Melbourne Museum

To: 'Victoria Quinton' <>
Subject: Melbourne Museum
From: "Mules, Michael" <>
Date: Mon, 6 Nov 2000 09:24:37 +1000

Hi Victoria,

I'm currently working at the Melbourne Museum, as a curator involved with exhibition development in the fields of palaeontology, evolution and ornithology.  (In other words, I'm working on the dinosaur and evolution exhibitions, and helping our ornithology curator, Les Christidis, with bird stuff occasionally.)  However, the nature of my job is such that I'm finishing up at the end of the year, and going into teaching as a career change.

How did you enjoy your visit to the new museum?  I haven't had a chance to catch up with anyone who has been yet, and I'm wondering what people's reactions have been.  Do you think you would come back once the natural history exhibits open? (please say yes, it would make me feel so happy : )  ).

Currently, Museum Victoria collects very few bird specimens.  As Wim Vader and Allan Morris have said, the vast majority of modern-day skins come from road-kills, window-kills (a surprisingly large amount, from most bird families), cat-kills and the like.  When the museum does collect these days, it is with a specific purpose in mind, usually for a combination of taxonomic and genetic studies.  All birds collected are done so under strict permit conditions from DNRE.  These days, all birds that are brought into the museum's collection are tissue sampled for DNA studies, and then either turned into study skins, exhibition mounts (which are still valid for scientific study), or skeletons.

Museum Victoria is foremost a scientific institution, and an official repository for the state's natural heritage.  One very important reason that we keep an extensive collection of dead animals is that they convey a record of the previous distribution of species, dating back to the 19th century.  For instance, we have in our collection bustards, collected late last century at Flemington Racecourse, whereas nowadays you'd be lucky to see them south of the Murray River.  Continuing collecting means that in another hundred years, this record still exists.  Keeping physical remains of the birds, rather than a photographic or written record, is mostly so that studies can be done on population genetics and morphological or genetic changes over time (but as I said before, this type of collecting is now very rare at the museum).

The collection is also used for taxonomic work.  While photographs can be useful in aiding identification, the vast majority of taxonomy has been, and continues to be done using museum specimens.  Pretty much all of HANZAB - the plates, plumage descriptions and measurement data - was done using the various collections in Australia's museums; Christidis & Boles (1994) was based on genetic and morphological data gleaned from museum collections; Schodde & Mason's Directory of Australian Birds: Passerines was based almost entirely on birds in museum collections.

So I'm not sure what you should answer your daughter.  The birds you saw were from the museum's collection, but were arranged as part of an art installation (unless she was asking about the InfoZone birds, in which case they were killed to help us understand and indentify differences between different bird species).  Museums kill birds for reasons of research, which can satisfy scientific needs such as taxonomy and systematics, or can be used to aid conservation efforts by identifying at-risk populations effectively (ie. black-eared miners), or by highlighting changes in range and/or habitat.  Stuffed birds are also put on display for the purposes of education.  By itself, a mount of a bird educates about the identification of that species.  Put within some the context of an exhibition, the bird can become a powerful symbol that educates about a particular issue or concept.

Ultimately, killing any animal for anything other than food (and even then), is a selfish act, which can be rationalised, but shouldn't be blindly accepted.

Cheers, Michael

Michael Mules
Curator, Science Program
Museum Victoria
Melbourne Museum, Carlton

Ph: 8341 7426

    From:   Victoria Quinton[SMTP:
    Sent:   Sunday, 5 November 2000 7:36 AM
    To:     birding-aus
    Subject:        [BIRDING-AUS] Melbourne Museum

    Hi all
    My family visited the new Melbourne Museum yesterday.

    I just wondered if any birding-aus list members work there.

    My daughter asked 'why did they have to kill all the birds'?

    Birding-Aus is on the Web at
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    "unsubscribe birding-aus" (no quotes, no Subject line)

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