Behind the scenes at Queensland Museum are people like conservator Jenny Blakely, ensuring history will be on view for generations to come…
Jenny Blakely pauses under the 130-year-old stuffed grey nurse shark hanging in a glass case in the Queensland Museum’s Discovery Centre, chuckling as she recalls taking it to the University of Queensland vet school for x-ray.
Conservator at the museum, Jenny had to ascertain if the 2.5 metre shark’s metal hooks were properly anchored internally to suspend it safely above visitors milling below its underbelly.
A custom-made support secured the shark to a false floor in a long transit van so it couldn’t move or topple over on the journey.
“The vet students were really excited to see it, as they usually only work with live animals, not taxidermy,’’ Jenny says.
She was relieved to discover its hooks were screwed into an interior beam running the length of the specimen.
Country-raised, Jenny planned a career with cattle and pastures when she left school in Grafton in the 1970s and started studying biology, then pathology at Sydney TAFE.
“But I thought what they were doing at the nearby Applied Arts and Science Museum looked far more interesting,’’ she says.
So she applied and won a position there, with a six-month stint studying conservation at the Australian Museum.
She then worked 13 years at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum before joining Queensland Museum 16 years ago.
She is one of only two conservators working in the fifth-floor “lab’’, examining, assessing, cleaning, notating and preserving items from the past.
A strong whiff of preserving fluid and myriad odours permeate her workspace that even giant extractor fans cannot suck out.
It is thanks to people like Jenny that Brisbane people can get up close and personal to history at the Queensland Museum.
Behind the scenes are thousands of items and it takes painstaking care and skill to keep them for generations to come.
Jenny and her colleagues are a font of knowledge on everything from fumigating wood for borer eggs to which chemicals will wash paper. No two of her days or weeks are the same.
She could be wax treating and freeze drying a 150-year-old child’s leather shoe found at the Victoria Park excavation; preserving images of Allied planes on a World War II bunker wall unearthed below the Roma St Police Station; cleaning Rock ’n’ Roll George’s FJ Holden; documenting more than 800 musical instruments for a Tunes, Tones and Tempos exhibition or designing frock stands for a Gwen Gillam show.
She handles insects, birds, tribal artefacts, mummies, ancestral remains, fossils – most recently from the suburban Geebung dig – remnants from Boggo Road jail, uniforms, crockery and cutlery from Queensland Rail’s past, ethnographic objects and an array of shell, wood, glass, bone, metal and ceramic objects from the wreck of the Pandora, the Royal Navy frigate wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in 1791.
Preparation for shows like that undertaken for the Afghanistan Hidden Treasures exhibition, some of which date from 2200BC, are also part of her role.
Jenny’s eyes shine as she describes a chemical reaction – that cleaned tarnish from a silver candelabra from the collection of 19th-century Queensland explorer William Landsborough – with the zeal of someone passionate about restoration science.
On this day, Jenny’s lab table holds a 140-year-old ceremonial wooden mask from Papua New Guinea.
Her trained eye picks up nicks, scratches, splintering, tiny loose shards and missing pieces that I barely register.
“I also spend one afternoon a month at the State Library, advising members of the public who bring queries about conserving their own items,’’ she says.
“You never know what will come in.’’ Our heritage is assured on Jenny’s watch.