So you want my job as an artist: museum preparer

First a volunteer and now a museum preparator for 30 years at the Melbourne Museum, Dean Smith’s day job can range from defleshing beached whales to recording taxidermy data for researchers.

In addition to being a Senior Preparator, Smith is also the Director of Environmental Creations, which provides professional “museum quality” natural history exhibits. His work can be seen inside and outside museums, including at Butchers Shambles in Sovereign Hill and in the facilities of the University of New England Museum of Natural History.

Specimens that have passed through his hands include blue jellyfish, giant ant models, a realistic white pointer shark, kangaroos, lions and many more.

Along with Ewin Wood, Smith has a dedicated studio, Museum Makers in Castlemaine, Victoria, which handles various projects.

Learning his skills in a museum environment with the help of staff whose experience and techniques span centuries, Smith offers professional presentations and training programs, as well as short workshops for those wishing to bring back home an intricate work of taxidermy art.

How would you describe what you do?

A Museum Preparator is a unique role within Museums Victoria where we prepare materials and objects for the Science Department’s collections, education and exhibitions.

How did you start your career?

I have always had an interest in natural history and general sciences. Following an opportunity to do my high school work experience at the Melbourne Museum, I was adamant that I wanted to pursue a career as a museum preparator.

I volunteered in the department while pursuing my science studies at night school. A position became available after a few years and 35 years later, I am still employed as a preparer at the Museum.

What does an average day or week look like?

Check in the gallery spaces in the morning, carry out necessary repairs and maintenance, such as carving a model of a botanical specimen for an upcoming exhibition or skinning a thawed specimen to finish it another day as a taxidermy mount .

Dean Smith in studio with taxidermy. Image: courtesy of Environmental Creations and Dean Smith

What is the most common misconception about the profession of museum curator?

Museums Victoria Research Institute has an extensive collection of taxidermy mounts, skeletons and study skins; we have freezers full of specimens to skin and prepare each week.

One of the most important aspects of these functions is to save a large amount of data. Not all taxidermies are on display, but many specimens are regularly used for research, so the data we
record is as important as the mounted animal.

If you were interviewing someone for your job, what skills and qualities would you be looking for?

They are said to have a very keen eye and love for natural history, anatomy, sculpture, casting/molding knowledge and detail painting skills. You would also need a strong stomach as you might be gutting dead animals, including a whale that washed up on a secluded beach.

What’s the best thing happening in your field right now?

The possibility of integrating 3D modeling into our techniques, applying rendering or printing from three-dimensional (3D) scans that we have made from original objects. This allows us to make a replica of a museum object that traditional molding and casting methods might damage. We can even introduce 3D printing in our taxidermy dummies on which the tanned hides are mounted.

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