What's that smell?

by Kate C
Publish date
4 January 2011
Comments (6)

Every now and then, those of us who work at Melbourne Museum receive a polite but slightly troubling email:

"The Preparation Department needs to undertake work today that may generate some odours."

I can’t think of another workplace where stench warnings are a regular occurrence. They’re intriguing, too, because I always wonder what they’re doing down there in the basement.

Our skilled preparators do much as their name would suggest: they prepare things, from animal specimens for research collections to intricate models for display. Their job combines elements of biology, taxidermy, sculpture and painting and their work area is a den of creativity and practicality that is stocked with tools and equipment and art supplies.

In mid-December, a Gray’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon grayi) unfortunately was stranded at Portland and died. Given the rarity of this species, and MV’s strength in the study of whales, its skeleton is a valuable addition to our research collection. The preparators perform the somewhat gruesome but necessary task of cleaning the skeleton, and that’s where the odour comes in.

Gloves hanging in the Preparation Department The Preparation Department's collection of rubber gloves - essential tools in this line of work.
Source: Museum Victoria

Preparator Steven Sparrey explained the facilities in which large specimens are prepared. The specimens are placed in a sequence of water baths in the ominously named ‘maceration tank’ which allows the animal’s soft tissues to loosen away naturally from the bones without damaging them. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t smell good. After this, the bones are given a soapy wash and dried thoroughly.

Preparation Department The sealed room that holds the maceration tank (at the back) and cleaning benches.
Source: Museum Victoria

Some astonishingly large vertebrae from the backbone of a whale were on the drying racks. These were prepared for the Melbourne Aquarium from another stranded animal. The bones were quite yellow and Steven explained that the stains are from the whale’s oils, and they would be bleached by the sun once they were properly dry.

Whale vertebrae drying Whale vertebrae in the drying racks.
Source: Museum Victoria

Shortly after that, he firmly suggested that we leave the area because the smell tends to cling to clothing. Needless to say, he doesn’t wear his work clothes home on the train. So there you have it – perhaps not one of the most glamourous jobs at the museum, but an essential task to maintain Victoria’s collection of our state's fauna.


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Comments (6)

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JessB 4 January, 2011 13:48
This was a fascinating read about an essential area that I've never thought about before. Thanks for the look behind the scenes!
Nicole 5 January, 2011 09:08
Great post! I always assumed the smells were related to chemicals and cleaning. Once I get the idea of 'maceration tank' out of my head, it's really quite amazing what they do down there.
Peter 5 January, 2011 09:39
Great insight into the "macerations" of a working museum especially for those of us who it seems are fortunate in not sharing an office or even a building with the dedicated group of preparators.
Erin 6 January, 2011 09:27
Thanks for the great article! It's awesome to see some unsung heroes getting a mention. It also clears up a lot of things re the "interesting" smells we sometimes get down here in the basement.
Jen 13 January, 2011 13:18
What happens to the de-boned flesh?
Bron 13 January, 2011 14:00
Very interesting and informative. Would love to see 'behind the scenes' and what goes into preparing all the exhibits.
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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.