Department of Conservation

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Dr Eric Dorfman’s professional credentials would be a separate – and very long – story. The books he’s written and studies he has made, in themselves, would make a fascinating Midweek article (note to self: write fascinating Midweek article about Dr Eric Dorfman’s books and published studies).

In this issue, however, we treat him as the recently appointed director of the Whanganui Regional Museum and hear about his interest in the long extinct Tasmanian Wolf, Thylacinus cynocephalus.

To do that I had to follow the tall, one-time Californian (but I think New Zealand has claimed him now) down into the bowels of the museum, shuffling between shelves until finding dozens of specimens of the taxidermists’ art. There we encountered our Tasmanian Wolf.

The museum has a stuffed specimen, collected by the museum’s founder, Samuel Drew, sometime around 1891, well before the species met its total demise. It looks its age, poor thing, but the astounding fact is that we have one.

Eric lived in Australia for some years and knows a bit about these creatures. So why did he choose it to present to Midweek?  “It’s immensely cool from the fact that we have an extinct Australian species of which there are only a few in the world and exemplifies the importance of the collection internationally, as well as nationally. It’s cool on a personal level because I’m a conservationist by profession and there is still an effort afoot to see if maybe there are some left in Tasmania … and evolutionarily it’s very cool because although it looks like a dog it’s actually more closely related to a kangaroo, koala or wombat.”

The Thylacine is a marsupial and has a pouch like a kangaroo … well, the female does. The museum’s specimen is an adult male. Eric says they are more closely related to the quoll, another Australian animal, which is “more like a marsupial weasel”.  “From an evolutionary standpoint, this is convergent evolution with a dog,” says Eric. “Also biologically that’s very interesting.  One of my research thrusts is about humans’ relationship with nature,” he says. Eric has a book coming out later this year – Intangible Natural Heritage – of which he is author/editor in league with a team of distinguished authors.

Looking at this sad, stuffed specimen, Eric sees past the obvious and finds a symbol of “our coming of age as a society when we realise that doing this [making animals extinct] is a really bad thing.” He stresses that while this new-found consciousness is too late for some species, it’s not too late for many others.

He praises the work of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and its work here and overseas. “DOC is supporting other countries, including the United States, in methodology of setting up island sanctuaries … and it’s fantastic to be in New Zealand – even though this is an Australian species – from the point of view of this is a place where we have come of age in terms of the environment, and I hope we stay there. You can see why this launches into a lot of really interesting philosophical issues … and also thinking about where museums have been and where they’re going.”

It’s incredible, almost, to realise that Samuel Drew, Whanganui Regional Museum founder, actually helped, in his way, send species such as the huia extinct. He did that by trading stuffed huia (probably) to get an example of another species that, itself, would be extinct in another 50 years. At the time he traded for the Tasmanian Wolf, it was reasonably common but he needed it for his marsupial collection.

“No museum curator has ever intentionally sent a species extinct,” says Eric, “but back in the 19th century when species looked like they were going extinct, often, museum curators would run out to make sure they had them in their collection before anyone else got them … the huia was a victim of that kind of thing.”

The Thylacine was once a pan-Australian species, says Eric, with cave paintings to prove it was once even in the very north of Australia in Kakadu National Park. “By the time Drew was around it was restricted to Tasmania,” he says, although it was being hunted until its final (probable) extinction in the 1930s.

Eric says there is enough genetic material in existence so that, one day, techniques of cloning may be able to reintroduce the species. And so we looked at Samuel Drew’s legacy, part of his vision of a great museum that was all-encompassing.  “We now ‘get’ why he did it,” says Eric, “and we now have this incredible treasure. This is an amazing thing to have.”

There are lemurs from Madagascar and animals from all around the world, some exhibited upstairs, others hiding from the light below decks in the vaults. The Thylacine stands with them, an example of old ethics and philosophies and yet a symbol of what we are today. And if we do manage to clone them back into existence, will we look after them this time? The last word goes to Dr Eric Dorfman.

“If the Thylacine is never going to be reinvented and really is extinct, and the same with the huia, don’t we owe it to the species and owe it to ourselves to allow it to awaken us to the realities of what we’re doing to the planet?”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek newspaper in June 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the author.


Designs preserved in metal

Print blocks

From the Vaults is a regular Midweek feature in which a member of staff from the Whanganui Regional Museum discusses an item or exhibit from the museum’s vast collection. Front of house staff member Yoka van Dyk is a print maker – among other things – so it was appropriate she choose some Nancy Adams print blocks for this story.
The blocks were commissioned by the Department of Lands and Survey – the predecessor of DoC – in the 1980s and were made for illustrations in official publications about Egmont National Park, including a handbook and track pamphlets. They feature original art work by botanical artist Nancy M Adams.
Yoka saw them on display in the ‘new acquisitions’ section.  “They’re just exquisite little objects, just beautiful,” she says.
To accompany her story, Yoka brought along a burin, one of the tools that would have been used to make the print blocks. The burin is a fine chisel used for engraving designs on metal. “There are all different types,” says Yoka, “because you have different ones to make different lines. This point is very sharp with a sort of lozenge shape on the very end and it fits comfortably in your hand.” She demonstrated the use of the burin, keeping it low to remove a sliver of metal and show how varying depths of cut, using the wedge-shaped cutting edge, will produce different widths of line.
“These ones are very finely detailed and you have to be a very good drawer to be able to execute designs like this,” she says.
Both the skill of the engraver and the detailed designs of Nancy Adams are represented by the print blocks, which are made of brass, mounted on wood. Nancy Adams’ watercolours and drawings are widely known through reproduction in nearly 40 publications on native trees and shrubs, alpine plants, wild flowers and seaweeds that she has written and illustrated.
“Before, there were no books for the layman, really, only for botanical scientists, and with no pictures, so she jumped into that gap and started illustrating plants. And because she was a scientist as well, she could combine the two – her scientific side as well as her exquisite, articulate artistic side,: says Yoka.
Her father was an amateur horticulturalist, so Nancy  – born Jacqueline Nancy Mary Whittaker – grew up with Latin botanical names and a deep interest in plants. She joined the Dominion Museum in Wellington in 1959, eventually specialising in marine algae. She retired in 1987 as assistant curator of Botany and became an honorary research associate of the museum.
Quite a few of the print blocks are seaweed illustrations and each engraving is an intricate, detailed work of art. Engraving as a means of illustration was very common before the advent of photography and is still used for fine work.
“With drawing you really have to observe every minute detail, and interpret that. For her [Nancy], the real process was using the hand and eye,” says Yoka.
As well as working front-of-house at the museum, Yoka spends Mondays working at the Sarjeant Gallery. “I love working in the cultural hub of Wanganui,” she says.
Yoka came to New Zealand from Holland in 1987, intending to take a six-month break from her work as an artistic therapist. The country evidently appealed. She returned to her homeland in 2009, intending to live. She lasted 10 months and returned to New Zealand. An account of Yoka’s story and the nature of her work will feature in a future issue of Midweek.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 25th July 2012. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.