Eric Dorfman

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.

The Healing Power of Nature

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

By Dr Eric Dorfman, Director

People who live close to nature know first-hand the benefits of integrating a positive relationship with the natural world into their lives. In many cultures, however, people spend far less time in nature than even 25 or 50 years ago. In fact, many aspects of western culture actively discourage people from spending time there and pervasive urbanisation is beginning to change our fundamental relationship with nature.

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

Parents have become fearful about their children playing outdoors and children who grow up mainly in built environments often fear nature, largely because it is unfamiliar. In movies, newspapers, and in exaggerated personal stories, nature is often portrayed as the villain or evil and these stories contribute to a social outlook that is increasingly “biophobic” (afraid of nature). In a very short period of time, humanity has moved from the industrial revolution to a technical one in which people are able to live their entire lifetimes rarely having to encounter nature at all. Exceptions to this isolation often occur only in the midst of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes and tidal waves. Lack of contact leads to lack of understanding, which leads to fear.

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

And yet, research has shown that spending time in natural spaces strengthens neighbourhood ties, reduces crime, stimulates social interactions among children, strengthens family connections and decreases domestic violence, assists new immigrants cope with transition and is cost effective for health benefits. Despite a global reaction in coalitions such as “Leave No Child Inside” or “Children and Nature Network” that have formed in the US and “Natural England” in the UK, western society is increasingly losing the potential benefits of this lifestyle.

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

New Zealanders are, in many ways, exceptions to this trend. We have always celebrated activities such as canoeing, tramping, kayaking and mountaineering – all outside. For many of us here it is important that we encourage others to be outdoors, often teaching our kids outdoor travelling and life skills, all helpful in being more at home outdoors. Probably every one of us believes that being outdoors creates health and wellness benefit. It’s not surprising, then, that in Whanganui much of our most quintessentially local imagery is based outdoors and, of course, much of that associated with our magnificent river.

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

When going through the Museum’s collection of objects and imagery, that connection to nature is palpable. We can see furniture and implements made from local woods, herbarium specimens carefully pressed into exacting symmetry, photos of families enjoying picnics or working on the river to partake of its bounty. Many of our taxidermy specimens come from the bush and wetlands that, while substantially reduced, still exist here.

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This opportunity to engage with our natural environment is also the reason many tourists come here, to watch the excitement of the Jet Sprints or to enjoy the solitude of paddling downriver on a canoe. All around us, the reminders of nature are everywhere in Whanganui, in front of our eyes.

Boning up on specialist matter

Boning up on specialist matter

Dr Eric Dorfman, director of the Whanganui Regional Museum, has a predilection for skeletons – and makes no bones about it. The museum is mausoleum, I mean home, to a remarkable number of bony structures, including a complete skeleton of a long extinct great auk. As well as a fascination for extinct species, among Eric’s many accomplishments was a time spent teaching zoology at the University of Sydney, so the anatomy of animals is of particular interest.

The object of this article is to make morphological comparisons between skeletons of different species, showing, mostly, the similarities.  We looked at the skeleton of a penguin, then that of a lizard, a lace monitor or goanna, seeing the bones of a ‘hand’ – similar components, scaled differently – in each and every bony framework, and not a lot different from a human hand. And look! A flamingo skeleton!

Using the skeletons of a hawk, the lizard, the flamingo and the penguin, as well as a large animal skull, probably from a cow, Eric made comparisons of particular bony parts. “What’s interesting about this is that it is a real lesson in evolution when you start looking at how these things are the same basic morphology [structure],” says Eric. “If you look at the hawk, as on most birds, the upper bill is thicker and bigger than the lower bill. But if you look at the flamingo, the reverse is true. It’s because to feed, they hold their heads upside down. They lower their head into the water and filter out brine shrimp.”

So how did that beak structure happen? “Undoubtedly the behaviour precedes the morphology,” says Eric, “in that over time the birds that had a subtle difference in their beaks had more offspring because they fed at a more efficient rate, they were healthier and they had more eggs survive.”

Interesting fact: the colour of the flamingo is determined by its diet. “The pink comes from sequestering the pigment from the shrimp in their feathers. If you stop feeding flamingos their native food they turn white or very light pink.” You are what you eat.

“The beak of the hawk is for tearing, the penguin bill is for grabbing … but they are modified from the exact same origin.”  We carefully arranged the skeletons of the hawk, lizard and penguin on a table, together with the cow skull – kind of a mini-representation of House of Bones, a museum exhibition currently showing.

“Aside from the fact it’ll be a lot of fun, the most exciting thing for me is to show a rich skeletal collection and, what I’m hoping people will get from the exhibition will be an intimate look at skeletal structure and what different bones are used for. I hope also for an understanding about the connection between different biological groups that are actually similar and closely related.”

The hawk and penguin are obviously closely related, Eric pointed out, but those similarities extend to other species. “If you compare the goanna to the hawk, the spine is extremely similar and so much more is the same. To me, evolution is obvious when you look at these things together.”

The good doctor’s knowledge of ancient species is encyclopaedic but the evolution of birds and lizards comprised much of Eric’s discussion as we looked at the skeletons. “If you were to investigate an emu you can see a little ‘thumb’ in its wing,” says Eric, “and this is one of things to remember – not everything has a purpose. One of the mistakes we make is to think that everything we see on an animal has to have meaning and we look for that meaning.”

He compared the skull of the goanna with that of the hawk and the similarities were unmistakable. Cover them with flesh and life and you would never know how much the same they are.

 

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in September 2013.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

Whanganui Live!

Whanganui

In case you missed it on Saturday morning, the Director and the Curator of Natural History were interviewed by Kim Hill on Radio Live.  Kim Hill hosts the regular Saturday Morning programme and on 15th November visited Whanganui to air her show live from the Royal Opera house.  This was part if the ‘Smart21’ initiative which focuses on regional centres.

Listen to the interview with Dr Eric Dorfman, Director of the Whanganui Regional Museum, here as he talks about the job, his professional history, and the wonderful town he now lives in.

And listen to Mike Dickison, Curator of Natural History, here as he discusses the Museum’s amazing collection of Moa bones and taonga, the illicit trade of bones around the world, and his Wiki Wednesday project.

Billy Connell’s War begins

 

Director Eric Dorfman welcomes the audience

Director Eric Dorfman welcomes the audience

Mayor Annette Main opens the exhibition

Mayor Annette Main opens the exhibition

Last Friday saw the opening of our exhibition for the centenary of the first world war, Billy Connell’s War – Whanganui in World War I.  There was a great turn-out with 100 people in attendance and the show was well received.  A welcome by the Director Eric Dorfman was followed by a speech and formal opening by Mayor Annette Main before the crowd moved into the exhibition space for the karakia by our local kaumātua and a preview of the show.

Kirsty Ross delivers her speech, accompanied by some images of soldiers

Kirsty Ross delivers her speech, accompanied by some images of soldiers

Guests were then given a brown paper bag afternoon tea (cheese or corned beef sandwiches, fruit cake and an Anzac biscuit) and Kirtsy Ross, Curator of 20th Century History at Te Papa, regaled the audience with a talk on her research into New Zealand’s first world war experience and the intricacies (and humours!) of passing on such a legacy.

 

 

Guests view some of Billy's photographa

Guests view some of Billy’s photographa

Guests view some of the artifacts on display

Guests view some of the artifacts on display

Guests collect their afternoon tea

Guests collect their afternoon tea

 

 

The exhibition tells the story of Billy Connell, a local man who enlisted and served in the first world war.  Billy Connell was born in Palmerston North in 1993, the son of William and Naomi Connell. William was a carpenter in Palmerston North and later in Marton. By 1911 Naomi Connell had separated from her husband and was living in Durie Terrace in Wanganui, later moving to May Street.  On 5 August 1914 New Zealand declared war on Germany in support of Great Britain Billy Connell enlisted and went off to war with the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.  He had a camera in his kitbag and took photographs while on service, often illegally. Servicemen were not permitted to take photographs or write about campaigns or battles in case information fell into the hands of the enemy. His images tell the story of an ordinary serviceman during extraordinary times. The photographs were arranged into seven albums. Billy’s sister Mrs Amelia McCullum donated them to the Whanganui Regional Museum in 1966.

BCW box logo

Billy Connell’s War is open until September 2016 so come in and follow Billy’s journey through the war.  The Museum is free entry.