Treasures podcast ep 7: The platypus rug and the lyre bird
Early British settlers were so flummoxed by the platypus that they thought it an elaborate hoax, created by stitching a duck’s beak onto the body of a mole. But Australia’s greatest charlatan is an entirely different creature to behold.
Charles Wooley: Early British settlers in Australia were flummoxed by the platypus. The arrival of the first specimens of the strange beast in England so astonished scientists that they thought it an elaborate hoax created by stitching a duck's beak onto the body of a mole.
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.
Now, we've moved on through these amazing antiquities, and now I'm looking at a beautiful brown and bronze coloured shining animal skin rug, and it's made up, believe it or not, of the pelts of 75 platypus. Kim McKay, that wouldn't be acceptable today, would it.
Kim McKay: No, certainly not Charles. I look at the platypus rug and it really does evoke that earlier era when the natural wildlife of Australia was not as prized as it is today. It was prized to have a rug, certainly, but the value of a platypus, an endangered species so important to understanding Australia's monotremes…
Charles Wooley: 'But you know, dammit McKay, I think when I get up on a cold winter morning and the first thing my feet settle on beside the bed is my platypus skin rug, it makes me feel very comforted.'
Kim McKay: I know, and it's really interesting that the museum has this. Of course objects like this ended up in museum collections because they were curiosities, and fortunately the practice of killing the platypus for adornment was ceased in the early 1920s.
Charles Wooley: I suspect in colonial times though there were a lot more of these made than we realise.
Kim McKay: Exactly. You know, a lot of Australia's native animals were quite furry and lovely.
Charles Wooley: Well, possum skin rugs, a beautiful thing.
Kim McKay: Possum skin rugs were used of course for warmth by our first Australians. But also the dear old koala was also a victim of the pelt, wanting to use the pelt. But the thing about the platypus was that internationally it became regarded as a controversial symbol of Australia.
Charles Wooley: When your antecedents sent back the first one to the British Museum they thought it was a hoax.
Kim McKay: That's right, they thought it was an elaborate hoax in fact, that somebody had stuck a beak on a mole.
Charles Wooley: What an extraordinary creature it is. I have to remind myself, it does have a duck bill, it lays eggs, and yet it nurses its young. It's an egg laying mammal.
Kim McKay: With a pouch.
Charles Wooley: With a pouch, yes, with a pouch. It's ridiculous. No wonder they didn't believe it.
Kim McKay: You know, when you see a platypus in the wild, my heart skips. It is the most beautiful creature, and of course we see them so rarely now. I think you get to see them more in Tassie, don't you.
Charles Wooley: I see them all the time when I'm out looking for trout in the Tasmanian high country, I'm very often fooled by a platypus. I'm sneaking up, oh, there's a trout, oh no, it's only a platypus.
Kim McKay: How I wish we saw them that readily on the mainland is now. But this rug is I guess a symbol of the way we used to treat our wildlife, and today where our wildlife are protected.
Charles Wooley: It's wonderful in your cabinet of curiosities though, isn't it.
Kim McKay: It is.
Charles Wooley: And such a beautiful looking fur, so sleek and shiny and with such wonderful hues of amber, bronze and then the darker fur. I love it, I really love the platypus rug.
Kim McKay: I do too, it looks beautiful, but of course you can see what a practical skin it was to repel the freezing waters of the rivers that it was swimming in. So it's a sad tale definitely. And we think in fact that that rug may have been made by one of the museum's employees Jane Tost. She was an early taxidermist. A lot of women were involved in taxidermy early on in the colony, and after working at the museum for some time she actually even went and established her own shop on George Street or Pitt Street, and odd wares were sold there at the time.
Charles Wooley: So there was a public appetite for this stuff?
Kim McKay: Oh yes, taxidermy was extremely popular in the parlours across Sydney at the time. It showed that you had some appreciation for the local fauna.
Charles Wooley: Fortunately now we can just take a picture.
Kim McKay: Fortunately now we can take a picture, and of course we can come to the museum and look at the lovely specimens we have here, including that koala, Charlie.
Charles Wooley: Below the platypus rug is a little koala. He's a beautiful creature. He's quintessentially Australian of course. What's his place here?
Kim McKay: Well, the Australian Museum today does its science in many different ways, but we are the leaders in wildlife genetics at the Australian Museum. One of our scientists, Dr Rebecca Johnson who leads the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics and also is director of our Research Institute here. Rebecca was part of a consortium that sequenced the DNA of the koala for the first time. This is helping to conserve the koala. Of course this is a species incredibly under threat.
Charles Wooley: Yes, he has many, many enemies, doesn't he.
Kim McKay: He does indeed. We know that…
Charles Wooley: Disease, habitat loss and…
Kim McKay: Exactly, and we know that before the 1920s when the practice was stopped, koalas were hunted for their fur. You know, I'd like a nice pair of koala muffs, thank you, to wear. So, koala fur was very popular at the beginning of the 20th century, and fortunately that did cease. But they suffer from a horrible disease called chlamydia, which has really wiped out populations of koalas. They are one species…
Charles Wooley: It blinds them, apart from anything else.
Kim McKay: That's right.
Charles Wooley: Also they're running out of the right kind of leaves to eat in many places.
Kim McKay: That's right, so habitat loss is having a big impact on koala populations. Then we've got other koala populations in different parts of southern Australia that are now thriving.
Charles Wooley: The important science you're doing here is…and it's nice the museum is doing that because it will help ensure that the koalas doesn't become, like the Diprotodon, just a museum exhibit.
Kim McKay: That's right, that would be tragic. I remember growing up in Sydney and in various streets there were still koala populations. They're not there now, you have to go further into the bush to see them. But they are part of our identity, and that's why I think conserving Australia's flora and fauna is so important. Why are we different from everywhere else? It's because of our flora and fauna and our unique landscape. And I'm sixth generation Australian and that has got into my DNA I think.
Charles Wooley: The bird at the front of the cage is I think one of the most accurately named birds in the world because it is called the superb lyrebird, and isn't it superb.
Kim McKay: Just superb. I mean, those wonderful feathers which were very popular of course in the 1800s to wear in ladies' hats. You know, they are stunning feathers. And the lyrebird though of course is best known for its ability to mimic just about any sound. One of our earlier ornithologists here at the museum, Sir Walter Boles (I've just knighted him I think because I love him so much), Walter Boles discovered a fossil of a lyrebird which dated it back to between 16 million and 23 million years ago.
Charles Wooley: And generally on Earth do songbirds go back a long way?
Kim McKay: Not as long as the Australian songbirds. Australia is the home, the first place of the songbird. So when the British always thought they had all those gorgeous nightingales singing, it's here in Australia that we have the oldest songbirds.
Charles Wooley: So another first for the Australian Museum.
Kim McKay: I guess so.
Charles Wooley: The lyrebird name is a misnomer though, isn't it.
Kim McKay: It is indeed.
Charles Wooley: It doesn't look like a lyre at all.
Kim McKay: No.
Charles Wooley: It's not shaped in the shape of the musical instrument the lyre, its tail actually fans out. So what happened there?
Kim McKay: Well, it was misnamed because the discoverer originally thought it was like a peacock and put it in that class of birds but it's not part of that class at all. But those tail feathers are completely extraordinary. As I said, they were in great demand for the Melbourne Cup on many occasions.
Charles Wooley: Yes, ladies' hats.
Kim McKay: Yes, indeed.
Charles Wooley: But of course you could harvest the feathers without killing the bird I suppose.
Kim McKay: Indeed.
Charles Wooley: You could do it with a peacock but I don't think anyone ever tamed a lyrebird, did they.
Kim McKay: I'm unaware of that, Charlie.
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.
Join journalist Charles Wooley and Australian Museum Director Kim McKay as they explore the astounding objects and specimens of the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition, housed in the nation’s oldest museum gallery.