Wild things at the museum

Last updated 05:00 19/01/2014
Steve Austin
Derek Flynn

Samples: Marlborough Museum chief executive Steve Austin is proud of the latest permanent display, titled Wild Things.

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A "colonial gentleman's study" of natural history in Marlborough is the subtitle of a new permanent display at Marlborough Museum.

Titled Wild Things!, the collection of taxidermy, fossils and dried specimens of plants, insects, molluscs, fish and birds was inspired by an earlier naturalist, 19th century Speaker of the House of New Zealand Representatives Sir David Monro.

He arrived in New Zealand from Edinburgh in 1841 and although Nelson was his main base, he also owned the Bankhouse property in Marlborough.

A museum brochure says as Sir David travelled around the Wairau area, he started collecting specimens of plants he had not seen before.

They were duly dried and sent with their seeds to the Royal Gardens, Kew, Britain, where they were described and officially named.

Eight were named after Monro, including "Monro's Ragwort" (Senecio monroi) and "Monro's Mountain Daisy" (Celmisia monroi). Other plants included in the Wild Things! display and growing in the northeastern parts of the South Island are the Marlborough rock daisy (Pachystegio insignis), a smaller rock daisy (Pachystegia rufa) and the purple-leaved ake ake or hopbush (Dodonia viscosa ‘Purpurea').

Live versions can be viewed in the museum's rear courtyard but visitors will have to settle for a cabinet display of the birds that once commonly lived among them. Taxidermic or stuffed birds include the yellow-eyed penguin, hoiho, a far-eastern curlew and the Australasian bittern (Matuku hurepo).

Museum chief executive Steve Austin says people either love or hate the stuffed birds.

"It [taxidermy] is sad for the birds," he adds.

"But it's wonderful their lives have been used to inspire people."

The Marlborough Historical Society's museum collections are traditionally focused on family histories, he says, so he is excited to start a permanent display of the region's natural history.

"Who knew we had all these fossils from the Awatere?" he asks, pointing to a crystal display from Mount Lookout.

Members of the Rock and Minerals Club, like Ron Bothwell, know and some of the samples on display have been loaned by them to the museum.

Dried scurvy grass was provided by the Department of Conservation and is displayed beside some native celery. Both were used by Captain Cook to keep his crew relatively healthy during their sea voyages.

The ability of green vegetables to prevent scurvy was understood, Steve says, but Cook was extra successful in getting his crew to eat their greens. They were punished if they refused.

A "portable soup" prepared on Cook's ships was made from dried meat and "whatever vegetables they could find".

"And his crew were forced to eat it."

DOC is keen to help the museum develop its new natural history display, located in the short corridor leading to the museum lecture room. Steve says it is the last area to be re-designed since his appointment eight years ago and was five years in the planning.

"It's wonderful it's come together," he says, pulling open some large display drawers holding preserved land snails, birds' eggs, rock samples and fossils. "Marlborough has such a range of habitat between its wetter western side and its dry eastern side.

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