The UNE Natural History Museum displays specimens from the world around us – and around the globe. This material has been acquired over decades, primarily driven by scientific research within the University, but also through donations and particular interests of individual staff members. As in most museums the specimens on display represent a tiny portion (5%) of the vast holdings. The remainder, cared for in storage, are preserved and conserved as a significant University resource for teaching, research, future testing and reference material for comparative purposes.
The trajectory of natural history museums in Australia is a fascinating story that starts with explorers on the edge of the world surrounded by an environment so foreign and wonderful that they could not fail to gather the flora and fauna around them. Now we no longer collect purely for the sake of collecting. Gone is the cabinet of curiosity and blanket style collecting – bringing home literally everything found in the field. Museums today are bound by a code of international ethics to protect and conserve both the natural world and objects of cultural significance.
Only weeks before first semester in 1958, a fire devastated the upper floors of the newly constructed Belshaw destroying lab equipment, collections and research material from disciplines including Physics, Geology, Zoology, Botany and Chemistry. Luckily the bulk store of Geology specimens on closer inspection was able to be salvaged.
If you ever had the chance to explore the old UNE Zoology Building you may have stumbled across a giant tortoise or walked underneath African Antelope horns – all before going inside! On display in the museum you would have seen close to a thousand specimens, installed as dioramas and interpretive displays laid out to best teach the discipline of Zoology.
The UNE NHM is a distinctly modern exhibition space, dominated by one of Australia’s newest dinosaurs named ‘Lightning Claw’. This one of a kind sculpture is a reconstruction of a new megaraptor species discovered in opal rubble at Lightning Ridge by UNE researcher Dr Phil Bell and colleagues.
Experiments conducted by Associate Professor Paul McDonald at UNE are helping to uncover some of the mechanisms that help miner societies stick together, such as an incredibly complex vocal repertoire that enables birds to signal their identity, as well as the type of predator in an area.
With the move to the Agriculture Building, the opportunity to develop the UNE Natural History Museum was realised. Though its foundation lies with zoological specimens, the new location afforded UNE the chance to showcase material from our botanical, geological and palaeontological collections too.
Specimens and the crucial documentation that resides along-side them; telling us where, when, how and who collected them, become a reference for identification, comparison and education. Museums in the 21st century are places of activity, interaction and discovery. Installations help visitors to see patterns in nature, evolution and encourage evidence and object based learning.
Our collections have been used for decades as undergraduate teaching resources. Our Museum houses important research specimens that have been collected during specific projects in New England, throughout Australia, and some overseas. We use real specimens, including butterflies, skeletons, taxidermied animals and models to engage school students through our UNE Discovery Bus initiative.
Museums are the ultimate reflection of our cultural traditions and value system. Why was that particular object acquired? Why is it significant? What story does it tell? Museums and art galleries are repositories of what we value or historically valued as a society, and they act as safe houses for those cultural traditions. The collections held are like time capsules that represent intellectual movements, philosophies and ways of thinking in the era they were made.
Behind each specimen sits layers of a story — why and how the specimen was collected, how it contributed to research, what the creature itself represents in a world where too much of life is vanishing too fast. To explore the collection we’re featuring a different specimen (with a little bit about its story) each week.