space, it's something for everyone.

Kim McKay: That's right, so it will be a true treasure chest in that way. So I'm really excited about that, this is a phenomenal year ahead of us for our 190th. So what has been the best thing you've ever done here, Sheldon?

Sheldon Teare: Oh my goodness. Like I said, there's been so many exhibitions that I've got to work on that have been so heavily natural science, which is quite rare. I've worked on everything, from the beautiful birds of paradise, over I think 100 specimens went into the birds of paradise exhibition and they were just stunning to work with.

Kim McKay: And you probably are aware that in Sir David Attenborough's tour of Australia coming up that he has borrowed one of our birds of paradise specimens to use in the show, which is just fantastic.

Sheldon Teare: It is great. I think it was from the 1890s, the specimen that we are giving. But that exhibition was a pleasure to work on, it's probably one of the highlights.

Kim McKay: So if you had a favourite specimen or object in the Australian Museum collection, and I'm putting you on the spot because we do have over 18.5 million objects, and I know you've also just been involved in helping relocate some of them up to Castle Hill, our new off-site shared storage with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and Sydney Living Museums, which gives us much better storage facilities, temperature controlled and hopefully to minimise pest infestation, so in that whole process, what has been the thing that you've gone, 'Oh, that's my favourite'?

Sheldon Teare: I must admit I do love mammals, they are I guess very engaging, some of the beautiful historical taxidermy mounts that we have. I think probably my favourite would be Dyson the Bison in Wild Planet, he's just a beautiful mound, and his expression and the way he's in the gallery, you can just look straight at him and he's almost…

Kim McKay: So you call him Dyson the Bison? Because I have always called him Bill Bison.

Sheldon Teare: I think everyone christens specimens something different, whatever speaks to them.

Kim McKay: Yes, because they do have personalities, don't they.

Sheldon Teare: And when you spend a lot of time staring into these specimens you kind of christen them something.

Kim McKay: And the thing I love about the fact that we've been able to get some of these very historic specimens out on display in our Wild Planet exhibition is that you get to see them so up close. And bison, my God, they are enormous creatures.

Sheldon Teare: Yes, that has been such a joy to get. So many things that I've seen in stores that I can walk up to and look at but so many of the public haven't had a chance to see them, a lot of our exotics have sat off-site for a long time, and to see the bison and zebra right there, just fantastic.

Kim McKay: It is fantastic and I'll always remember the day of when some of those specimens came out of storage and came into the museum and seeing you so carefully handling them and putting them into position. It's a thrill, I love seeing the kids wander through the Wild Planet gallery, and we are adding to it too in the future, so it's always going to be updated and refreshed, isn't it, because we do have so many specimens to draw upon.

Sheldon Teare: Exactly, and that has a preservation overtone as well. We like to rest, as we call it, specimens from light. Because we have quite a lot, we can swap things in an out that might be a little bit more light-sensitive, so that's great.

Kim McKay: And specimens need to rest, and so do we, which is why we've just come back from wonderful holidays. But Sheldon Teare, it's fantastic to have you on the team here and the work you do, but great to learn more about materials conservation and maybe not thousands of people can do this, there's not a lot of jobs, but I think you might have inspired a few people to look at it.

Sheldon Teare: I hope so, yes, it's a fantastic career.

Kim McKay: Wonderful. Good to meet you Sheldon.

Sheldon Teare: Thanks for having me.