Bill Bailey, birdwatcher

by Kate C
Publish date
13 September 2012
Comments (4)

UK comedian, musician and birdwatcher Bill Bailey is in Melbourne this week as part of his Qualmpeddler tour of Australia and New Zealand. Yesterday he, and fellow comedian and ornithology buff Jeff Green, visited collection stores and exhibitions at Melbourne Museum.

Bill and Jeff in collection store Bill Bailey and Jeff Green in the Ornithology collection store at Melbourne Museum.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

It’s all thanks to a timely radio broadcast: PhD student Darren Hastie heard an interview in which Bill talked about being a fan of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator (with Charles Darwin) of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Learning this, collection manager Rolf Schmidt sent a message to Bill via his website to tell him that Museum Victoria holds a number of specimens collected by AR Wallace, and to invite him to come and see them.

Bill is not just a fan of Wallace; he is the patron of the Wallace Fund which works to give the great naturalist due credit for his contributions to our understanding of evolution. Bill has spent five years researching Wallace’s life and work, which will culminate in a BBC documentary in 2013. Next year marks a century since Wallace’s death and, if all goes to plan, will also see a portrait and statue of Wallace erected in the Natural History Museum in London to equal its famous marble statue of Darwin.

Bill Bailey in collection store Bill Bailey opening the cabinet filled with bird specimens collected by AR Wallace, saying, “This is why I love museums. You think, what’s in here? Then OH MY GOD…”
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Having recently returned from filming the Wallace documentary in Indonesia, Bill swapped tales with ornithologist and collection manager Wayne Longmore about the bizarre fauna found in Sulawesi, Indonesia, due to what is now called the Wallace Line. To the west of the line, Asiatic species predominate, while to the east, Australian lineages appear. Sulawesi is right in the thick of it and its animals are an amazing assortment of both origins. For eight years, Wallace travelled through Malaysia and Indonesia collecting birds, insects and more, and it was his astute observations of the patterns of species distribution that spawned the science of biogeography, and helped him develop his theory of evolution.

Poor Wallace, however, has been obscured by time and the greater profile of Darwin. Said Bill, “Wallace was an extraordinary field naturalist, probably one of the greatest. And he hasn’t got the recognition he deserves. He needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Darwin, or at very least get equal billing.” Darwin had been working on his theory of natural selection for many years but it wasn’t until 1858, when Wallace sent him his own fully-articulated theory, that Darwin was prompted to stop thinking and get down to the business of publishing. The two presented their theory together at a meeting of the Linnaean Society. As Bill said, “at the time it known as the Darwin-Wallace theory, but when it was revived in the 30s, Wallace’s name was gone.” Jeff in turn suggested that the Australian city of Darwin switch its name to Darwin-Wallace for 2013 for the centenary.

After viewing the Wallace specimens in the ornithology store, Bill and Jeff visited the Science and Life Gallery where the Darwin to DNA exhibition has Wallace-collected skins and mounts on display, complete with his original hand-written tags. Next Rolf took them to down to the palaeontology collections and labs. Rolf reports, “Bill was quite interested in the size and scope of our collection, as well as the stories around the objects (like the Janjucetus skull). He was also rather excited when I let him have a hold of our Darwin barnacle holotype.”

Visiting the palaeontology collections L-R: Darren Hastie (PhD student and fellow AR Wallace fan), Rolf Schmidt, Jeff Green (kneeling), Bill Bailey and Dave Pickering amid the Palaeontology collection.
Source: Museum Victoria

Bill’s fascination with Wallace is infectious - and he certainly loves museums. He says he always tries to visit the natural history museums of the cities where he performs. We’re very glad he dropped in to visit us, and will watch with interest as the Wallace100 plans unfold.


The Wallace Fund

Stories from the filming of the Wallace documentary on the Wallace100 blog (via Natural History Museum)

MV Blog: Wonderful Wallacea

MV Blog: Happy birthday A.R. Wallace

Comments (4)

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Melanie 17 September, 2012 15:29
What a great story! Bird lovers turn up in the strangest guises.
Herawati Dewi 31 October, 2012 18:03
Wallace is a part of Indonesian history and everything about him or his work is always interesting.
Ian Redmond 4 January, 2013 01:11
"the Wallace Line. To the east of the line, Asiatic species predominate, while to the west, Australian lineages appear." Oops, you might want to swap that to read, "the Wallace Line. To the west of the line, Asiatic species predominate, while to the east, Australian lineages appear." Otherwise, great blog! Cheers, Ian
Kate C 4 January, 2013 12:29
Yikes! Thanks for the correction, Ian. Clearly this blogger has no sense of direction.
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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.