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.
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.
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.”
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.