Hidden in the depths of Auckland Museum, down a winding maze of corridors, is a room containing an unlikely trio: A wildebeest, a moose and an alligator.
Although the animals are long dead, their likeness to the living is uncanny thanks to a team of experts working behind closed doors.
The taxidermied animals, along with a wide range of artefacts and historical materials, are being preserved in the museum’s new conservation lab, installed as part of a big remodel of the facility.
The lab, which replaced a much older lab that was no longer fit for purpose, opened in August.
It boasts everything from top-end photography equipment to cupboards full of different adhesives.
Conservators aim to fix objects by creating a good match physically, but also one that is structurally sound.
The wildebeest’s skin has shrunk over time, and sausage casing is being eyed to insert into the tear that runs down its neck.
Museum object specialist Ian Langston was originally a graphic designer before re-training as a conservator. He has now been at the museum for seven years.
“The core principle of what we are doing in physically preserving these objects is so that they can live on generation after generation, so that those stories can be told,” he said.
He once worked on a piece for a women’s rights exhibition – a photographic print on white glass which had been broken into 38 different pieces.
Putting all the pieces back together and being able to see it mounted on the wall for display was hugely rewarding, he said.
At the far end of the lab is a machine jerry-rigged together from a number of different parts.
It uses a tiny beam to detect how sensitive an object is to light and therefore, how long it can be safely put on display, and in what conditions.
A new challenge for the team, which is used to dealing with old objects made of wood or metals, is how to preserve modern objects made of plastics, which can start to degrade quickly.
Being able to purpose-build the lab to allow better work and improve health and safety was key when upgrading the space, the museum’s director of collections and research David Reeves said.
The work of a conservator can be quite varied, with anything from Māori textiles to taxidermied animals needing treatment at any one time, he said.
“The team in the conservation lab also end up helping [other departments] with packing, transporting or displaying items safely.”
The conservators don’t want to do too good of a job of repairing objects, Langston said, as they want someone with a trained eye to be able to identify what has been done to the object in the past.
Those looking closely can see the giant moose head on the table has deer fur on its neck: The colour is a litle lighter and the direction of the fur is slightly off.
Preventative work is the ideal scenario, Langston said – the fewer repairs the team does, the more the object keeps its original form.