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Biodiversity Month

by Rosemary Wrench
Publish date
18 September 2014
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Rosemary is a Senior Collection Manager. She was Senior Curator of the Many Nations section of First Peoples.

Australian endangered species registers make sobering reading. They list animals and plants that are vulnerable, threatened, endangered and extinct. Each listing includes detailed information such as scientific and common names, habitats, particular threats, estimated numbers and management plans.

Absent from these lists are the Aboriginal language names, cultural knowledge and connections that for thousands of years have been celebrated through song, ceremony, stories and art. All of these animals were named and included in Aboriginal culture prior to being ‘discovered'—and endangered—post-contact.

The Many Nations section of First Peoples provides a unique opportunity to mark this National Biodiversity Month by learning from Aboriginal artists and material culture about their deep connections with over 150 of these animals and birds, including around 20 that appear on the Threatened Species list.

The Animal Creations case contains many endangered animals: Nganamara, Dilmirrur, Kuniya, Ulhelke, Mala, Mewurk or Goodoo, Itjaritjari, Purinina, Garun, and Pokka. There are also several introduced species: the Ngaya, Rapita or Pinytjatanpa, and Camel, whose stories connect to the demise of the Mitika, Wintaru and Mala. Other cases also contain beautiful pieces connected to listed animals and birds including the Gunduy, Gudurrku, Puntukan, Bilby, Rufus Bettong, Black-billed Stork, Stone Curlew and Kakalhalha.

Major Mitchell's Cockatoo Lithograph of Major Mitchell's Cockatoo from Gould's Birds of Australia, 1840-1848, vol 5, pl 2
Image: Artist: John Gould | Lithographer: H.C. Richter
Source: Museum Victoria

The latter is a beautiful pink bird that has been given several names since it was ‘discovered’ – firstly Major Mitchell's Cockatoo in honour of explorer Major Sir Thomas Mitchell. It was also named Lophochroa leadbeateri to commemorate the British naturalist Benjamin Leadbeater. To the Arrernte people, this important bird remains known just as it always has been: the Kakalhalha, for the sound it makes. It likes to eat some of the same bush seeds as the Western Arrernte, making it a good indicator of the harvest season, telling the community when it is time to collect the seeds for damper.

Some of the animals on the Threatened Species list include these from the lands of the Pitjantjatjara in Central Australia, the Yorta Yorta in Victoria and the Trawulwuy in Tasmania. Yorta Yorta artist Treahnna Hamm's Mewurk or Goodoo (Murray Cod) artwork highlights the declining health of this magnificent fish and its river habitat.

Treahnna Hamm with her artwork Treahnna Hamm with her Murray Cod artwork, 2013.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Most commonly known as the Tasmanian Devil, the Purinina made by Trawulwuy artist Vicki West is made from kelp, another species in decline. Said Vicki in 2012: ‘I like using kelp, a plant fibre from the ocean, the old people used it to create the water carriers; I use it as the metaphor of survival… The Devil plays an essential role in the cleaning of and caring for our country through scavenging. I find it ironic that the medium I chose to represent survival has been used to create an animal under threat, itself endangered.’

Vicki West holding her Purinina Trawulwuy artist, Vicki West holding her Purinina (Tasmanian Devil), 2013
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Itjaritjari (marsupial moles) live in the sandy river flats and sand dunes in the desert of inland Australia. They are rarely seen and spend most of their time underground. Aboriginal traditional ecological knowledge is crucial to piranpa (western) science's understanding of this reclusive animal. Virtually all Itjaritjari specimens have been captured by the Traditional Owners of the desert, who play an integral role in Itjaritjari research. The Itjaritjari has great cultural significance also: during the formation of the western face of Uluru, a number of caves and potholes were created by a Totemic Being called Minyma Itjaritjari.

Carving, Australia, Desert Southeast Itjaritjari (Marsupial Mole) made by a Pitjantjatjara artist circa 1920s.
Image: Photographer: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria

Increasingly, joint management and conservation projects rely on the cultural knowledge and expertise of Aboriginal communities to protect animals at risk.

An empty bower

by Jessie
Publish date
21 August 2014
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We farewell Jack, our resident Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), who died in the Forest Gallery this week.

Jack the Bowerbird Jack the adult male Satin Bowerbird
Image: Alan Henderson
Source: Museum Victoria

Since Melbourne Museum opened on 9 December 2000, Jack has been a big part of the Forest Gallery. His daily calling, mimicry, aerial acrobatics and dancing entertained and excited both staff and visitors and gave him the reputation of a great entertainer. He was upwards of seven years of age in 2000, meaning this Forest Gallery icon made it to 21 years old.

Up until autumn he was still taking it in turns with his enclosure mate Errol to dance in their bowers and practise courtship behaviours. As winter progressed we started to note that Jack had slowed down and was not as vocal in the mornings. We had discussions as a team as to whether it was time for retirement but decided that Jack had spent his life in the gallery and should end it there when the time came. His time finally arrived yesterday and it feels as if a chapter in the life of this long-term exhibition has also come to a close.

Jack had many interesting adventures in the gallery. He almost died in 2000 when he for some inexplicable reason flew into the empty creek tube that runs under the earth path. He would have drowned in the water at the bottom if Luke (our then Live Exhibits Manager) hadn't raced to his rescue. This year he was a part of an exhibition at MONA with a live feed from the Forest Galelry showing Jack and the other bowerbirds cavorting with a blue teapot. His wing feathers were clipped countless times to slow him down on his over-excited exploits to court a female.  He shared the gallery with number of females, but since 2004 he only had eyes for our resident female Britney. They produced over 20 offspring which are now held in institutions and private collections across Australia.

Bowerbird with blue objects Errol the Satin Bowerbird with Toby Ziegler's contribution to the cache of blue things in the Forest Gallery. This is a still image from the video feed going in to MONA.  

With the absence of Jack, a new era has begun in the Forest Gallery. Errol, our younger male, may become the dominant make of the population. With any luck, he will continue to entertain both staff and visitors. 

Colourful calendar fiesta!

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.

WWI ambulance arrives

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 WWI: 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.

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

Mexico in the World Cup

by J. Patrick Greene
Publish date
30 May 2014
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Patrick is talking about Searching for the Aztecs in Mexico City as part of the Aztecs lecture series.

On 13 June, Mexico kicks off its World Cup campaign with a match against Cameroon in Group A in the group stage. Group A also contains Croatia and Brazil. Chances of a win against Brazil, the World Cup hosts, are not encouraging for Mexico. In three of Mexico’s 14 appearances in the World Cup these two teams have met, with Brazil scoring a total of eleven goals while conceding none. Mexican fans will be pinning their hopes on better results against Cameroon and Croatia. Mexico is lucky to be in the finals at all; after a series of indifferent results against other Latin American teams they scraped into the playoffs in which they qualified by beating New Zealand.

Perhaps the occasion will bring out the best in the Mexican team – and perhaps they will be inspired by a tradition of ball games that goes back to the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilisations. A ball game was an integral part of Aztec culture, with specially designed courts (or tlachtlis) placed in prominent locations in sacred and administrative precincts. However, it was not football. The rules required participants to use their hips and upper arms to keep the ball from touching the ground.

tlachti ball and ring Visitors to Aztecs can lift this replica ball - rather like a rubber cannonball - and imagine trying to propel it off their bodies and through the tiny hole in the stone ring.
Source: Museum Victoria

In the exhibition is a replica of the heavy rubber ball that the Aztecs used. Despite wearing a thick belt around the lower waist, injuries could result. Even worse, the game sometimes ended in human sacrifice. On the other hand, if a player achieved the near-impossible feat of sending the ball through one of the pair of stone rings high on the long sides of the court they were entitled to the pick of the possessions of all the spectators!

On their shirts, the Mexican footballers will wear the crest of the Mexican Federation of Association Football. The crest shows a football in front of the Aztec calendar stone, surmounted by the eagle that was part of the Aztec foundation myth.

When Mexico players have a home match they perform in one of the world’s largest stadiums, the Estadio Azteca. Footballers that play for one of Mexico’s leading clubs, the Pumas de la UNAM, have as their home ground the Olympic Stadium, which has on its exterior a huge sculpture designed by Diego Rivera with Aztec symbolism such as the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. Mexicans will be expecting their footballing heroes to rise to the World Cup occasion, inspired by the country’s proud Aztec heritage.

Olympic Stadium in Mexico City Olympic Stadium in Mexico City showing the sculpture designed by Diego Rivera.
Image: Patrick Greene
Source: Museum Victoria


Live broadcast of 2014 FIFA World Cup matches at IMAX Melbourne Museum

  • Saturday June 14th @ 8:00am - CHILE vs AUSTRALIA
  • Sunday June 15th @ 8:00am - ENGLAND vs ITALY

More about the Aztec ball game at aztec-history.com

National Geographic: Aztec, Maya Were Rubber-Making Masters?

Hair of the dog

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 

About this blog

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