Samuel Drew

How many men does it take to move a sunfish?

No, it’s not a bad joke, but a real question we recently faced.

In preparation for the earthquake strengthening schedule to start early in the new year, we have been working at emptying the exhibition spaces and taking everything down off display, including the giant sunfish that has been hanging on the wall since the museum was built in 1928 (minus a few breaks here and there for conservation or rehanging).

The sunfish, or Mola mola, was caught in 1895 and purchased for the collection.  It took Museum founder Samuel Drew and three assistants three days to skin the 360cm-long fish, after which it was treated and mounted for later exhibition in the gallery space.

And now it has been temporarily removed and placed in storage while the museum building gets strengthened.  A big and rather delicate project.

So, how many men does it take to move a sunfish?  Take a look and see for yourself…

 

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.

Happy Birthday Mr Drew!

1802.2525Today the Whanganui Regional Museum celebrates the birthday of its founder. Samuel Henry Drew was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, on 17 November 1844. The Drews migrated to Tasmania in the early 1850s and then to Nelson in 1860. Samuel established a successful jewellery and watch-making business in Whanganui in 1864, which continued to be run by his descendants until the 1990s. The Drew building is still standing in Victoria Avenue.
Drew married Catherine Beatson in Nelson in 1872 and the couple came back to Whanganui where they raised their eight children. He had a wide range of interests including music and sport. He was a member of the Philharmonic Society, the conductor of the Wanganui Liedertafel (the Male Choir) and president of the Wanganui Orchestral Club, and also belonged to the Wanganui Rowing Club. His greatest passion, however, was the study of natural history.

'Caught Napping' by Drew’s friend, engineer and surveyor J T Stewart, for a Savage Club Competition.

‘Caught Napping’ by Drew’s friend, engineer and surveyor J T Stewart, for a Savage Club Competition.

Samuel Drew collected natural history specimens and Māori artefacts, eventually establishing his own museum in his home in 1880. His family helped to collect and classify his specimens of molluscs, birds, beetles, fossils and other fauna. His collecting activities extended as far as Kāpiti Island where he became something of an authority on the local birds and fish.

Drew devoted his spare time to his private collection, furnishing specimens for collections throughout New Zealand. He published articles on natural history in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute and was made a fellow of the Linnaean Society in 1897. Drew maintained contacts with world-renowned naturalists such as Andreas Reischek who, on two visits in 1886 and 1888, helped to classify his collections. Reischek also trained Drew’s son, Henry, as a taxidermist.

Interior of the original Wanganui Public Museum on Wicksteed (Drews) Avenue.

Interior of the original Wanganui Public Museum on Wicksteed (Drews) Avenue.

The private collection eventually began crowding out Drew’s family home and he realized he would need to find larger premises to house his museum if he wished to continue collecting. He also recognized the importance of his collection and the considerable public interest in it. For these reasons he offered the collection to the town to form the nucleus of a public museum.

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Exterior of the Wanganui Public Museum on Wicksteed (Drews) Avenue

Exterior of the Wanganui Public Museum on Wicksteed (Drews) Avenue

Drew’s collection was purchased in 1892 for a nominal sum, and through his efforts a new purpose-built museum was erected in Wicksteed Avenue, now Drews Avenue, to which his collection was transferred. He was appointed Honorary Curator of the new Wanganui Public Museum and continued to collect, using his expertise to mount natural history specimens and organise displays.

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Samuel Drew died from a sudden heart attack at his business premises on 18 December 1901 at the age of 57 years. The Whanganui Regional Museum is a lasting reminder of the enterprise, expertise and dedication of this extraordinary individual. Whanganui will remain indebted to this man for the contribution he made to recording and collecting the cultural and natural heritage of this region, as well as founding an institution of national and international renown.

Trick photograph of Mr Drew pushing himself in a wheelbarrow

Trick photograph of Mr Drew pushing himself in a wheelbarrow

He was always ready to devote his very limited leisure to the advancement of musical and scientific matters in Wanganui, and has left in the Wanganui Museum a fitting monument which will serve to preserve his memory and demonstrate what even one earnest and capable worker can do, when his heart is in his work … (From the Wanganui Herald 18 December 1901)

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The Museum’s Board voted to create a permanent memorial in tribute to Samuel Drew. One of the trustees, Mr Empson suggested a marble bust of Drew and said, “There is no place fitter for a bust than the Museum, and no bust fitter for the place.”

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