Science & Life redevelopment

17 August, 2009

Temporary storage of animal specimens
Just a few of the hundreds of animals in temporary storage while the new exhibition is under construction.
Source: Museum Victoria

Preparation for the new exhibition in the Science and Life Gallery continues steadily behind the scenes at Melbourne Museum. Wild: amazing animals in a changing world is due to open in late 2009 and will feature over 800 animal specimens – the largest assemblage of Museum Victoria’s zoological collection since the early days of McCoy Hall at the old Swanston Street site.

Many of these specimens are heritage objects with a rich and diverse history of up to 150 years with the museum. They tell a story of profound changes in the philosophies behind museum exhibitions, how Melbournians have viewed the institution, and the idiosyncrasies of past museum directors.

The first director, Frederick McCoy, must be credited with amassing many of the specimens during his tenure which began in the 1850s. “He was the best collector of any colonial museum of the time,” said John Kean, recipient of the 2004 Thomas Ramsay Fellowship that culminated in the Caught and Coloured website. “His stated aim was to collect representative animals from across the world, and compile a systematic collection of local fauna.” His specimens were labelled with their classification, common name and locality and were much-visited by the isolated community who had never seen such amazing beasts.

McCoy's successor, Baldwin Spencer, completely reinterpreted the collection according to evolutionary relationships. He constructed papier-mache pyramids in McCoy Hall to house groups of related species – for example, lions and seals were placed together since they were carnivores, even though they came from very different parts of the globe. In the 1940s the museum’s emphasis shifted to local fauna and a more thrilling entertainment experience. Many of the exotic species were placed in storage while kangaroos and wombats were placed in detailed dioramas to provide an environmental context.

Wild: amazing animals in a changing world features a very contemporary method of displaying the specimens with reference to the best approaches of the past. The animals are arranged according to biogeographic regions which considers why certain species are found in a region, rather than just which, and emphasises shared environmental concerns. Labels include the conservation status of every animal, while clever use of multimedia provides a virtual natural environment for selected species. By doing so the animals are not static, unlike specimens in a diorama, and will invite visitors to consider the future of these species and be inspired to take action in their preservation.

“What this exhibition does that you can’t get from a zoo or a documentary is that you can physically see everything at once. It’s the world in snapshot,” said exhibition producer Kathy Fox. Visitors can marvel at the incredible diversity of the world’s fauna and explore in-depth the threats that these animals face. Kathy added that visitors can also “take away a piece of the collection” by downloading video of the animals in 360-degree panorama.

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