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Collections

There are 16 million objects in Museum Victoria's collections - Australian Indigenous cultural material, extensive natural science specimens and a broad collection representing Victoria’s historical and technological developments.

Small(er) is beautiful

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
4 May 2014
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When we think of Ice Age land animals, we often add the word ‘giants’; certainly many of the mammals of the Pleistocene were very large  – including many here in Australia. In a previous post, we’ve defined megafauna, and looked at a few Australian examples from the Quaternary. There is a different way of looking at this, though – rather than thinking of the Ice Age megafauna as ‘ancient giants’, it is equally valid to study modern-day animals from the perspective of them being dwarf or pygmy forms of their Ice Age relatives.

The phenomenon of dwarfism in post- Ice Age mammals changes the question from “why were they so big back then?” to “why are they so small now?”

Before we go any further, we should keep in mind that not everything was giant-sized in the Pleistocene; there were many ‘normal’ sized animals (by today’s standards) living happily alongside the big guys – it was just that the big ones were really big. It’s also important to remember that many of the ‘pygmy’ forms lived alongside their ‘giant’ relatives, rather than replaced them – there’s no such thing as a succession plan in evolution.

Having said this, here are a few examples of ‘dwarf megafauna’ alive today that had gigantic skeletons in their closets.

An example of ‘miniature giant’ is the modern day Eastern Grey Kangaroo Macropus giganteus; certainly large for an Australian land mammal, but 40-something thousand years ago it was overshadowed by its immense relative Macropus titan by 30%.

  skull of Macropus titan Skull of the Giant Grey Kangaroo Macropus titan. The ‘giant’ part is correct, but the ‘grey’ part is speculative; the colour of the Giant ‘roo is unknown…
Image: Tim Holland
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Similarly, the largest living Goanna, the Perentie Varanus giganteus, impresses with its size….but is smallfry against the immense extinct evolutionary ‘cousin’ Varanus “Megalania” priscus, – estimated at over twice (some have said thrice) the size.  

­­This also holds true on the Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus laniarus, which had an over-sized, mainland-resident relative at least 15% larger than its living subspecies. All of these animals are at least in the same genus as their megafaunal relatives, in some cases they are subspecies of their modern-day pygmy forms.

Tasmanian devil skull Skull of the Giant Mainland (rather than Tasmanian) Devil Sarcophilus laniarus
Image: Tim Holland
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So, whilst it is true to say that in broad terms, there was an extinction event about 45, 000 years ago that led to the ‘end of the Megafauna’, this event was complex - there were other patterns at play that saw downsizing as a successful survival strategy.

Obviously many Australian megafauna taxa became entirely extinct as well, inconveniently leaving no close descendants or relatives, but their story is for yet another blog…

Why we can't give a stuff

Author
by Alice
Publish date
29 April 2014
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The Discovery Centre receives heaps of enquiries from budding enthusiasts eager to learn the art of taxidermy – it’s no surprise because Museum Victoria holds the largest collection of taxidermy mounts in the state.

behind the scenes Rows of taxidermy mounts hidden behind the scenes of the Melbourne Museum.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Taxidermy is but one of many tasks performed by the multi-talented members of our preparation department. The preparators work purely on museum projects, combining skills in taxidermy, moulding, casting and model-making to enhance the state’s collections and research.

reptile moulds Reptile moulds and casts hand made by the preparation department.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria

 

Seal model Sculpting and modelling a seal for permanent display.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Only a fraction of the work that the preparation department performs makes its way to the public displays, with the majority of their work residing behind the scenes. Most animals coming into the museum join the research collections and don’t need to be prepared as life-like mounts; 90 per cent of the specimens prepared at the museum have data and tissue samples collected and are preserved as study skins and skeletons. These specimens become priceless tools in assisting scientists identify and compare new species, better understand the evolution of species over time, and research how we can conserve our fauna into the future.

Study skins Study skins used in the research collection.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Skeletal remains Skeletons prepared for the research collection with the assistance of dermestid beetles.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Due to the busy workload of our preparators, we are unable to provide personal advice to individuals about taxidermy. We are, however, bringing out our experts for the next Smart Bar to focus on the history, methods and tools of the craft. This Thursday 1 May, from 6-9pm our experts will explore the inside story of taxidermy with pop up talks and demonstrations.

Koala moulding Tools and measurements used in making a koala cast.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

exhibition maitenance Ongoing maintenance of exhibition material such as this interactive component from Think Ahead is a large part of the preparation departments workload.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

For those unable to attend, there is plenty of information available online through supply websites, online tutorials and forums. Commercial taxidermists can also be found in the Yellow Pages, and you may be lucky enough to find one who is willing to discuss their tricks of the trade. Formal tutelage in taxidermy is almost non-existent in Australia but getting involved in online forums and clubs is a great starting point to meet likeminded people and gain expert advice. Most of our preparators started out reading taxidermy books for beginners, many of which can still be found in local libraries.

Keep in mind that in Australia there are strict licencing protocols surrounding practicing taxidermy on native animals. For more information visit the Department of Environment and Primary Industries website.

Links:

Smart Bar: Stuffed

So many specimens

Cork Colosseum x-ray

Author
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

From LaserDisc to high-res Hasselblad

Author
by John Broomfield
Publish date
4 April 2014
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John manages the museum's Media Production and Copyright Department.

Recently a group of aero engines, usually stored high in the storage racks at Scienceworks, was lowered to allow visitors a closer look. This allowed me to photograph them for Collections Online and revisit a job I did at the museum some 20 years ago.

aero engine, side view New photograph of an Austro-Daimler Beardmore aero engine, circa 1914. The design was used by combatant nations on opposing sides during the First World War. (ST 17925).
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The first time I photographed the aero engines, I was an Image Capture Officer and Museum Victoria was one of the first institutions to link electronic images of collection objects to a database. I say electronic because these images were analogue, not digital. This period represented the transition between traditional silver-based photography and digital photography as we know it today.

Back then, we captured the objects using a video camera (Super VHS), then transferred video stills onto a WORM (Write Once Read Many) drive LaserDisc. These discs were then sent to the USA to be pressed into LaserDiscs that could be played in domestic machines. The players were attached to computers and search results displayed collection images on a separate monitor.

Although this technique was cutting edge at the time, the starting resolution was only 560x480 pixels, or in today’s terms 0.27 megapixel (a new iPhone has an 8 megapixel camera). Analogue signals suffer deterioration or generational loss each time they are migrated to a new format and our involved multiple transfers – from videotape, to WORM drive and then onto LaserDisc. You can see why some of our legacy images are not quite to the standard we expect today.

grainy photo of aero engine Old LaserDisc image of a Benz IVa circa 1918 230 horsepower aero engine. (ST 034859).
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Fast forward to 2014: digital photography has evolved to the point where, at the high end, the resolution surpasses what was possible with film-based photography. The equipment I used this time was a Hasselblad H5D, capable of 50 megapixel resolution, which is almost 200 times the resolution of the video/laserdisc system employed first time around.

aero engine, side view 2014 photograph of the same Benz 230 horsepower aero engine. (ST 034859).
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Detail of an aero engine Zoom in on the Austro-Daimler Beardmore aero engine photograph. The high resolution captures tiny details like individual stamps on the cylinders. (ST 17925).
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Photographing the aero engines presented some interesting lighting challenges. There wasn’t a lot of room to place stands for studio lighting or maneuver the heavy engines with a pallet jack. A large skylight overhead meant I would be struggling to control the natural light coming in from above.

inside collection store The photo setup showing the aero engine on a pallet, the skylight, and the foam reflectors.
Image: John Broomfield
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The solution was to adopt the skylight as my main light source and use a series of lightweight foam reflectors to bounce the light back onto the engines. I found something appealing in adopting 18th century studio lighting methods in conjunction with modern digital camera equipment. That must be the museum worker in the photographer coming through…

Town Skull, Country Skull

Author
by Max
Publish date
1 April 2014
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Skulls in the DC showcase. Skulls in the DC showcase.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

One of the advantages of working in the Discovery Centre is that you’re in the box seat, so to speak, when you need something identified. I recently found a Teeny Weeny Skull behind the skirting board whilst doing renovations at the family holiday house on the South Gippsland coast. I immediately thought it could be a Microbat (Microchiroptera) as we had a colony in the laundry wall years ago.  I put the Teeny Weeny Skull in a matchbox and took it home with me. 

Antechinus skull in the DC showcase. Antechinus skull in the DC showcase.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The next time I was in the Discovery Centre I went to our showcase that contains skulls, skeletons, insects and assorted animals in order for people to do their own identifications. I scanned the case and noticed one that initially looked very much like the Teeny Weeny Skull. It was an Antechinus. If my specimen was an Antechinus, this was exciting; a friend who also had a property near mine had found an Antechinus (a Swamp Antechinus Antechinus minimus). They had given it to me to have it identified by our experts. It was duly examined, identity confirmed and a sample of its DNA was taken. It was also placed on the Atlas of Living Australia as one had not been registered from that location before.

Black Rat, Water Rat and House mouse skulls in the DC showcase. Black Rat, Water Rat and House mouse skulls in the DC showcase.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

But my excitement was short-lived - alas, there were differences between my specimen and the Antechinus skull – the bones of the eye orbit weren’t the same, the teeth were quite different and the snout of the Teeny Weeny Skull was shorter. A further scan of the case revealed a match – Mus musculus – a House mouse! That’s right: an ordinary, garden variety mouse, not its more exciting native Australian (sort-of) counterpart. Mind you, if I had just consulted Bioinformatics Skull Views I might have worked it out sooner…

House Mouse skull The Teeny Weeny Skull: a House Mouse
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Rehydrating specimens

Author
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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