Kate C

DISPLAYING POSTS BY: Kate C (177)

Kate C

Kate is MV's online writer and editor. Her job is to dig up great stuff to put on the museum's website. Kate loves shiny things, cake and creepy crawlies.

10 years of World Heritage status

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by Kate C
Publish date
1 July 2014
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Many of us have precious heirlooms that escort our families through the decades, cherished by each generation in turn. Perhaps as a child you loved the treasures in the house of your grandparents and now you are the custodian of these objects, charged with keeping them safe for future descendants.

Few of us experience quite the scale of family collections as Will Twycross, who describes his childhood thus: "I grew up in a weatherboard house that contained European paintings, intricately carved ivory chess pieces, brilliantly coloured ceramics, and long Polynesian arrows that we were told were poison tipped and shouldn't be touched…. The paintings with their strange scenes and exotic colours hung on the walls, breathing the soft mists of Europe into the harsh sunlight of the suburbs."

Photograph of a room The drawing room at Emmarine II, the Twycross family home at 23 Seymour Road, Elsternwick, showing various pieces of the John Twycross collection displayed in the home during the mid-20th century.  

chess pieces Ivory puzzle ball chess pieces from a set carved in China in the late Qing Dynasty, circa 1870-1880. Will Twycross played with these as a child.
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Will Twycross is the great-grandson of Melbourne merchant and art collector John ‘Top Hat’ Twycross. The wonders of Will’s childhood home were originally bought by John and his wife Charlotte ‘Lizzie’ Twycross at the 1880 and 1888 Melbourne International Exhibitions. There they acquired several hundred paintings, pieces of furniture and decorative items for their grand house in Caulfield. Through the years, the Twycross family cared for the collection until 2009, when they donated over 200 objects to Museum Victoria's Royal Exhibition Building Collection. "We decided to return it to the place it had come from," notes Will. "The decision seemed to have a certain symmetry to it."

People at an exhibition Illustration of the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition bustling with visitors.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Today marks ten years of World Heritage status for our beloved Royal Exhibition Building, and we're celebrating with the release of a book and accompanying website about the extraordinary Twycross Collection. In Visions of Colonial Grandeur, curator Dr Charlotte Smith has researched not just the Twycross legacy and the collection itself, but the impact of two international exhibitions – which were, at the time, the largest events held in Australia.

The Royal Exhibition Building is no longer surrounded by the temporary annexes that housed the grand courts of the Melbourne Exhibition Building, but it remains the only Great Hall of its era to survive in its original setting and the world's oldest continuously-operating exhibition hall. On 1 July 2004, the REB was the first Victorian site and the first Australian building to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It followed the 1980s listings of places of outstanding natural and cultural significance such as Kakadu National Park, the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef.

Links:

Visions of Colonial Grandeur website: museumvictoria.com.au/colonial-grandeur

Visions of Colonial Grandeur book

John Twycross Melbourne International Exhibitions Collection on Collections Online

Australian sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List

WWI ambulance arrives

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by Kate C
Publish date
25 June 2014
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On Monday evening, perhaps just as you were eating dinner, a crew carefully unloaded an extraordinary object from World War I and placed it in the foyer of Melbourne Museum.

 

This is a British-made Ambulance Wagon MK VI. It dates from 1914-18 and is on loan to us from the Australian War Memorial for our upcoming exhibition World War I: Love & Sorrow

One hundred years ago, these horse-drawn ambulances transported wounded soldiers from the battlefield. Unarmoured and vulnerable, they often travelled by night to avoid becoming targets. The journey between trench and casualty clearing station could take many days over rough tracks—an agonising journey for men with terrible injuries.

World War I: Love & Sorrow marks the centenary of the start of WWI. It opens at Melbourne Museum on 30 August 2014.

Catalogue of cephalopods completed

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by Kate C
Publish date
4 June 2014
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Everyone loves a happy ending. And everyone loves octopuses. The recent completion of the third and final volume in the revised FAO Catalogue of Cephalopods of the World nails it on both fronts. 

Cephalopods of the World Volume 3 Cover of the new FAO Cephalopods of the World Volume 3.
Image: Emanuela D’Antoni
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
 

This is a brilliant – and free – resource designed to assist people working in fisheries to identify the cephalopods that we humans are most aware of, namely the ones we've identified, that we eat, or can cause us harm. Volume 3: Octopods and Vampire Squids was co-authored by MV's Dr Mark Norman and Dr Julian Finn. They are also are two of the four series editors.

'Octopus’ berrima Spot the 'Octopus’ berrima in the sandy substrate! (The inverted commas signify that this species is provisionally placed in the genus Octopus.)
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Years of work and drawing from cephalopod researchers worldwide sees FAO Catalogue of Cephalopods of the World summarising descriptions of species for practical use by non-specialists. "We've distilled it down to diagnostic characters that will allow people on research or fishing vessels to identify species," says Julian. "It's a review of all the taxonomic work that's out there, for people who don't have immediate access to the literature." The species descriptions focus on traits that are easily measured, which is no mean feat for animals famous for changing their shape and form at will. Says Julian, "everything is based on characters that survive preservation and are consistent across members of a species, such as numbers of suckers, presence or absence of structures, and relative lengths of body components."

Julian and Mark also note that this project would not have been possible without significant financial and moral support from the Australian Biological Resources Study and the Hermon Slade Foundation. This allowed them to do the work on octopus taxonomy that was required for this new edition of the Catalogue. 

Argonauta argo The beautiful female Argonaut, or Argonauta argo.
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So, if you have an interest in, as Ze Frank calls them, 'the floppy floppy spiders of the sea', head to FAO and download a free copy of FAO Catalogue of Cephalopods of the World Volume 3 (PDF, 25.77Mb). And in case you need a reminder about why you love octopuses, here's a video showing how they can open jars from the inside (while we humans sometimes struggle to open them from the outside).

 

Hair of the dog

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by Kate C
Publish date
8 May 2014
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The Aztecs were dog people. They were in awe of the jaguar for its stealth and fighting prowess, but for domestic companionship, they chose dogs, not cats.

And their dogs didn't look much like your typical house mutts. Known in English as the Mexican hairless dog, the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs called their breed the Xoloitzcuintli (pronounced show-loh-its-queen-tli) after Xolotl, a god with the head of a dog who helped the dead in their passage to the underworld. (Xolotl was also the beleaguered twin of Quetzacoatl and ultimately turned himself into the amphibious axolotl, but that's another story.)

Mexican hairless dog A Mexican hairless dog called Izzy Frittata.
Image: Xugardust
Source: Xugardust via Compfight cc
 

The Aztecs exhibition at Melbourne Museum features a dog statue carved from stone in about 1500. This little dog has the half-closed eyes and raised head of a dog receiving a hearty scratch under the chin. It seems an affectionate portrait of a much-loved friend. However, when the Aztec owner of a Xoloitzcuintli died, their dog was sacrificed to accompany them on the journey ahead. This sounds horrifying to dog lovers today but the Aztecs also raised dogs for food and had no qualms about putting them to death.

Sculpture of a dog Sculpture of a dog about 1500. When a person died, if they had a dog it was sacrificed after the funeral. The dog would then guide its owner’s soul through the nine levels of the underworld.
Image: Michel Zabe
Source: © Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH)
 

Almost unknown in Australia, Xoloitzcuintlisor Xolosremain quite rare in Mexico and the USA because they nearly vanished completely after the arrival of the Spanish in Central America. Believing them to have healing properties, people in remote Mexican villages sheltered these sacred dogs and protected them from mixing with other mutts. Accordingly, they survive as one of the oldest breeds, and have been used by geneticists to examine the history of dog domestication. Frida Kahlo kept Xolos and included them in her paintings, helping to boost the popularity of the dogs and save them from another near-extinction in the 20th century.

Museo Dolores Olmedo Pick the real dog! Three Xoloitzcuintli dogs lazing about a statue of this sacred breed in the garden of Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico.
Image: Joshua Bousel
Source: joshbousel used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
 

Of course, the most striking feature of the Xoloitzcuintli is its virtual hairlessness, which is caused by a dominant gene. The gene is lethal when inherited twice (homozygous) – a puppy with two copies will not be born alive – while Xolos without a copy of the gene have an ordinary furry coat. Xolos often have missing teeth, probably linked to the same hairlessness gene.

Xoloitzcuintli puppies A pile of Xoloitzcuintli puppies
Image: Xugardust
Source: Xugardust used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
 

Links and references:

Vilà C, Maldonado JE, Wayne RK (1999) Phylogenetic relationships, evolution, and genetic diversity of the domestic dog. Journal of Heredity Jan-Feb;90(1):71-7. (PDF, 184 kB)

Cordy-Collins, Alana (1994) An unshaggy dog story. Natural History Vol. 103 Issue 2, p34

Hairless dogs compete at Reliant Show, Houston Chronicle, July 20 2012 

Cork Colosseum x-ray

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by Kate C
Publish date
17 April 2014
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An x-ray machine usually employed for mammography examined an unconventional patient earlier this year: a model of the Colosseum made from cork around 1800. Thanks to generous assistance from Lake Imaging in North Melbourne, object conservator Sarah Babister now has a view inside one of our most curious objects.

Four people discuss photograph Conservators Sarah and Dani show radiographers Jeff and Ghazia a photo of the Colosseum model.
Source: Museum Victoria

cork Colosseum model The facade of the Colosseum model. (HT 24386)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Radiographer Ghazia adjusted the settings of the mammography machine to accomodate this unusual material—cork is much less dense than human tissue—and produced wonderfully clear and informative images of several pieces of the Colosseum.

Woman with x-ray machine Ghazia placing a piece of the Colosseum on the mammography machine.
Source: Museum Victoria

Woman with computer Ghazia adjusting the levels of the x-ray to best show the hidden structure within the cork Colosseum.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We think that our Colosseum was built by English model-maker Richard Du Bourg (or Dubourg), but in the absence of a signature, Sarah is looking for characteristic materials and construction techniques that could confirm its maker. Further research by historian (and the museum’s Head of Humanities) Richard Gillespie and genealogist Neil Gill is fleshing out the intriguing story of Du Bourg and his models; Richard recently visited similar objects in overseas collections for comparison. Sarah and Richard will present a talk about the model and its story next month as a part of the History, Cultures and Collections seminar series.

From 1775 to 1819, Du Bourg’s models of classical ruins were the height of fashion and his a well-known London exhibition. “He’s a fascinating character,” says Sarah. Notoriously, his working model of Vesuvius destroyed an entire exhibition when its eruption set fire to all the other models on display. “He lived until he was in his early 90s and even though he’d been very famous he was living in poverty.”

Sarah explains that cork models “were really popular at a certain time and were kept as tools to teach students. Then they fell out of fashion and a lot of them were disposed of.” This may explain Du Bourg’s impoverished old age, and is the reason why the museum has this model at all – in 1929 it was sent from the Science Museum in London to the Industrial and Technological Museum in Melbourne.

cork Colosseum detail Sarah holding a large piece of the Colosseum model.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The model is over a metre wide and in poor condition. The base it sits on is cracked and the gesso applied to the perimeter is flaking, and several sections of wall have broken off. These broken sections are a mixed blessing, since without them there could be no x-rays, which reveal the lead pencil marking lines, and pins and nails used to hold the pieces of cork together. This information may help confirm whether Du Bourg made the model, but will also help Sarah reattach the broken pieces.

X-ray image of a piece of the cork Colosseum X-ray image of a piece of the cork Colosseum. The metal pins, and decorative carvings covered in lead paint, appear white.
Image: Lake Imaging
Source: Museum Victoria
 

“Most of the pieces are there so the model would be virtually complete with the exception of a few small columns which might need to be replicated,” she says. “I’d love to put it back together so it can be viewed how it should be viewed because it’s such an amazing object. The level of detail in the carving is wonderful, and cork lends itself so well to representing that ruinous state.”

To learn what the x-rays revealed, come along to Richard and Sarah's free seminar on 14 May, titled For the Nobility, Gentry & Curious in General: Richard Du Bourg’s Classical Exhibition, 1775-1819.

Links:

Cork Colosseum model on Collections Online

Rehydrating specimens

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by Kate C
Publish date
25 March 2014
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Recent workshops brought together natural sciences collection managers and conservators from far and wide to learn techniques for preserving wet specimens – those preserved in fluids like ethanol and formalin.

Fluid preservation workshops Fluid preservation workshops underway at Melbourne Museum's conservation lab.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The workshops, hosted at Melbourne Museum, were supported by the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) and taught by UK natural history conservator Simon Moore. Dani Measday, MV's Natural Sciences Conservator, says "you can’t learn easily natural sciences conservation in Australia, so people are really jumping on the chance to build skills in that area." With participants from Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and even New Zealand, it was also a rare opportunity to meet others working in the field. “Museum people love to talk shop," says Dani, who toured the visitors around MV's collection stores. "There was definitely a lot of discussion about what people were doing in their museums. It's great to build up a network of people you can call on when you get stuck.”

Over four days, the workshops addressed some of the major problems of wet collections, one of which is dehydration as the preserving fluid evaporates. “The ones that were really dehydrated tended to come out of jars with rubber gaskets in the lids, which can perish quite quickly," says Dani. "Or they can get twisted and end up with a really poor seal.” A highlight of the workshop was seeing dehydrated specimens returned to full size under Simon's guidance.

Workshop participants cleaning Workshop participants cleaning perished rubber gaskets from mammal specimens.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

During the workshop, Dani worked on a juvenile koala specimen affectionately nicknamed Drinky Bill. This koala was originally collected from French Island and came to the museum in 1957 via the Healesville Sanctuary. In the intervening years, poor Bill lost all of his alcohol and was a dry fist-sized husk rattling around an empty jar.

The process of rehydration, explains Dani, begins with placing the specimen in warm water with a surfactant. "It's basically a detergent to break down surface tension to help water penetrate into the specimen." The cells expand as they take in water, and the specimen returns to its original shape and weight over several hours.

 

Next, the specimen is re-fixed in formalin to stop the decay. Then it's back to ethanol in a series of baths of increasing strengths. "You need to move it through several different concentrations of ethanol gradually. If you go straight from water, it's a big change in pressure for the specimen." Dani's koala spent a few hours in each of 10, 30 and 60 per cent before the end point of 70 per cent. To remove any air bubbles and to make sure the koala was submerged, Dani used a vacuum chamber conveniently housed next door in the preparation department. "The preparators use it to remove bubbles when they’re casting in resin."

Koala specimen before (left) and after (right) rehydration treatment. Koala specimen before (left) and after (right) rehydration treatment.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The resulting transformation is amazing. At the workshop's conclusion, some specimens in very poor condition were returned to near original state. Restoring the animal's natural size is particularly useful, as skins and skeletons can't tell us this information. It leads to some truly amazing applications; Senior Curator of Mammals Kevin Rowe says a researcher recently contacted him to find out the dimensions of a bandicoot. "He was designing radio tracking vests for bandicoots which don’t have necks suitable for collars. The best way to figure out the dimensions of a bandicoot is to look at a fluid specimen." This is because wet specimens "preserve internal soft tissue better than skins and skeletons. They also preserve the anatomical features of sperm, stomach contents, parasites–essentially everything in and on a specimen." 

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.

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