Not Just A Blue Whale

Today marks 11 years since I joined Facebook and yet this is my first blog.

I had the pleasure of entering the WA Museum Collections and Research Centre yesterday enjoying the passionate presentations by those who look after the collection of 8 500 000 precious items.

To many of us, a school trip to the Museum in Northbridge was our first encounter with  the massive 24 metre frame of a Blue Whale. The skeleton is one of the Western Australian Museum’s oldest and largest specimens. With a skull weighing 800 kgs and a mandibles of 400 kgs each , the combined weight of 356 pieces is considerable. It has a long and interesting history within the Museum and holds a special place in the hearts and memories of the people of our State.
For nearly 127 years, the WA Museum has been the home to this marine giant’s skeleton.
The WA Museum’s specimen washed ashore in 1898, and remained at the mouth of the Vasse River (near Busselton) for three years before it was ready to be transported to Perth for display. During this time the Museum’s taxidermist, Otto Lipfert, worked with the help of a local farmer and two Japanese fishermen to remove the flesh from the carcass. The skeleton was then left on the shore for 12 months to bleach before the bones were individually labelled for reassembly at a later time.

Busselton Station cart
The skeleton, was transported by horse-drawn carriage to the newly opened Busselton Railway station. From there it was taken to Perth by train where it was reconstructed in an open-faced shed at the Museum, located on the corners of Francis and Beaufort streets. In order to support the weight of the skeleton it was supported by more than a tonne of iron rods. The bones remained in this location until 1968, before moving to its new home within the Francis Street building.

The Western Australian Museum’s fascinating 120-year history documents the state’s rich natural and cultural heritage, featuring nearly 8 million objects in its incredibly diverse exhibits – from dozens of insects in a single jar, to a single piece of Mars.

Established in the old Perth gaol in 1891, its collections were originally geological, ethnological and biological. In 1959, the botanical collection was transferred to the new Western Australian Herbarium, and the museum focused its collection and research interests in the areas of natural sciences, anthropology, archaeology and WA history. Over the 1960s and 1970s it also began to work in the emerging areas of historic shipwrecks and Aboriginal site management.

Behind the scenes, the WA Museum’s many scientists, curators, research associates and volunteers work together in a sprawling climate-controlled facility in Welshpool – the Collections and Research Centre.

The diverse experts work in the fields of terrestrial zoology, aquatic zoology, earth and planetary sciences, history, anthropology and archaeology. While the museum’s maritime archaeology and maritime history departments are based at sites in Fremantle, some of those extensive collections are also housed in Welshpool.

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The study of culture and communities revolves around a central, integral question: what does it mean to be human? Again, through the objects in its collections, the WA Museum’s researchers and curators help us unravel some of the complexities and mysteries of human history. Who we are and how we live is revealed through artefacts like a little boy’s home-made wartime toy, examples of intricately woven Aboriginal baskets, and thousands of coins collected from 17th century Dutch ships wrecked along our coast. There are also 19th century porcelain tea sets, 20th century weapons, and a 21st century asylum-seeker boat.

The Western Australian Museum has a strong commitment to sharing stories that help people explore their identity, culture, environment and sense of place. To learn more about the Collection and Research Centre, visit the online collection at museum.wa.gov.au/museums/collection-and-research-centre

Among the most vibrant items in the marine invertebrates collection are these seastars and sea urchins. The brilliant orange and white seastar Pentagonaster dubeni was collected in 9m of water at Quindalup, Geographe Bay.

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10000 metres of shelving houses an extensive collection of every creepy crawly you can imagine housed in the Harry Butler Research Centre. My old neighbour Dr William Henry “Harry” Butler AO CBE from Willetton passed away in December 2015.

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Many readers will recall the WA Museum’s blue whale skeleton from the marine gallery of the Francis Street building. The animal washed ashore at the mouth of the Vasse River in 1898. These five vertebrae, and the rest of the bones, await restoration and a prominent position in the new museum building.

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Most meteorites are 4.56 billion years old and mark the birth of the Solar System. This cross section shows the iron content of a meteorite found in the Ashburton region, just one of the largest collection of meteorites in the Southern Hemisphere.

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My favourite piece of the entire collection is this convicts uniform. Just five pieces of clothing survive from the convict period in Western Australia – this jacket and trousers being two of those five items.
The bizarre parti-coloured uniform was worn as extra punishment by prisoners sentenced to work in iron leg chains. It is made of coarse wool tabby in black and bright mustard yellow halves. The right hand front half of each piece was black and the left half yellow; this was reversed on the back and the collar. Because the punishing iron chains remained on the prisoner’s legs 24 hours a day, the sides of the trousers buttoned up (and could be unbuttoned) like a fly. The pieces are stamped with the infamous broad arrow that signified British Government property.
Western Australia was the last of the Australian colonies to receive convicts from Britain, resisting the stain of convictism for more than twenty years. Between 1850 and 1868, 9971 male convicts were transported to the Swan River Colony as a source of labour for the struggling settlers. Their uniforms were made in the tailor shops of the big London prisons in three standard sizes and sent out in annual despatches. Ordinary prisoners, ticket of leave men and men on special punishment on the chain gang wore different issues of clothing, which they received twice a year for summer and winter.
Because these historic pieces of clothing are fragile and irreplaceable they are not on permanent display. It appears that this uniform was never issued for use, which undoubtedly accounts for its survival.

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Our new Museum opens in 2020 and if the passion displayed by the staff yesterday is anything to go by, it’s going to be world class.

Cheers Duff.

2 Comments on “Not Just A Blue Whale

  1. It may be your first blog, but you write in a manner that captures us and invites us to read more….And to I’ve just spent a week in Busselton…WoW…

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