Mel Ward started life on the stage as an acrobat and comedian. But something about the creatures he found on the beach as a child kept calling him back to the sea. But what drove him to collect 25,000 crabs from around the world? And what exactly is eccentric dancing?

Behind every object is a story – join Charles Wooley and Kim McKay as they reveal some of the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum.

Charles Wooley: Australia's greatest amateur crab collector started life on the stage. Before turning to science he was travelling acrobat, comedian and eccentric dancer, performing to crowds across the country. But something about those creatures he found on the beach and in the rock pools as a child kept calling him back.

Hello, I'm Charles Wooley.

Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay, director and CEO of the Australian Museum. We are the nation's first museum and we house the treasures of our nation and the region. We're going to discover some of those today in the newly restored Westpac Long Gallery.

Charles Wooley: So join us in exploring the iconic, astounding and curious objects that have helped shape Australia and the world as we uncover the hidden stories of 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum.

Before today I'd never heard of eccentric dancing. Now I'm looking at Mel Ward's crab collection and, Kim, I am no more the wiser.

Kim McKay: Well, it is quite an extraordinary story, that somebody who started life as a comedian, dancer, entertainer, his parents were also entertainers, travelling the world really in the vaudevillian style, but Mel Ward became this eccentric dancer, which is a new genre of dance at the time in the '20s, and it really encapsulated I guess African dance, exotic dance, and even some clog and tap in there too. But believe it or not…

[Audio: Charles does some tap dance]

…that ability that you've just demonstrated…

Charles Wooley: You didn't know I could do that.

Kim McKay: I didn't know, I still don't think you can do it. That ability you've demonstrated of course Mel Ward used to advantage with his crab collecting because he managed to get into all sorts of difficult locations. He even collected a crab once in Cuba that was in quicksand by flipping over the quicksand, reaching down and grabbing the crab.

Charles Wooley: And we are in a display which is actually from North Queensland where the reef meets the rainforest, and in that part of the world you need to move nimbly because if you're looking for crabs there could be crocodiles out looking for you too.

Kim McKay: Exactly. But Mel Ward was somebody who I think really felt at home in northern Queensland. You know, by the late 1920s he had travelled all over the world with his parents and collected not only in Australia but also in places like Samoa and Fiji and Hawaii, and along the Atlantic and Californian coasts and, as I mentioned before, Cuba and Panama and Mexico. And he was just quite an extraordinary amateur who became obsessed with the life of crabs and then carved a career out of this, became a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society.

Charles Wooley: And deservedly so because he discovered crabs that had been unknown before.

Kim McKay: That's right…

Charles Wooley: And look at this, this is just the tip of the iceberg, he had a collection of 25,000 crabs which he gave to you guys.

Kim McKay: He did, so the Australian Museum…

Charles Wooley: I'm only seeing about 100 of them here.

Kim McKay: That's right, only about 100 on display in that particular drawer. But a lot of people who collected small creatures, large creatures, have donated them to the museum over the years. And of course this collection is well studied by our scientists because it provides an extraordinary insight into what was happening in coastal zones like tropical North Queensland earlier in the 1900s.

Charles Wooley: And if you don't know what was there then, you won't know what effect we've had on it now unless you've already done the work, right?

Kim McKay: That's right. And the interesting thing about Mel Ward is he actually opened his own museum up in the Blue Mountains at the Hydro Majestic Hotel.

Charles Wooley: What a great location!

Kim McKay: I know. So Mel had this extraordinary collection, not just of natural science specimens like these crabs but also a lot of World War II memorabilia that his father had given him. And he was an expert in so many different things, a real generalist I'd say, as well as a specialist on crabs.

Charles Wooley: A renaissance man who could dance.

Kim McKay: Just an extraordinary life story. Imagine the film of this dancing collector.

Charles Wooley: We keep finding movie scripts in this place.

Kim McKay: Well, there are I think. Every time you turn a corner in the Long Gallery or come behind a column, something new is revealed to you, and it's the people's stories behind the natural science specimens and the cultural objects that are intriguing.

Charles Wooley: That's right. This kind of work is not done by ordinary folk, is it.

Kim McKay: Well, I think it's done by people who have a natural affinity with the environment they're living in. This whole case tells us that story of northern Queensland…

Charles Wooley: Dare I say it though, if you are collecting 25,000 you have to be a little obsessive too, it's a personality type.

Kim McKay: Well, a bit, yes, but look at the butterflies that we have here, the same sort of story. The ones we're looking at actually are not northern Queensland, they are from the Brazilian rainforest, but what an extraordinary collection of butterflies, one of the Treasures.

Charles Wooley: 'Iridescent' is a word that springs to mind, look at the way the light is bouncing off those blues.

Kim McKay: That's right, they come from the Lamond collection and there's 7,000 different insect specimens donated by Stephen Lamond in 1994. He again was an amateur collector from northern Queensland, there's that connection there, and spent 20 years around the world collecting and exchanging butterflies. And this is, again, just one drawer from that collection. It is iridescent, the colours are spectacular, and it's because there are little scales on the wings of the butterflies that are refracting the light in that way and they are just magical.

Charles Wooley: What else have we got in this amazing little collection here?

Kim McKay: The thing that is quite close to the museum now is this extraordinary larval fish collection from the Australian Museum's fish stores. We have over 1 million species of larval fish in our collection. So our fish collection is the fourth largest in the world, fish type collection.

Charles Wooley: And by larval fish, the fish hatches from an egg and becomes a small but growing creature in this larval stage. And there are millions of them and only a few survive.

Kim McKay: That's correct, and where you find them mostly is around the Great Barrier Reef, and of course the Australian Museum owns and operates the Lizard Island Reef Research Station at the top of the Great Barrier Reef, a home for larval fish, it's a wonderful place to study them. And we established that back in 1974 and since then research has been taking place there, but of course today a lot of research focuses on the impact of coral bleaching as well.

Charles Wooley: Yes, but if a fish species is in danger, certainly larval technology would be a good way of boosting the numbers again, wouldn't it.

Kim McKay: Indeed. So scientists from all over the world come to Lizard Island to study the larval fish there. But I love this cabinet because it shows us so much about the natural environment of the rainforest and the reef of northern Queensland, and then of course the local community that once lived there.

Charles Wooley: Now, there's a paradise parrot, again beautifully named because it looks like something out of paradise, doesn't it.

Kim McKay: It does, but the sad thing about the paradise parrot is it's the first extinct bird in Australia since white settlement, a very rare specimen of a male parrot. It was the first to go extinct. Of course we think other parrots have since done that but this is the absolute first one that disappeared.

Charles Wooley: He's got that wonderful budgerigar blue and he's got a slash of red above his beak and some orange down the wings and down towards the tail.

Kim McKay: Yellow, and in fact his tail is as long as his body, which is unusual in a parrot of this size.

Charles Wooley: Behind the parrot we have these amazing shields, again from North Queensland. What are they made of?

Kim McKay: These are quite extraordinary. These are beautiful Aboriginal shields cart from the wood of fig trees, and it's actually…

Charles Wooley: So those big buttresses that hold up the fig tree?

Kim McKay: That's right, and that's why the curvature is in these shields because of the curvature of the buttress. And they are painted with ochre, they were used we think in battle because there are not only the markings of battle scars but also the odd shot, a bullet, so some encounter with white settlers probably. And these shields are just the largest of the Aboriginal shields in Australia.

Charles Wooley: As far as I can see, the hole doesn't go right through, so these were up to a point bullet-proof. Does anyone make them today, or has that technology, that ability been lost entirely?

Kim McKay: Well, one of the great things the museum does is work with local Indigenous communities, and we have many cultural events here where different communities come into the museum and recreate the crafts…

Charles Wooley: I've seen some of the stuff you've had shown here before, it's exquisite.

Kim McKay: It really is, but what I love about it, especially for visitors to Australia who maybe don't understand, is that Aboriginal culture is a living culture today. So while we hold many objects from the past which can tell many stories for local communities and create a connection for them, sometimes we forget the depth of Aboriginal culture and the way in which Aboriginal people worked with the land and understood it. Even the way these ochres have been used on the shields here is fascinating, to create the different colour schemes, and once that would have been quite a vibrant colour, it's aged over the years and dulled out a bit, but really extraordinary patterns.

Charles Wooley: So can I hope that apart from the fact that we've lost the beautiful paradise parrot, most of the other stuff in this cabinet is still out there?

Kim McKay: Well, certainly I think a lot of the crab species that we have are still in existence fortunately, many of the larval fish still are, and I hope some of the butterflies are too. And the fact that museums do keep these objects and make them accessible to local communities, many local communities we work with are pleased for us to hold them here so that they are here for the future.

Charles Wooley: From 18 million treasures in the Australian Museum we've selected just 200 for you to consider. But even exploring this distillation is going to take us on a long and exciting adventure. I hope you will join Australian Museum director Kim McKay and myself as we continue our extraordinary odyssey through the collections of the Australian Museum. And of course you can see it for yourself in the Westpac Long Gallery at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I'm Charles Wooley.

Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay.

Charles Wooley: We'll see you next time.

Behind every object is a story – join Charles Wooley and Kim McKay as they reveal some of the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum.