Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Other Te Papa

I’m not sure a visit to Wellington would be complete without spending time at the National Museum, Te Papa. The collection is astounding. So far I’ve spent several days there and I haven’t seen everything. And of course visiting the same exhibits again yields new discoveries. I’d like to tell you about a specific collection.

Imagine you’re walking along a beach in New Zealand. You come across a beached whale. You call the Department of Conservation. The Department of Conservation calls Anton.

Anton is Te Papa’s marine mammals collection manager. He knows more about whales than anyone I’ve met. When you visit the marine mammals collection at Te Papa, near the giant squid, you’re looking at Anton’s work. What’s amazing is that the number of whale specimens on display does not give you a sense of the collection’s size. (The collection maintained by Te Papa is one of the largest in the world.) Away from the actual museum there’s another building where most of the collection is kept, along with countless other specimens in rows and rows of jars.

Lately Anton’s been working on unraveling the mysteries of the Spade-toothed whale. This video shows you how excited he is about his work, and the excitement is infectious!

Meeting Anton made me think about all of the effort that goes into museum displays. We see the end product, mostly oblivious to the work taken to create something worth looking at. And the research we see in displays is only part of what Anton does. Learning about whales gives us a greater understanding of life in the oceans, and ultimately our impact on the natural environment.

Next time you visit a museum, spare a quick thought for those dedicated and passionate enough to provide us with this fascinating, critical information.

The skull Anton is measuring is a Gray's beaked whale (Mesoplodon grayi) and the vertebra I'm holding is from an Arnoux's beaked whale (Berardius arnuxii). I know I have a photo of Anton twice, but the photo at the top is a nice one of the skull, and in this one you can see heaps of cool stuff behind him. Science rules, I know.