Melbourne Museum

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Melbourne Museum

Melbourne Museum explores life in Victoria, from our natural environment to our culture and history. Located in Carlton Gardens, the building houses a permanent collection in eight galleries, including one just for children.

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

Full moon funnies

Author
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

Author
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.

Links:

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

An Aztec pterosaur?

Author
by Erich Fitzgerald
Publish date
3 April 2014
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Dr Erich Fitzgerald is our Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology.

Next time you visit the Dinosaur Walk exhibition at Melbourne Museum, look up, and prepare to be gob-smacked. Behold, Quetzalcoatlus, largest of those magnificent Mesozoic aeronauts; the pterosaurs! With a 10-metre wingspan, Quetzalcoatlus was perhaps the largest flying animal ever…or perhaps not. But before delving into that palaeontological puzzle, another question will no doubt be on your lips: how do you pronounce “Quetzalcoatlus” and what does it mean anyway?! The answer lies in Mexico, about 1,000 years ago, at the dawn of the civilization that would eventually become the Aztec Empire.

The Nahua people, who gave rise to Aztec culture, believed in a feathered serpent god of the sky called Quetzalcoatl (pronounced ‘ket-sal-ko-ah-tell’). Aztecs inherited the worship of Quetzalcoatl as one of their chief deities: a dragon-like god that linked the earth with the heavens and created humans.

Aztec god Quetzalcoatl The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).
Source: via Wikimedia Commons
 

The feathered serpent god returned in 1971 with the discovery in Texas of the fossilized wing bones of a truly colossal pterosaur of late Cretaceous age (about 65 to 70 million years ago). In light of their location near Mexico and their suggestion of a reptile that dominated the skies, these extraordinary fossils were named Quetzalcoatlus (pronounced ‘ket-sal-ko-atlas’) after the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

Quetzalcoatlus illustration Life restoration of a group of giant azhdarchids, Quetzalcoatlus northropi, foraging on a Cretaceous fern prairie. A juvenile titanosaur has been caught by one pterosaur, while the others stalk through the scrub in search of small vertebrates and other food.
Image: Mark Witton and Darren Naish
Source: CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
 

As impossible as it may seem, Quetzalcoatlus and its kin (collectively dubbed azhdarchids) were capable of getting airborne, then sustaining flight through long-distance gliding on thermal air columns. Yet recent research on the skeleton of azhdarchid pterosaurs has suggested that they actually spent a substantial amount of time on the ground, stalking prey while walking stilt-like on all fours. For now, the feathered serpent god of the Aztecs may have been brought down to earth, but in a twist of the serpent’s tale, its legacy continues thanks to fossils from an even more ancient world, long ago.

Links

Aztecs opens at Melbourne Museum on 9 April 2014

Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History 

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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