Sheldon Teare is rapt in concentration as he uses a mini dental vacuum to suck the dust off every feather on a century-old male peacock that sits more than a metre tall on his desk.

“We wear gloves because some of these animals were preserved using arsenic,” he says. “We also have to ensure every feather is smooth, not ruffled or unzipped.” The final stage is to paint the feathers with water and a thickening agent, using blotting paper to draw off any residual dust.

Material Conservation of Peacock specimen
Materials Conservator Sheldon Teare prepares a Peacock specimen for display in the refurbished Long Gallery. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Teare is one of Australian Museum’s six Natural History Conservators preparing, cleaning, restoring and documenting 220 objects for display in the soon-to-be-unveiled exhibition 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum in Australia’s first museum gallery, the Westpac Long Gallery.

Opening 14 October, the exhibition will showcase 100 invaluable treasures from the AM’s world-class collection, and the stories of 100 people who have had a profound influence on the nation.

The 100 objects have been selected not only for their uniqueness, cultural significance, scientific value or beauty but for the captivating stories they tell, when and how they were discovered and their relationships with other items in the museum. An additional 120 complementary specimens will be on display, adding to the richness of these hidden stories. 

Westpac Long Gallery - Krefft Chair
The chair of the AM director Gerard Krefft is 'entangled' with objects from his story. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

And while our Conservators work on restoring and preserving, Exhibition Project Manager Fran Dorey has been driving the exhibition design, content and planning process since the end of 2014.

“The point is that the gallery is not frozen in the past but has evolved and adapted over 150 years,” she says. “The gallery will pay tribute to the past but embrace the future – enhanced with technology such as video, audio and interactive touch screens.”

Aaron Maestri, the AM’s Exhibition Designer and the project’s visionary, used a 3D printer to create a model the size of a doll’s house of the Westpac Long Gallery, which helped him figure out where and how all the display cases (purpose-built in Italy) will sit.

Westpac Long Gallery
Westpac Long Gallery Image: Daniel Boud
© Australian Museum

The gallery is a great example of Victorian architecture of the time, similar to the GPO and the grand bank buildings, but the original design has been obscured by additions and alterations over the years,” Maestri says. “While we have worked with a heritage architect to restore the gallery’s original structure, we are definitely bringing the exhibition design into the 21st century; it is lean and modern but retains the solidness of its history. Aaron Maestri

A glimpse of the Treasures

Eric the pliosaur was found in 1987 by opal miner Joe Vida. Pliosaurs are short-necked plesiosaurs, aquatic carnivorous reptiles that lived in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (about 200–66 million years ago). Eric’s bones – as well as the tiny fossilised bones of fish inside his stomach – opalised as he was preserved in the sandstone.

Opalised Pliosaur Umoonasaurus demoscyllus - Eric the Pliosaur
‘Eric’ the pliosaur was a short-necked, carnivorous reptile that lived in the inland seas of South Australia in the Cretaceous, about 120–100 million years ago. The pliosaur bones, as well as the tiny fish bones found inside its stomach, became opalised during the fossilisation process. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Archaeologists excavated this Egyptian mummy (below) from a tomb in Thebes (modern-day Luxor). The mummy is wrapped in fragile linen and is lying in a wooden coffin, painted with devotional scenes. Originally, AM scientists believed it contained a man. Then in 2004, a computed tomography (CT) scan at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital revealed the mummy actually held the body of a woman, mummified 2,200 years ago.

Egyptian Mummy
Details of the Egyptian 'mummy' which was exhibited in 'Life Beyond the Tomb' Exhibition, 2005 This object is on display in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition and catalogue. Wood, plaster, pigments, mummified human remains, linen 194 (long) x 51 (wide) x 35 (deep) cm Thebes, Egypt, Third Intermediate Period, 1069–664 BCE Donated by Robert Lucas-Tooth, 1912 AM African Collection E019466 This ancient Egyptian mummy, wrapped in several hundred metres of fragile linen, is that of a middle- aged woman who died about 2800 years ago. Carbon dating of the linen indicates it belongs to the Third Intermediate Period (1069–664 BCE). Her preserved body was placed in a wooden coffin painted with mythological scenes. The hieroglyphs on the coffin show the deceased making offerings to Ancient Egyptian gods, including osiris and Isis. It is unfortunate that the coffin is missing its lid, as the mummy’s identity would likely have been inscribed on it. Previously restricted primarily to the upper levels of Egyptian society, during the Third Intermediate Period mummification was becoming more common. This mummy was excavated in Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in 1900 when the West’s fascination with Ancient Egyptian civilisation resulted in numerous professional and amateur explorations, during which artefacts and mummies were acquired for public and private collections. Image: Carl Bento
© Australian Museum

The First Australian Banknote (below) which reappeared mysteriously in Scotland – is one of an unknown number of notes the Bank of New South Wales issued on its first day of operation on the 8th April 1817. The Sydney Gazette, the colony’s first newspaper, printed the note from a copperplate etching made by a local craftsman-engraver.

Australia's first bank note
Australia's first bank note. Image: Westpac Group Archives

This kipuka or feathered cape (below) was given to Captain Cook on his third – and fatal – Pacific voyage by Ali’i (chief) Kalani’opu’u, as an official welcome to Hawaii in December 1778 or January 1779. Rulers wore this kipuka for ceremonies and in battle. The cape is made from woven olana fibre and its plumage comes from a red-feathered I’iwi honeyeater, a yellow o’o moho and mamo, and a black cockerel.

Feather cape
On his third voyage exploring the Pacific, Captain James Cook landed at Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii in January 1778. In greeting, the Hawaiian King Kalani'opu'u removed his own long feather cloak, or ahu'ula, and feather helmet, or manhole, and placed them on Cook. A pile of cloaks and capes were placed at Cook's feet as gifts. Among them was the feather cape, or kipuka, that now forms part of the Australian Museum's 200 treasures. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

The exhibition will also tell the stories of 100 legendary Australians. A selection committee of people with diverse interests has curated the list, which will be revealed in full at opening, but includes the likes of cricketer Sir Donald Bradman, soprano Dame Nellie Melba and Indigneous olympian Cathy Freeman.

200 Treasures of the Australian Museum in the Westpac Long Gallery will open to the public 14 October 2017.