What first attracted you to conservation as a profession and how did you get started in the field?
I thought I was going to be an academic, a nice quiet academic studying Greek and Roman sculpture in a university somewhere. But then I realised that the academics don’t really get to touch anything except books. So then I thought maybe I’d have to go out and dig to get my hands on things. Trying to learn practical archaeology techniques in the deep south of NZ puts a dampener on one’s enthusiasm for being outdoors in mud… But it was an Archaeological text book that introduced me to the world of Conservation. I saw people in a lab handling artefacts. That was more like it—especially the clean white lab coats!
I completed my Master’s Degree in Conservation at the University of Melbourne, and quickly lost all interest in fine Hellenistic sculpture and art objects in general. My Archaeozoology subjects and lifelong interest in all things Life Sciences had put me in a unique position to take on the role of Natural Sciences Conservator at the Australian Museum.
Can you think of any experience in your career that has taught you a lot about conservation or that has changed how you approach your work?
Working with Natural Scientists rather than Cultural/Art people requires a shift in Conservation thinking and approach. Scientists speak a different language. They don’t conform to the language we were taught at University. I quickly realized that I had to tread carefully around ideas of historical significance, and ease them into that idea. Scientific value is sometimes at odds with our Conservation ethics and I often find myself having to re-evaluate Conservation thinking.
Due to the vastness of Natural Science Collections, I also had to very quickly get over any notions of perfectionism. When faced with literally millions of specimens in one collection area alone that are crying out for attention, you have to develop a thicker skin.
Do you have a favourite object or material you’ve worked on?
I like to work on Taxidermy the most, usually Birds and Mammals. Fluid Preserved specimens are an interesting challenge, and while I wouldn’t say they are my favourite, they offer many interesting problems. It’s a goldmine area for future research. They are not just things in a jar to be ignored.
The best thing about being a Natural Sciences Conservator is the range of materials and specimens you get to work on. For example, you may find yourself inside a whale ribcage, treating amazing taxidermy, or delicately repairing a butterfly wing. Ok, you may have to deal with gross things too, like smelly marine sponges or when our Taxidermist asks you to come down to her lab to look at something “a bit off”.
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about conservation and conservators?
I wish people knew that Natural Science Conservation is a thing! I’m sure it has been mentioned before by other Conservators, but I wish people could see that we are here to help. We have strong attachments to the collections that we work with and want to see the best for them. We are equipped with unique and specialised skills to help collections.
Do you have any hot tips for people at home who want to care for the materials around them?
Do you have old Taxidermy at home? Is it older than 1980? You might want to be careful when handling it as it may contain hazardous substances. Maybe don’t hang it over the dinner table…
Sheldon Teare (BA Hons, MA) is a specialist Natural Sciences Conservator and currently holds the position of Conservator, Natural Sciences at the Australian Museum. Sheldon trained as an Objects Conservator, gaining a Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation from the University of Melbourne. He has specialized in the Conservation of Natural Science collections for over seven years. Sheldon joined the Conservation department at the Australian museum in 2010. Before joining the Australian Museum team he was a projects Conservator at Museum Victoria. Sheldon studied Classics and Archaeology as an undergraduate gaining knowledge in Archaeozoology and Biological anthropology. This heightened an interest in osteology and working with biological/natural specimens. Sheldon has worked across many large scale projects on Birds of Paradise, Deep sea fluid preserved specimens and whole galleries of historical and modern taxidermy. Sheldon has extensive experience with the treatment of taxidermy specimens, and a particular interest in the Conservation of fluid preserved specimens. Sheldon’s current areas of interest lie in fluid preservation, historical taxidermy, advocating for improved standards and records within the preparation of specimens, and is passionate about educating Conservators and Collection staff in basic Collection Care of Natural Science collections.