Discovery Centre


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.

Full moon funnies

by Meg
Publish date
16 April 2014
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Last month I was asked if the museum experienced a spike in the number of “unusual” (read “weird”) enquiries during a full moon. My initial reaction was to dismiss this theory as light-hearted superstition – then I stopped to think on it for a bit… and my subsequent reaction was to dismiss this theory as light-hearted superstition. However I also resolved to undertake a simple survey of the enquiries database to see what the cold hard stats had to say about it.


Close-up of Planet Earth with Moon in background. Close-up of Planet Earth with Moon in background.
Source: NASA

The “lunar effect” phenomenon – the belief that the lunar cycle influences human behaviour – remains a significant feature of some human cultures, present as far back as the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and even earlier, through to modern adherents to the Wiccan tradition, or Neo-Paganism more broadly.

It has long been suspected that the moon and its phases have an effect on mental health – indeed the term “lunatic” is derived from the Latin lunaticus, “of the moon.” Lunar effect mythologies include, for example, lycanthropy (werewolves), increased fertility and birth rate, and weather events and natural disasters, among others.

So what of the lunar effect on museum enquiries?

On each of the four full moons so far this year Discovery Centres took an average of 22 new enquiries for the day, of which one, or two at the very most, might be broadly categorized as unusual. On the full moon of January 16, we received a comment about one passenger’s recollection of a man-overboard incident that occurred during his migration to Australia on board the Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, and a question about the significance of the role of thongs (what???) in nineteenth-century Victorian construction. Meanwhile, during the full moon of March 17 we were contacted for advice by the concerned owner of a French bulldog who had been the unfortunate victim of a scorpion attack in the bad ‘burbs of Adelaide. Outside of these, the rest of the enquiries were pretty standard fare: image requests, spider identifications, tractor donations, etc…

On the full moon of February 15, however, we did receive three [spam] emails in a row offering heavily discounted supplies of Viagra – suggests there may be some truth to the fertility claims?  

Death by coitus

by Alice
Publish date
14 April 2014
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The other week I attended Isabella Rossellini’s comic and educational monologue Green Porno, a fascinating lecture on the sexual escapades of the natural world. It really got me thinking about the various and bizarre methods of animal reproduction that I've encountered since commencing my role at the Discovery Centre. We see an intriguing array of specimens brought in to be identified and in some cases even added to the collection. Many of these animals would be well-deserving of a feature episode on Isabella’s show, but none have captivated my attention more than our recent acquisition of a male phascogale. 

Phascolgales belong to the same group of marsupials as the Tasmanian Devil and the quolls. But unlike their relatives they have managed to keep a very low profile. Considering that male phascogales live fast, die young, and have such a frantic sex life that it kills them, I was really surprised that the first time I became aware of this genus was through the arrival of a neatly wrapped frozen specimen.

  Mount of Phascogale tapoatafa, Brush-tailed Phascogale  Mount of Brush-tailed Phascogale
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Copyright Museum Victoria 2003

Phascogales are among a rare breed of mammals that practice suicidal reproduction, or semelparity, where one or both sexes die after a single episode of mating. This strategy is seen in some invertebrate and plant species, but is extremely rare in mammals, only occurring in a few marsupials native to Australia, South America and Papua New Guinea. In Australia the male Phascogale, Antechinus, Dasykaluta and Parantechinus are the only mammals where the males literally mate themselves to death.

Mating season for these dasyurid marsupials lasts only a few short weeks, during which promiscuous females and anxious males copulate for hours at a time (Antechinus have been known to go at it for up to 14 hours!). During this concentrated period of breeding the males’ levels of testosterone and stress hormones become so extreme that even their muscles start to break down to help fuel the act. The intensity of prolonged mating causes the males' bodily functions such as their immune system to shut down, exposing their exhausted bodies to infection, internal bleeding and disease shortly after. The males will not even get to see the fruits of their labour, as they all die before their young are born.

Phascogale tapoatafa: Brush-tailed Phascogale Brush-tailed Phascogale from J. Gould's Mammals of Australia, 1863, vol 1, pl 31
Image: Artist: John Gould; Lithographer: H.C. Richter
Source: Out of Copyright

So why do you think male phascogales have been programmed to pursue such a life ending labour of love?

The answer lies in their sperm. For phascogales sexual selection occurs after copulating, where the sperm compete inside the female for fertilisation. Rather than fighting to gain access to mate with a female, males need to put all of their energy into fertilising as many females with as much sperm as possible. This also explains the lengthy duration of the mating spree – the more time one male spends mating with a female, the less opportunity other males have at gaining access to her. Combine this with the promiscuous frenzy of their breeding period and many females may nurture offspring from multiple fathers. 

I can only imagine the field day that Isabella would have illuminating the fascinating science behind the phascogale's reproductive biology. A glimpse at any of her online videos will give you an idea.


Diana O. Fisher, Christopher R. Dickman, Menna E. Jones, and Simon P. Blomberg (2013) Sperm competition drives the evolution of suicidal reproduction in mammals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published ahead of print 7 October 2013: doi:10.1073/pnas.1310691110

Town Skull, Country Skull

by Max
Publish date
1 April 2014
Comments (1)

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

Address to a haggis?

by Meg
Publish date
25 January 2014
Comments (3)

As we rise on the morning of January 26th to celebrate our national day, Australia Day, on the opposite side of the globe another proud national celebration will also be getting underway – the Burns Night Supper in bonnie Scotland.

Robbie, or Rabbie, Burns (1759 – 1796) was a Scottish bard (poet) and one of the nation’s most celebrated figures, and each year Scots both at home and abroad commemorate his life and work on the evening of his birthday on January 25th.

Robert Burns Robert Burns
Image: Alexander Nasmyth (artist)
Source: Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Burns Night Suppers are usually organised and hosted by Burns Clubs, and in their most formal incarnations they have taken on a prescribed form – the evening begins with the piping in of the guests, who when seated then share in a reading of the Selkirk Grace, a prayer of thanks for the forthcoming meal. The prayer reads, in Scots:

"Some hae meat and cannae eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit."

Haggis at a Burns Supper Haggis at a Burns Supper
Image: Kim Traynor
Source: Kim Traynor

The piping then resumes to welcome the haggis which arrives in a procession accompanied by the chef, the piper and the reader nominated to address the haggis. Once settled on the table, the reader delivers the Address to the haggis, a poem composed by Burns in 1786 in honour of the dish. The address is followed by a toast to the haggis, and finally the “great chieftain o’ the pudding-race” is served alongside its traditional companions “neeps” and “tatties” (turnips and potatoes) with a dash of whisky sauce (often just neat whisky), and the feast begins.

Haggis, neeps and tatties Haggis, neeps and tatties
Image: Meg Lomax
Source: Meg Lomax

Other examples of Burns’ works are read throughout the evening, and the celebration traditionally draws to a close with a rousing rendition of Burns’ famous song Auld Lang Syne.

Appreciation for Burns’ words remains a strong feature of Scottish ex-patriot communities across the world and the Scottish community in Victoria is no exception – in January 2014, the Robert Burns Club of Melbourne will continue the tradition by hosting its 64th annual Burns Supper. And for those luck folk who identify as Scottish Australians, the haggis feast of the night before might be followed up with the (not too dissimilar) national dish of Australia the next day – the good old Aussie meat pie.

What was life like for my ancestors?

by Jo
Publish date
12 January 2014
Comments (2)

I am working on my family history and I want to know what my ancestors did when they arrived.

One of the questions we are frequently asked by family history researchers in the Immigration Discovery Centre is 'what did they do?' Researchers often know how and when their ancestors arrived into Victoria, but they are hoping to paint the picture of what they were doing and get an idea of the social, economic and cultural context of a period in time. To fill in these gaps, there are a number of great online resources that can help us to paint that picture.

Of course the Museum Victoria collection holds objects and images that can get you started with your research. The History and Technology Collections Online is a great source for online research. There are almost 80 000 records available online for you to explore, including many images and objects. You can also search the Biggest Family Album Collection for images of Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, either by suburb name or era.

Italian Community Gathering, Wonthaggi, Victoria, circa 1929: The Biggest Family Album in Australia Members of the Wonthaggi Italian community. They are standing in front of a wooden building. A man at the back has his arm raised holding a what appears to be a large flower like an arum liliy over the head of a woman in front of him.
Source: Museum Victoria

Trove is the National Library of Australia’s online digital repository. It is free to access and equally easy to navigate. You can search newspapers, journals, images, maps, diaries, and in some cases, organisations. A search can be as simple as a family name, or suburb, or district, to more complex searches including exact date searches or phrase searches. 

The State Library of Victoria also holds a lot of useful information to help with this picture. They have put together a list of resources under their Victoria’s early history, 1803 – 1851 guide online. 

Lebanese ID Card, Lebanese migrant, 1975 Lebanese ID Card for taxi driver Youssef Eid, 1975
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria

Of course, the Public Records Office Victoria can also shed some light on what was happening at the time your ancestors arrives through their many and varied records. If you wanted to know if your ancestor owned, leased or rented a house or land, PROV can help! The PROV Land Records Guide can help, as can The Parish and Township Working Plans.

For more contemporary records, try searching the National Archives of Australia.  The NAA is responsible for caring for Australian Government records. The ten million items they hold cover everything from migration to transport and military service, as well as much more. 

Local historical societies can also be a great source of information. Many of them will hold records relating to people or events in the history of an area that you may not be able to find elsewhere. Australian Heritage Online is a good place to start.

Man Leaning on Luggage Trunk, Awaiting Detention as Enemy Alien, 1939: Melbourne's Biggest Family Album Man in suit and hat, leaning on his luggage trunk, with other cases around him. He is in a park.
Source: Museum Victoria

And finally, as well as all of these great online resources, sometimes nothing beats sitting down with a book, or walking through a neighbourhood, or asking a local about what things were like when they were children, or if they remember when...


Destination Australia

Sands and MacDougall Melbourne Directories

When Museum Victoria is not enough

by Max
Publish date
24 December 2013
Comments (3)

You come to the museum and ask; ‘Do you have any (insert hoped for item - cocoa tins, paper bags, vintage telephones, glass time capsules, etc) on display?’ To which we respond by explaining that, even though Museum Victoria has about 17 million or so objects in our collection, we only have a tiny fraction on display. This causes you great disappointment as you are one of those members of the public with specific interests and desires. You can view more at Collections Online, but you want to see the actual objects in the flesh don’t you? Well fear not, now you only need to visit Victorian Collections, a project developed in partnership by Museum Victoria and Museums Australia (Victoria)


SSW Shopping Bag Two brown paper bags which were available for free in SSW Supermarkets, so that customers could pack their grocery purchases to be able to take them home. The bags have SSW advertising printed on them in red, yellow, and navy blue inks.
Image: Sunshine and District Historical Society
Source: Sunshine and District Historical Society

Here you can search the database to discover your favourite things and where they might live. You like all things glass? Well, there are hundreds of items for your viewing pleasure, but the best of all if you click on the object it will tell you where you will find it. It could be beer glasses from Dixon's Hotel, now the Commonwealth Hotel in Orbost. You’ll find these at the Orbost and District Historical Society Inc. So jump on your bike and start peddling. Or how about a Glass vessel time capsule c1800's? Alfred Hospital Nursing Archives. Start walking - it’s around the corner.


Old Dutch Cocoa Tin Tin metal and tin top for cocoa with colour print and round internal lid. Caption of a woman drinking cocoa, red Australian flag and British flag on other faces. Top embossed "H". Marked - "Old Dutch Cocoa", "Net Weight 8 ozs," (Display side) "Manufactured by Hoadley's Chocolates Ltd, Australia.
Image: Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum
Source: Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum

Now you never have to go without, never have to say ‘Gee I wish they had more Hand Planes’ (nearly 1500 – check it out). All you need do is get online, go to Victorian Collections then set off for one of the many unique and varied museums that can be found dotted across the Victorian countryside. Enjoy!


Mobile Telephone handset, battery in carry case. The Future is here! Early mobile phone. Bought in 1990 this was the first type of mobile phone used in the field by ATCV.
Image: Conservation Volunteers
Source: Conservation Volunteers Corner University Drive & Enterprise Grove Mount Helen 3350

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