Showcases for nature and some sticky situations
Years ago, hosting an American, I was confronted with a challenge.
George Washington is clearly the great unifying figure of American history. So who is Australia’s equivalent? Wrestling with this idea overnight, the next morning I had the answer.
“Our great unifying person of history,” I declared, “turns out to be a horse – Phar Lap – and you people killed him.”
I sent my stunned American friend to the Melbourne Museum to see Phar Lap in the flesh.
In the evening our conversation resumed but this time the momentum had shifted dramatically.
“According to the museum your accusation is totally unproven”, I was told, “and your great Australian hero turns out to be a Kiwi.”
Museums are the repositories of our culture: both myths and facts. Like no other institution they tell our national story: to the visiting traveller and to ourselves.
Once considered musty places housing quaint and obscure artefacts, a visit to the Melbourne Museum today is an exciting and dynamic ride through the wonders of human experience.
Exhibits which as a kid seemed to me moth-eaten and stale now are presented with a vitality that has my kids begging me to come back for more.
Phar Lap himself is resplendent.
Our best museums are leading the world in cultural presentation and Australians are voting with their feet. With 13 million visitors, more Australians visit a museum on an annual basis than attend a sporting event.
And that is because museums open our eyes to our historical and worldly surroundings and help place our lives in a cultural and physical context.
Two weeks ago I was at the Melbourne Museum launching the Council of Australasian Museum Directors’ International Year of Biodiversity project.
The United Nations has declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity to celebrate our planet’s biodiversity and to highlight the loss in biodiversity which is occurring at 1000 times the natural rate.
So what better place to tell this story and demonstrate the wonders of our biodiversity than our museums?
Before undertaking the formal launch the Melbourne Museum introduced me to some of its own living collections of biodiversity. A Goliath Stick Insect, which is the biggest stick insect you’ll ever see, was delicately placed on my sleeve and then proceeded to take a walk up my arm. Clearly being unable to camouflage herself against my black suit jacket she left unimpressed. Two Spiny Leaf Insects took her place. These are large leafy counterparts to their stick cousins.
Both insects are part of the Phasmatodea order. The male of the species is considered as an optional extra for phasmids, for if there are no males present then the female has the capacity to reproduce all on her own.
On learning this I became very thankful that biodiversity through evolution has provided a different reproducing alternative for humans where the male is vaguely necessary.
Understanding Australia’s biodiversity and the impact humans are having on it was the subject of another launch last week when the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) was launched at the Queensland University of Technology’s Samford site.
TERN will be the catalyst for the most comprehensive monitoring and analysis of Australia’s many and diverse land ecosystems.
One of the many TERN observation sites, Samford is a peri-urban site which is being monitored to within an inch of its life to investigate how characteristically urban surrounds such as gardens, playing fields, and roads are affecting our local creeks and wildlife.
I was introduced to a flux meter which measures the emission and absorption of greenhouse gases. It is a portable device which can determine whether the environment surrounding it – to a distance of a 200m radius – is either a carbon sink or a carbon source. It could answer this question, for example, in relation to Hyde Park in Sydney or Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens.
TERN will enable us to better understand the human impact on our continent’s biodiversity in a way which has been impossible until now. This information will shape our thinking on how to sustain our environment for decades to come.
Complimenting the International Year of Biodiversity project the Melbourne Museum currently has an exhibit called Wild: Amazing animals in a changing world. It contains the Museum’s full collection of preserved animals.
One of these is the Thylacine, otherwise known as the Tasmanian tiger. Staring at this particular specimen who lived a century ago the importance of both our museums and the work of TERN on our biodiversity were palpable.
How wonderful it is to have a museum which provides the opportunity to meet a creature from the past. How important it is to ensure our environment sustains all of our surviving species into the world that our kids will inherit in the future.
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