Much of my life in Australia in recent years has been occupied by my first professional (i.e. paid) undertaking down under, working at The Australian Museum. My work at this institution, Australia’s oldest and doubtlessly one of the quirkiest, has ranged from surreal to banal and contained every experience in between, most leaning toward the former. Many of the people I met when I started, upon hearing I was a writer, immediately said I would get endless content from the stories, experiences and motley collections of individuals at the museum. The suggestion that I write a TV show about it has come up several times. The idea remains in the back burner of my mind, fuelled quite often by the odd sights and senseless conversations I come across each week. To try to translate the feeling, color (I guess that’s colour), texture, spirit and smell (yes there are smells) of the institution in just a few words is an impossible task. That’s why someday it will take an entire TV series. But in the meantime, I will share some of the everyday oddities that help paint a picture of life at The Australian Museum.
Because the museum has been on the same site since 1857, and only expanded from there to house its growing collection and increasing public, it has absorbed a mixed collection of buildings, now covering half a city block in the heart of Sydney. As a result, I have to go through anywhere from 4 to 7 doors just to get into my office each day. It can take travel through up to another 10 doors to get from my office into the actual museum. That in and of itself might not seem unusual, but when my options include either walking past the animal freezer (which can produce one of the many odd smells I was referring to) or walking through three different buildings of varying age and floor level to get to my destination, the experience is much less like entering a normal office building, and more like entering Control headquarters.
Security personnel carry the equivalent weight of a wallaby in keys, while others just carry wallabies. A forgotten security pass means foregoing many bathroom trips and coffee breaks. The building’s connections are a rabbit warren of twists and turns, ups and downs, and doors that lock on one side but not the other. The roof connections are a complex web of catwalks, one of which leads straight across the four story high glass roof over the atrium. One of the elevators stops on a floor where your only options upon exiting, are to take the stairs either up or down to another floor. Perhaps there is also a dimensional portal in one of the walls, but I have yet to discover it. And the only part of the museum that doesn’t seem to have any security cameras, is a staircase that leads down, straight straight down, four very tall stories. This broad staircase, encased in several layers of concrete all around, also lacks a central hand rail. In other words, it’s a clumsy girl death trap. I try not to walk down there alone.
I have always had a fascination with taxidermy. Halls of wildlife are my favorite part of any natural history museum. Where else could you safely come face to face with a timber wolf, or walk under the foot of a charging elephant? My work at the museum has given me a new appreciation for this scientific art. The collection tags on some of the brightly colored and happily posed animals, can reveal that they are over 100 years old. And for every animal on display, the collection may contain another 20, equally ageless even if not as happily posed. Taxidermy, like any art form, is also something that must be mastered. A beautifully created mount will look as if it’s about to blink, or reach out and attempt to snatch food from your hand. Badly created mounts are like the zombies of the animal world, mangled, lumbering and downright creepy. Anyone a bit sensitive to the use of dead animals for artistic creation, should definitely steer clear of any taxidermy studio. The simplistic and often natural processes used to separate an animal from its skin, bones and everything bound to be replaced by stuffing, produce the sights and yes even more smells, that could turn the least sensitive of stomachs.
Life in the museum has also given great insight into what human nature entices us to do when we are not watched by security guards or surrounded by fine art. Most of us are compelled by any sign saying “Do not touch” to do the complete opposite. Well, I am anyway. I’ve even hugged my fair share of stuffed creations across the museum, but all under the guidance of museum professionals of course. We naturally want to pet fury things, to climb on larger than life objects, to peer through holes, to take pictures next to fierce dinosaurs, and to tap on the glass enclosures of sleeping reptiles. But I wouldn’t have thought that would extend to attempts to steal the toes of a skeleton, the smallest of the fierce dinosaurs, and a poor little penguin who’s more often askew than not. Alcohol fuelled parties at the museum often encourage these occurrences, but no amount of sobriety or scrutinising eyes seem to keep people from climbing well over the “Do Not Climb” signs and into position to grab the best tourist photo. Luckily the museum has multiples of some of it’s most hugged objects.
Far stranger though, than the visiting public are the staff of the museum. The institution’s scientific and historic importance, attracts the intellectual and erudite. The Museum’s public face and collection of the all things weird and wonderful from Australia and beyond, attracts the eccentric and odd. It is a place where the scientifically minded meet the artistically driven, where fact and aesthetic combine, and where the humor is often as dry as the collection.
The personalities at work behind the multiple doors are the key ingredient in the oddball soup of science, art, international tourists and weird Australian animals that is the Australian Museum. So what are they really like? To find that out, you’ll have to watch the TV show.