Discovery Centre

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Discovery Centre

MV's Discovery Centre responds to public enquiries across the full spectrum of the organisation's expertise - from mammals to migration, from asteroids to ants. Discovery Centre staff work at on-site centres at Melbourne and Immigration Museums.

Cryptozoology – imagination, science or folklore?

Author
by Wayne
Publish date
4 September 2014
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Where I grew up as a child, in Victoria's Wimmera-Mallee, there were persistent tales of strange animal sightings that fell outside the realm of science. Stories of Pumas, Cougars (which are actually the same thing) or other "Big Cats" living in the Grampians, for example, often seeped into school ground conversations. As a proto-scientist at this stage of my life (reared on Attenborough, How-and-Why books and old issues of National Geographic) I had developed a degree of scepticism to such stories – I knew to keep my 'bulldust detector' switched on but also kept my mouth shut - after all, everybody loves a good campfire story.

Jaguar A Jaguar Panthera onca. Just one of the numerous species of big cats probably not found in the Grampians.
Image: Benamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria
 
My teenaged mind would sometimes wander - so what if, just supposing for a moment, there really were large felines prowling the forests near Wartook in the Grampians, just an hours drive away? On nearly every occasion, the story-teller swore that their tale was true – to cast doubt on the validity was regarded as an insult to the story-teller's family, as inevitably they were retelling something a family member had seen. Hence, keeping the mouth shut was a wise option– it was a small town, after all.

In later years, I had need to move a little over a hundred kilometres to the west and found that a similar local story existed near Mt Arapiles – the stalking ground of the infamous "Ozenkadnook Tiger". By this stage of my life, my bulldust detector was more finely calibrated, and it pinged incessantly in my head when I heard stories on this animal – but was it really a myth? Everyone who spoke of it swore it was true....but empirical scientific evidence – in the form of clear photographs, verified footprints, samples of fur or other remains - were uniformly thin on the ground, so to speak (although a photograph of an indistinct animal did make its way to the front of the local newspaper in the 1960s, and is analysed in some detail here)

Thylacine A Thylacine Thylacinus cyanocephalus. Might this be a relative of the Ozenkadnook Tiger? Probably not.
Image: Heath Warwick
Source: Museum Victoria

As it transpires, almost every region of rural Australia has their own tales of strange animals, complete with oral accounts, familial anecdotes and rich folkloric traditions, from bunyips to big cats to presumed late-surviving megafauna. Whilst great fun, these stories are the realm of cryptozoology – a mix of folklore, imagination and pseudoscience – defined as the study of animals whose existence has not been proven. As I'm now a fully-realised scientist, my attitude to cryptozoology is uniform – whether it's Nessie, Bigfoot or the Ozenkadnook Tiger, hard evidence is the cornerstone of the scientific process – without empirical evidence, this is sadly pseudoscience.

So, whilst my bulldust detector remains active and fully charged, nobody would be happier than I to be presented with definitive, empirical evidence of these animals. Sightings, family stories and other anecdotal evidence are simply not enough. In the spirit of true science, we remain unmoved until provided with empirical evidence.

In the meantime, sightings and the like can be lodged via the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association. But not us!

Working at the museum is dead interesting

Author
by Meg
Publish date
21 July 2014
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We just took receipt of a beautiful Crested Pigeon, in excellent physical condition except for the fact that it was dead. But it will make a useful contribution to the museum’s body of research material. With the locality data carefully recorded, said pigeon was duly deposited in its new (temporary) home – our freezer – to await its final afterlife journey to the collection store.

Crested pigeon specimen. Crested pigeon specimen.
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Temporary resting place - the Discovery Centre freezer. Temporary resting place - the Discovery Centre freezer.
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

As I closed the freezer door on our latest acquisition, I found myself feeling grateful, as an inhabitant of the twenty-first century, for the electricity we have to power our freezer in which we deposit our dead things, which we collect for exhibition and research purposes. In contemplating this luxury, I was reminded of a fun fact I learned during a meal at an old country pub while on holiday in Tasmania a couple of years ago – in colonial Australia, not only was there no electricity, but there was also no such thing as a town morgue, and so the remains of the recently departed were best stored in the coolest place in town, the local “house of public accommodation” – the pub. Yep, the bodies were in with the beer; the stiffs with the stout; the late with the lager; the passed with the pilsner, if you will. Encouraged by my interest, the enthusiastic new owner led me to the front room of the nineteenth century pub to be shown the very place where the bodies would have been laid out. I asked the new landlady if she was bothered at all by the history of her new business venture – she laughed and replied “not at all.” I asked her what she did before becoming a publican – she answered “I was a funeral director.” True story.  

Meanwhile, over the course of my internet wanderings on the topic of hotels-as-morgues, I came across a great little newspaper article about the dual function of Melbourne pubs, but then found myself back in Tassie when I unexpectedly tripped over this little nugget:

“The morgue motel: Plans to turn a ‘home’ of the dead into accommodation for the living”

Apparently, a local Tasmanian motel owner is currently in the process of converting the mortuary of the decommissioned Willow Court psychiatric hospital in the town of New Norfolk into somewhere for folk to sleep, although, unlike the original occupants, it is hoped that these guests wake up again.

Which brings me back to the Museum Victorian collections, for just yesterday I was photographing some mortician’s tools that were acquired from the former Sunbury Lunatic Asylum in Victoria. While the outbuildings of early Victorian asylums routinely included a morgue for the storage of the bodies of patients who had died within the asylum walls, it wasn’t until the proclamation of the Lunacy Act 1903 in Victoria that provision was made for the employment of a full-time pathologist to the Lunacy Department. The pathologist was tasked with conducting autopsies and undertaking pathological examinations to attempt to associate post-mortem lesions in the brain with ante-mortem symptoms. The development of this new clinical-pathological approach to psychiatric research was one of the outcomes of the increasing secularisation of medicine (and studies of the natural world more broadly), that emerged following the dissemination of the Darwinian theory of evolution towards the end of the nineteenth century.

A selection of objects from the former Sunbury Lunatic Asylum. A selection of objects from the former Sunbury Lunatic Asylum.
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum). Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum).
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum). Unidentified mortician's tool, Caloola Training Centre (formerly Sunbury Lunatic Asylum).
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Like Willow Court in Tasmania, many of the pathology blocks associated with former Victorian psychiatric hospitals remain, although as yet none of them are offering bed and breakfast. One does, however, offer a fully-funded kinder program. Again, true story.

Colourful calendar fiesta!

Author
by Alice
Publish date
4 July 2014
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Come on down to the Discovery Centre this school holidays to help us colour in our giant Aztec Sun Calendar! 

Aztecblank The newly installed Aztec Sun Calendar needs your colouring in skills!
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Aztecs, along with their Mesoamerican cousins the Incas and the Mayans, developed complex calendar systems to structure their lives. These calendars were used to plot their religious festivals and sacrifices, as well as marking the seasons and when to plant their crops. They formed the very backbone of the Aztec civilisation – just imagine if your birthday determined your destiny!

 To honour the mighty Aztec Calendar we have created an almost life-size replica of the famous “Eagle Bowl” Sun Calendar – uncovered in 1790 under the central plaza of Mexico City.

The calendar is full of hidden religious symbolism – in centre place the Aztec Sun God, Tonatiuh, sticks out his tongue while clutching sacrificial human hearts. Surrounding him are the symbols for each of the 20 days in the Aztec month and the faces of the previous Aztec suns: Jaguar, Wind, Rain and Water.

Come and help us bring this ancient relic to life by colouring in your own little segment of the calendar – and see if you can figure out some of the hidden shapes and symbols while doing so!

families Families contributing to the first calendar installation.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

We have also put aside a colourful quiet corner in the Discovery Centre for those interested in learning a little bit more about this fascinating ancient civilisation. Copies of the exhibition catalogue along with dozens of other books on the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures are on offer for those eager to learn a little more. 

Readingroom Beanbags, bunting and books - learn about the Aztecs in our colourful reading room.
Image: Max Strating
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Our first installation was a huge success with families and visiting school groups - so make sure you get in quick to make your mark on this colourful collaborative calendar! 

finished Completed Aztec Sun Calendar from last school holidays.
Image: Alice Gibbons
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Discovery Centre is free to visit and located on the Lower Ground floor of Melbourne Museum. Come visit us Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am-4:30pm.

Kids Fest - PLAY!

Author
by Phil
Publish date
30 June 2014
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It’s that time of year again, when we get incredibly excited about the amazing visitors coming to our Winter Kids Fest at the Immigration Museum - and this year they will be coming to PLAY! This year’s festival provides children and parents with the opportunity to experience a range of fun and exciting indoor and outdoor games, toys and activities from many cultures.

Children everywhere like to play with balls, jump, run and chase each other.  However the rules and equipment they use may be different depending on their own cultural traditions. Some games were originally based on religious ceremonies, while other games were based on mythology, folk customs and the routines of everyday life. On Sunday 6 July, children and their families will get the opportunity to discover these and many more for themselves.

Crowd of visitors in the Immigration Museum Theatrette. Crowd of visitors in the Immigration Museum Theatrette.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

On the ground floor we will have performances of Indigenous hip hop dancing along with a Punch and Judy Magic Show, while roving performances from the King Marong African drumming group will keep us entertained throughout the day.

  Children participating in workshops and activities during Kids Fest Punch and Judy during Kids Fest
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Upstairs we will be discovering traditional children’s games with the Play Lady in our Community Gallery and play traditional games enjoyed all over the world, including jacks, marbles, elastics, and spinning tops. In the Long Room there will be an opportunity for the children to make their own toys, in particular a kite to fly outside or decorate a set of babushka dolls. There will also be a treasure hunt challenge to find toys in our exhibitions – how many will your family find? 

Girl playing with babushka dolls Girl playing with babushka dolls
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

In the Immigration Discovery Centre children will be able to challenge friends and family to a battle of tic tac toe, chess, snakes & ladders, or dominoes. There will also be a selection of online multicultural games available on our computers.

School Visitors Immigration Museum Children playing chess
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Meanwhile the fun will continue outside in the Festival and Market Street Courtyards for children to get active with skipping, quoits, bucket stilts, bocce, hopscotch and much more.

  Two children, a girl and a boy playing with coloured balls Two children, a girl and a boy playing with coloured balls
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Join in the revelry and celebrate worldwide games, toys and activities at this special one day festival.

Let the games begin!

Visiting Arnhem Weavers

Author
by Matthew Navaretti
Publish date
26 May 2014
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Matthew is our Outreach Program Manager.

Earlier this year, Melbourne Museum was honoured to host a visit of the Arnhem Weavers, a group of Yolŋu women from Mäpuru in northeast Arnhem Land. Their visit to Melbourne was facilitated by the Friends of Mäpuru who are a Melbourne based group who have visited the community of Mäpuru. By staying in the homes of members of Friends of Mäpuru, each were able to share their daily lives and activities.

The visit to Melbourne Museum started with the Arnhem Weavers being taken on a tour of First Peoples by Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre's Project Officer Kimberley Moulton. The women connected with the culture of Koorie Victoria, especially with the stories of Bunjil and Waa having similar creation stories of Eagle and Crow ancestors from their country. The women also saw objects in Many Nations that were from their country up north, that they were very proud to see.

The museum visit was a chance for the elders to explain and share culture with the younger generations of women, museum staff and Friends of Mäpuru, connecting two ways of learning, learning about the past and seeing and understanding ‘the other way.’ The experience, which was the first visit to a museum for most of the students, creates links with their school curriculum and will be shared back home in Mäpuru.

After the tour of First Peoples the group had a back of house collections tour of Arnhem Land objects and photographs with Senior Curator of Northern Australia, Lindy Allen. This was exceptionally moving for the group to be able to connect with their cultural material made by their ancestors. The group also had the opportunity to view photographs from the Donald Thomson Collection and this was particularly special as there were many family members in the images including one of Roslyn Malŋumba’s grandfather, Wuruwul. After the Arnhem Weavers day at Melbourne Museum, Roslyn was very moved by her experience and as a gift of thanks donated a basket made by her mother and fibre artist, Linda Marathuwarr.

Women with basket Roslyn Malŋumba presenting a basket made by her mother, fibre artist Linda Marathuwarr, to Meg in the Discovery Centre.
Image: Loredana Ducco
Source: Friends of Mäpuru
 

Together FoM and the Mäpuru community are planning to sustain these cultural exchanges into the future, to give the opportunity for others from Mäpuru to share time in the city, including connecting with Yolŋu cultural artifacts at the museum.

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…

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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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