“Never,” exclaims Erich Fitzgerald. “Never will there ever be enough space in the world’s museums – not at any point in time and probably until the end of the history of the universe.” This may seem a little dramatic, but Fitzgerald’s statement is actually quite rational. He speaks passionately for the good of science and on behalf of his colleagues the world over, because in his world, greed is definitely good and space is a rare commodity.
We’re walking through Melbourne Museum’s basement storage facilities where Fitzgerald, the senior curator of paleontology vertebrates, is unveiling some of the museum’s most prized possessions – all of which currently aren’t on public display, simply because there just isn’t enough room. It seems non-sensical, but when you consider the statistics, it’s by no means hard to believe. Since its inception in 1854, Melbourne Museum has built up a collection of over 16.5 million items and specimens. 250,000 of these fall under the paleontology umbrella and are all under Fitzgerald’s stewardship.
Hidden away in rows of meticulously organised drawers are anything from 15 million year-old shark teeth and 35 million year-old whale fossils found in Beaumaris, a 27,000 year-old cave bear skull found within Bohemian cave deposits, intricate and overlapping crocodile fossils, affectionately known as “bone beds” from Queensland, and perhaps the most iconic – fossils of the extinct dodo, found in Mauritius.
What’s truly astounding is the thought that so many of these specimens can remain unchecked, unexamined and overlooked for years. While public exhibitions are generously funded, considered, and lavishly showcased, this space is awkwardly silent, clinically arranged and flooded with fluorescent light. Nonetheless, the system has evidently worked for well over a century and due to the collection’s sheer age and size, surprises pop up regularly.
Fitzgerald recounts that only last year, a set of 12 million year-old sea cow fossils was rediscovered in a basement drawer and identified as the oldest specimens of the type ever to be found in Australasia. Having been unstudied for over 30 years, the ‘discovery’ immediately filled a gap within the region’s evolutionary history and more than doubled a previous record that went back around five million years.
“There’s an old adage we like to use in science,” Fitzgerald says. “Often you find what you’re looking for when you’re not looking at all.”
In comparison to paleontology, the mammalogy and ornithology storage rooms are notably darker and at least initially, more intriguing. At first you notice the smell. It’s a distinct but not exactly offensive odour, emanating from the skins and furs along with the chemicals used to preserve them. There’s also a persistent buzz coming from the room’s temperature-controlling machine, which Karen Roberts, manager of the museum’s mammalogy, ornithology and herpetology vertebrate collections tells us, maintains a 50 per cent humidity and keeps the place between an optimal 18-22 degrees celsius.
Here, various mounts and an endless array of taxidermy have been eclectically positioned. There’s everything from the distinguished lion to the obscure pangolin; a pair of huskies sit next to a row of mounted possums and amongst all the different colours and vibrant textures, there’s a rhinoceros head casually placed in the middle of the action. Over in ornithology, there are majestic eagles, some penguins, tropical parrots, local sparrows, peacocks and even a lonely pelican.
It’s such an odd and attractive scene; it’s not surprising that artists often seek permission to view many of the museum’s collections in storage. And because all collections are deemed public, art is granted as much consideration as science.
“Because everything is so valuable, both artists and scientific researchers have to go through the same process in applying for access to the museum’s collections,” says Roberts.
“It’s approved by the curator and we judge each case differently, based on who the person is and how their work might contribute to the community.”
Though he recently played host to Melbourne collective, Open Spatial Workshop as the department’s artists in residence, senior curator of geosciences, Stuart Mills is more interested in discussing the unique circumstances he faces in collecting for the museum.
When dealing in the competitive meteorites, gemstones and minerals marketplace, if they’re not discovered or donated, spending money is the only option.
“We tend to buy stuff from all over the world," says Mills. “You’d be surprised, there’s a big market for anyone from us to avid collectors.
“For example, I had to barter for some calcium fluoride from a French guy’s collection. You have to understand that over time, certain minerals become more expensive and then once they’re featured in a magazine, they become classics, so the prices just rise. It can then involve large bidding wars before private purchase – which was the case with this certain specimen.”
Mills goes on to reveal how meteorites are sold by the gram, and even though the museum does have samples of some of the world’s most significant specimens, they come at a price. Yet the contributions they can make to research are priceless – a piece of the recent Chelyabinsk meteorite to fall in Russia was swiftly purchased for AUD$1000 and immediately allowed for Australian studies into current events, therefore keeping us at the forefront of international developments.
After touring the facilities, you can’t help but think that it’s a shame many of these specimens will never be seen by most of us. But it’s not a thought that should be lingered upon. The work being put in behind the scenes is of immeasurable benefit to all and in an increasingly digital age, demonstrative of the importance of worldly curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge.
“We have no idea what specimens may be used for in the future, so it really behooves us to collect as much as we can,” says Fitzgerald. “100 years ago, we didn't even know that DNA existed; we didn't know what it was”, he says. “So you can only imagine what we might be able to do with this rich archive of nature in 50-100 years’ time”.
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