AM CEO and Director Kim McKay AO in conversation with explorer, scientist and 2007 Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery.

Professor Tim Flannery
Sydney, 24 January 2019: The Australian Museum (AM) today announced the appointment of internationally acclaimed scientist, author, explorer and conservationist Professor Tim Flannery as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow focussed on researching the impacts of climate change and raising awareness of the issues, especially impacts on biodiversity and our coastal environments. Image: Damien Pleming
© Damien Pleming

Professor Tim Flannery has made many remarkable discoveries in palaeontology, mammology and environmental science. Find out what inspired him to become a scientist, hear about his time spent working at the AM, and learn details of his most recent expeditions to the Solomon Islands.

"You can think of Collections in museums as great and complicated machines that have been built up over many, many decades, in some cases centuries, of fieldwork, research and publication. And the machines are directed towards understanding the nature of our world better." Professor Tim Flannery

Kim McKay: Welcome to AMplify, the Australian Museum's regular podcast where I get to chat to some of the extraordinary scientists and staff, as well as visitors to the Australian Museum, and take a peek sneak behind the scenes. I am Kim McKay, the director and CEO, and welcome again to AMplify.

Well, today's guest is somebody who is one of my favourite people, one of my favourite Australians, an explorer, scientist, communicator, and of course the 2007 Australian of the Year. And of course he worked here at the Australian Museum for around 15 years as the curator of the mammalian collection, and I'm talking about of course the wonderful Tim Flannery. Welcome Tim.

Tim Flannery: Thanks very much Kim, it's great to be here.

Kim McKay: It's lovely to have you here on site and I'm glad that we see more of you these days than before, when you're not focusing on some of your climate change activities you do come into the Australian Museum frequently.

Tim Flannery: I do. The place is going places now and it's a very exciting place to be engaged with. I love being here, it's a second home for me really in many ways. It's a great platform as well from which to undertake I think important projects.

Kim McKay: And that's why you're here and we're going to talk about that project in a moment, about the Solomon Islands. But first I wanted to dig a bit deeper into Tim Flannery. Most Australians probably feel they know you, they know you because of your extraordinary climate change awareness work and your commitment and passion for that issue and really putting it on the agenda in this country, but of course people probably forget that you did so much scientific work on discovering new species in this region during your days here. So I want to take you right back when you were a little Tim Flannery. I think you grew up in Melbourne, didn't you.

Tim Flannery: That's right, I did. I left Melbourne…I must have been about 24 or 25 I think when I came up to Sydney.

Kim McKay: So where did you study at?

Tim Flannery: I studied at La Trobe University. My first degree was in English and history, believe it or not.

Kim McKay: Well, I guess that comes out when I read all those books you've written.

Tim Flannery: I'm glad I did it, I loved it, I must say. But when I realised that I really had to do science, it meant I had to take a couple of steps back, go to Monash and enrol in a masters prelim, it was called back then, like an honours year in geology, so I was doing a lot of catch-up geology courses before I wrote my masters thesis. And at the end of that, thank heavens, I was accepted at the University of New South Wales to do a PhD in zoology.

Kim McKay: Fantastic. But back when you were at school in Melbourne, I remember you telling me about how you'd get a tram in on your own and go to visit the Melbourne Museum.

Tim Flannery: Yes, I used to, it was amazing. The Melbourne Museum back then was on Russell Street and it was this enormous monumental entrance to a grand building that only the extraordinarily wealthy gold that Melbourne had could have built.

Kim McKay: I know, those grand Melbourne buildings are extraordinary, aren't they. I mean, Sydney has its lovely Sydney sandstone, but boy, you just realise how wealthy that state was back then.

Tim Flannery: Extraordinary. And the collection told the same story. If they wanted to buy Alfred Russel Wallace's collection of orangutans, they damn well did it, they had the money to do it. If they wanted to buy the biggest and best of anything they went out and did it. So I remember arriving at that museum as a small boy. My parents had taken me there earlier. And I still remember, I must have been about three I think, and the thing that stuck in my mind from that early visit was a pair of hobnail boots from the gold rush, which must have been in the technology section, but for some reason I remember that. And an Aboriginal skeleton.

But when I was about eight or nine, I went into the museum with a fossil that I wanted to have identified, and I remember the guards, the rather stern-looking guards looked at me as I came through that monumental entrance, it would have fitted a blue whale through it, and they called someone from upstairs, and at length after I was sitting there like a little kid in the corner in my shorts…

Kim McKay: You were a little kid in the corner.

Tim Flannery: Exactly. This guy in a white coat appeared and he took me up this great flight of stairs, it was extraordinary, behind the scenes, that monumental staircase, into this huge hall which was darkened because the exhibition had been closed, and there was an Egyptian mummy in the corner I walked past, there was skeletons. It was being used as a storage area, but to a kid it was like…I don't know, Aladdin's cave, it was incredible. Anyway, he took me all the way through there into the museum collection where the fossils were, pulled open a draw and showed me a fossil which was like my one and he identified it.

Kim McKay: What was it?

Tim Flannery: It was a little sea urchin and, just a very simple common fossil. But he looked at me and said, 'I bet you're interested in dinosaurs.' I said, 'Yeah!'

Kim McKay: What kid isn't?

Tim Flannery: Exactly. So there was only one dinosaur bone ever found in Victoria at that point, it was called the Cape Paterson Claw. So he went to another cabinet, opened it up, pulled out this Cape Paterson Claw that I'd heard about, it was this mythological thing, put it in my hand. So it was like I'll never wash this hand again, this is amazing. So I remember leaving the museum, kind of floating back down Russell Street to get the train home. And I've wondered ever since who that fellow in the white coat was. He might have been the cleaner at the museum for all I know, but whoever he was he did me a great favour.

Kim McKay: I see our museum staff do similar things day in and day out, and the great thing about that is it inspires young people to take an interest in the natural world.

Tim Flannery: That moment for me was absolutely transformative. I think it would be for any kid. You have those moments in your life when all of a sudden you are switched on to something.

Kim McKay: Isn't that fantastic, and look where it led you. So you finished your PhD, as you said, in zoology at the University of New South Wales. And then what happened?

Tim Flannery: Well, I remember being briefly out of work. I had a three-week-old baby, I had a PhD in kangaroo evolution, and I thought; I'm going to get a job for sure!

Kim McKay: A lot of jobs going in kangaroo evolution, no doubt Tim.

Tim Flannery: That's right. I remember the look on the face of the guy at the unemployment office when I turned up. So anyway, but a job had been advertised here at the Australian Museum and it was the curatorship of either birds or mammals that they wished to fill. There was a list of candidates obviously very, very long and I didn't hold out great hope of getting the job. I went for the interview. I must have answered the questions correctly. I had just come from the collection actually and I remember one of the interviewers asked me about an obscure species of rat from an island off New Guinea, and I happened to be able to give the answer because I'd just been looking at the rat in the collection. And I was given the job, and it was like…it was extraordinary, I was going to be paid to do what I really wanted to do, it was just incredible, I couldn't believe it.

Kim McKay: Well a lot of people really don't understand that the work of the museum is as much behind-the-scenes as it is out on the public law. Here are these collections sitting there gathered over literally in our case tens of decades, 190 years next year, and the collections managers, the curators of those collections, they study them day in, day out, it's not just a matter of dusting them off occasionally, there's real scientific research that goes on there.

Tim Flannery: That's right, and you can think of the collections at a museum like this as great and complicated machines being built up over many, many decades, in some cases centuries of fieldwork, research and publication. And the machines are directed towards understanding the nature of our world better. So they are machines to help us investigate the world. So when I was curator of mammals, I focused particularly on the Pacific Islands. I built on those collections, I'd published on specimens that had been collected as much as a century earlier, explaining what sort of animal it was, what its evolutionary history was, what that tells us about, for example, the evolution of the Solomon Islands. And so bit by bit the pictures built up. So I took my job very much as being…it's a weird way to say it, but some kind of like a high priest of mammalogy in a way, because the trust that you have is handed on from generation to generation for more than a century. So it's a very sacred trust to look after that collection and publish it.

Kim McKay: That's right, and the story of the collection is written in those generations, isn't it, of what was collected at that particular time. And of course you were very ambitious I think at the time, you went out into the Pacific regularly and to Papua New Guinea and discovered quite a few new species.

Tim Flannery: That's right, I did. I was fortunate I was working at a time where the traditional knowledge of the people in those regions was still strong, so they knew their fauna very well. But the regions had opened up. And it was possible to go safely into areas where just a decade or two earlier you may have had an arrow shot at you or whatever. And so I was able to go into the deep bush with the real experts, the old men and women of those cultures who know the fauna backwards. When they talked to you about an animal, a tree kangaroo or whatever, they're not just telling you what they know but what their fathers told them and their grandfathers told them and the generations before told them. So the picture of knowledge that they have is immense, encyclopaedic in fact.

Kim McKay: And it really does show the importance of having that understanding between science and culture, it's where it really melds, isn't it, in these developing countries where the fauna is under threat, as it is here of course, but these cultural traditions are preserved and how to work with the people, and really that's why you're back here right now.

Tim Flannery: That's right. I think the boundary between science and culture is a bit of a false one in a way. As an English and history person I think I can say that. So you need one to inform the other, absolutely. And the project that I'm doing now, courtesy of your good graces Kim and thank you very much for having us…

Kim McKay: Oh we're thrilled to have you back at the Australian Museum, so that's fine.

Tim Flannery: It's really, from my personal perspective, an effort to give something back to those Pacific Island communities who helped me build my career. It comes out of an opportunity that came my way over a year ago now where a European foundation invited me to apply for a grant to do some conservation work in the Pacific. I still had contacts with two community groups in the Solomon Islands that I'd worked with years earlier, and by revitalising those contacts I was able to develop a project where we said, well, let's try to conserve the megafauna, the charismatic megafauna of the Solomon Islands, the giant rats and the monkey-faced bats.

Kim McKay: I love saying those terms together, 'giant rats and monkey-faced bats', because I know in our collection here we have two specimens of the monkey-faced bat and they are two of only three in the world, I think the other one is at the Smithsonian, correct?

Tim Flannery: That's right, I think there may be a couple of others scattered about but they are the key ones. That particular monkey-faced bat you refer to, a student of mine discovered it was a new species and said, 'I want to name it in honour of you.' I said, 'What are you going to call it?' He said, 'We'll call it Flannery's monkey-faced bat.' And I thought, I don't know how honourable that is but I'll accept it anyway.

Kim McKay: So in the Latin name, how do you say it?

Tim Flannery: It's Pteralopex flanneryi.

Kim McKay:Pteralopex flanneryi, I love that, I think that's the great honour of having a species like that named after you, Tim. But this expedition currently is just remarkable because we are working so closely with the local community there.

Tim Flannery: We are, and I think it's very true in this day and age that if you want to conduct meaningful conservation in places like the Pacific Islands you have to deliver tangible benefits to the communities, and this is what this project is all about.

Kim McKay: And I think those tangible benefits, it's not money per se, the benefit to this community is for them to help conserve their biodiversity and cultural tradition.

Tim Flannery: That's absolutely right, that is a big part of it, but we also want to deliver some tangible benefits to them. For example, in education. One of the communities we're working with is on Bougainville where the Civil War destroyed the education system. So there's a whole generation of people who have missed out on education. They don't really understand as well as they should the need to send their children through school because that was all destroyed by the war. So we are trying in that case to build and support a school in the community in exchange for that community setting aside a region of Bougainville as a protected biodiversity area. So that's one part of a complex equation, but that's a sort of thing we are trying to do.

Kim McKay: It's terrific. And the particular community you're working with up in the Solomon Highlands…Australians really don't understand the Solomons, but this community there, there's about 3,500 people who still speak the traditional language and have not converted to Christianity and they still practice their traditional cultural worshipping and whole means of how they live their lives in the traditional way, it's extraordinary, isn't it.

Tim Flannery: That's absolutely true Kim, and in fact in the museum here today we have several elders from that community who don't speak English, barely speak pidgin. One of those elders had never left her village area before, so she has come to Sydney as part of this thing. And last night that community group put on the most extraordinary performance of their traditional dance and song for the Museum Foundation that was an absolute once-in-a-lifetime thing. We won't see that again because this group…they are not professional performers, these are village people and this is the culture they live, and it's such a rare thing in the Pacific.

In fact I was talking to the curator of anthropology because the group visited the anthropology section and she was saying it's the first time in her life she opened a drawer and showed ethnographic objects, combs and bags and things, and the people were able to demonstrate they were part of a still living culture. So she showed the combs, a man got a comb out of his hair and said it's like this one. She showed the bags and the woman got a bag off her back and said, 'That's just like my bag.' So the bag a century old in the museum collection, the same kind of bag still being made up in the Highlands of Malaita.

Kim McKay: It really is amazing to have these people here at the museum. In fact I know they're going to perform for the public as well in the next day or so, which is just really remarkable. They are an extraordinary group of people, so kind and generous as well. And so I think the more that the Australian Museum can help people in Australia understand the region we live in, the better that is. And through this project and others I hope we can do with you we'll achieve that in the future. Tim Flannery, it's been so good to have you back at the museum. Come back often, won't you?

Tim Flannery: I certainly will, it's my second home, Kim, it's going to be hard to get rid of me. Thank you very much.

Kim McKay: I know, I think your DNA is probably on some of those desks you used to sit at. Did you ever carve your initials in the desk?

Tim Flannery: I was tempted. I don't think I carved my initials but the DNA is probably in there somewhere.

Kim McKay: Thank you.