Down with the animals

Black bear

A black bear, mouth open, teeth bared

One floor underground an upright black bear stands guard over a host of animals and plants ready to go on display in The Poisoners at Auckland Museum. I’m down here, in the exhibition preparation room, with museum technician Dhahara Ranatunga to get a sneak preview of some of the creatures you’ll see in the exhibition.

Dhahara was a member of the team responsible for selecting, locating and gathering many of the 200-odd natural history objects in The Poisoners, a murder mystery that opens on December 16.

Arranged on shelves and in boxes are crayfish in pickling jars, snakes in whiskey bottles, birds, reptiles, beetles, butterflies and crustaceans.There are stuffed marsupials, what remains of a wolf when you take away everything except the skin and skull, and a king baboon tarantula (capable of catching and eating small helpless birds). It is not a collection of creatures you often see in one place.

Wolf skin

What a wolf looks like without its bones and innards

When Te Papa developed The Poisoners four years ago the selection of animals and poisonous plants was based on their collections. Working alongside the natural history curators, Dhahara, (and her colleague Jason Froggatt), were given the job to find the same or similar objects from Auckland Museum’s natural history collections.


A possum forever climbing a branch

Some were easy. In a quirk of the taxidermists art both museums are home to possums in an almost identical arboreal pose – mid-climb up a bare branch. Others were harder to match. Specimens of the poisonous fly agaric mushroom and the malaria carrying Anopheles mosquitoes were particularly elusive, says Dhahara.

Since the Auckland War Memorial Museum was built in 1929 there have been eight decades of storing things, getting them out and putting them away again. It goes without saying that among this great haystack of history, science and culture some objects are easier to find than others.

For a start, not everything is always where it ought to be, or what it ought to be. The albino bird cupboard is home to a pigment-less sparrow, kiwi, blue penguin and chicken. But Dhahara says it turned out the chicken’s whiteness was work of chicken breeders, not the result of a rare mutation.

Some objects, like the big red, white-spotted fly agaric mushrooms, had to be sourced from outside the Museum.

“Fly agarics,” says Dhahara, “you’d think they would be common. I went out in March and April and found only one in the Domain.  In spring I spent the day out in Woodhill forest and found every species of mushroom but fly agarics.”

A not so blue penguin

A not so blue penguin

Sourcing dead Anopheles mosquitoes, which are malaria vectors, was also tricky. An Auckland University researcher had thrown out specimens only a week before Dhahara made contact. Dhahara eventually tracked down a source in a Madagascan research centre.

And Dhahara’s favourite thing in the exhibition? A spider whose brain has been rewired by a nematode, but the full story of that has to wait for another blog.

Te Kahu Kiwi a Tāwhiao – King Tāwhaio’s kiwi feather cloak

Welcome to this week’s preview of Tamaki Paenga Hira, an informative program currently featuring on Māori Television exploring 13 taonga Māori from the Auckland War Memorial Museum collections. This week Rahui Papa introduces us to the Second Māori King, Tāwhiao I, and shares some of the background relating to the kiwi feather cloak that Tāwhiao wore during his 1884 visit to England.

Tāwhiao's Kiwi Cloak
Tāwhiao’s Kiwi Cloak. Please note that the cloak is not currently on display.

Tāwhiao was born in 1822 at Orongokoekoea Pā near Taumarunui. His father, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, was the leader of the Waikato people and was eventually installed as the first Māori King in 1858. The Kingitanga, or Maori King movement as it became known, was advocated by a number of tribes to help promote unity among Māori in the face of growing aggression by the Colonial Government. It became centred in the Waikato region.

King Tāwhiao. Josiah Martin photo. Auckland War Memorial Museum 15400

King Tāwhiao. Josiah Martin photo. Auckland War Memorial Museum 15400

Tāwhiao ascended the throne when his father passed away in 1860 and led the Kingitanga for the next 34 years. Barely three years into his reign, the Colonial Government invaded the Waikato, forcing Tāwhiao and his people to retreat into what is now known as the King Country. Ultimately almost a million acres (4,000 km²) of Waikato land was confiscated.

Denied a fair hearing in New Zealand, Tāwhiao and a contingent of chiefs travelled to London to seek an audience with Queen Victoria. They hoped to persuade her to enforce the Treaty of Waitangi and to arrange for the return of the confiscated land. Somewhat predictably, the party was refused the audience, with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Derby, refusing to take any responsibility for the actions of the Colonial Government. There was a similar attitude back in New Zealand where the Premier, Robert Stout, asserted that all events prior to 1863 were the responsibility of the Imperial Government.

Disillusioned and with nowhere to turn, Tāwhiao then focused on developing initiatives to promote the independence and welfare of his people – but without Government backing and with diminishing iwi support from outside of the Waikato tribal area, he became marginalized and the Kingitanga’s influence decreased considerably.

Little information is recorded on Museum records for the cloak. But what we do know from the notes is that Tāwhiao was photographed during his visit to England wearing the cloak, and sometime after his return to New Zealand he gave the cloak to a Mr. Burt.  Burt subsequently sold the cloak to the Auckland Museum in 1897.

In the beginning….

It hardly seems like this year’s field school course has finished and we are back to organizing next year’s project. We will work in a new location next year, so there is a lot of preliminary organization to get on with. At the moment we are working on finalizing all the recording systems and data management strategies to be used. This is a big job because the project is new and we have a lot of people from the department involved, so we need to make sure all the researchers’ needs are met. Fortunately a range of experience and enthusiasm makes this task quite exciting as we think about how we can achieve our research goals from the point of view of the data acquisition. Our next big task is to develop new teaching resources for the course.  These will help the students as they acquire new skills before, during and after the field school. Stay tuned, this should be one awesome field school!

~ Rebecca

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Regurgitated mice and murder

The Poisoners signage goes up in the Auckland Museum atrium

Getting ready for the new murder mystery coming to Auckland Museum

What links a mouse dissolved by the digestive juices of a tarantula, a spider that’s been invaded by a nematode worm and malarial mosquitoes from Madagascar? They are all clues to a murder mystery at Auckland Museum this summer.

Along with more than 200 other strange, beautiful, creepy, dangerous and deadly plants and animals they are on display in The Poisoners in the Museum’s exhibition hall from December 16 2011.

Showing the welcome desk and The Poisoners signage

All done! The Poisoners opens on 16 December 2011

When the exhibition opens, get your sleuthing brain into gear and work out which object was used by one of four equally suspicious suspects to kill the brilliant scientist Dr Felix Splicer. Clues will help you eliminate the innocent as you pinpoint the murderer and their weapon of choice.

Developed by Te Papa in Wellington The Poisoners came with a list of natural history objects, from stag’s heads to scorpions, used in the exhibition when it ran in 2007.  Gathering all the dangerous and delightful objects together for the Auckland’s Poisoners exhibition has been the job of technicians Dhahara Ranatunga and Jason Froggat.  The quest to find suitable specimens from our own rich collections began in March.

A grey wolf, albino birds, horseshoe crabs, blue beetles from Papua New Guinea and angler fish have all been selected. Jars of sea creatures pickled in alcohol have been brought in from offsite storage. A stuffed brown bear has been moved downstairs from its home in Weird and Wonderful.  Mosquitoes have even been flown in from Madagascar.

Albino House Sparrow

An albino house sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Over the next few weeks I will bring you behind the scenes stories from the exhibition, from the search for Anopheles mosquitoes to the tale of a spider whose brain was rewired by a worm.