Dinosaur Dinner at the Tiegs Museum

The Tiegs Zoology Museum shelves are cluttered full of bizarre specimens. Sea creatures are propped up to look as though they are swimming in formaldehyde tanks and rows of skeletons give you x-ray vision into their corresponding taxidermy models. In this weird and wonderful setting, two 19th Century statues sit very comfortably, modelling ‘first-go’ imaginings of what dinosaurs might look… more on dinosaurs and picnics in a minute.

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The Tiegs Museum was established in 1887 at the University of Melbourne, making it the oldest zoological museum in Australia. Many of its early specimens came from institutions in Europe after a call was put out for donations. The first accessioned item (specimen No.1) is a European Common Toad from Portugal that has been rolled over on its back since at least 1893, when it was entered into the Museum’s Register of Specimens.

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Specimen No. 1

The Museum also preserves examples of endangered, rare and extinct species. Its collection includes a Thylacine skull (better known as the Tasmanian Tiger) and a New Zealand Moa skeleton (a gigantic emu-like bird that died out sometime between 1300-1440BC), which was found in the 1930s sitting in the garage of Dr. George Armstrong who had graduated from the University’s School of Medicine.

 

A few of the Museum’s skeletons have come straight from Melbourne Zoo (having spent their living days wandering around the enclosures there). Intriguingly, a toe bone from a lion skeleton is missing but has been replaced with a carefully carved piece of wood. Art and science frequently twist together in the Museum’s cases. There’s a real art to stringing up sponges, preserving an octopus with its tentacles in hyper-realistic swirls or slicing tiny samples for microscope slides.

 

In fact, the slides actually give away more information on their collectors than other specimens. There are slides belonging to Tiegs himself as well as a personalised label for someone by the name of G. Buchanan (Dr. Gwynneth Buchanan), one of a surprising number of women working in the Zoology Department.

 

Another particularly formidable woman in the department was Georgina Sweet, who became the first female lecturer at the University. When Baldwin Spencer couldn’t be at the University for a short period between 1916 and 1917, Sweet was left in charge as acting professor of Zoology. Sweet added a number of parasite specimens to the collection and was awarded an OBE for her work on this topic in 1935.

She also added a pair of curious dinosaur statues.

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First Zoology Department group shot in 1925 with Georgina Sweet third form the right in the furs and hat.

British biologist Sir Richard Owen first created the description ‘dinosaur’ in 1842 for a category based on three very incomplete and muddled up specimens. Based on these, fifteen life-sized models of what dinosaurs were thought to have looked like were created and placed around London’s Crystal Palace Park in the 1850s. The designer, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, acknowledged that (with only three specimens to work off) there were bound to be inaccuracies, but these elephantine sculptures still captured Victorian imaginations. Smaller models were soon made for teaching purposes. As for the life-sized statues, a banquet was held inside of one on New Year’s Eve, 1853 for 21 scientists. Sir Richard Owen was seated at the head (literally) of the table for the seven course meal.

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Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s dinosaur model, 1850s.

The Tiegs Museum holds one Iguanodon and a Megalosaurus model. It is not certain how she got her hands on them, but Professor Georgina Sweet donated the pair sometime between 1916 and 1921, by which time the inaccuracies would have started to seem a little comical. Even by the 1870s, the discovery of more skeletons in Belgium had led to revisions of the early models.

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Specimens that belonged to Georgina Sweet.

The two dinosaur statues have more than a touch of whimsy, but they are surrounded by a museum worth of other strange things that would prompt any student to imagine up theories for testing.

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The Old Zoology building.

The Tiegs Museum is located on the first floor of the BioSciences 4 building at the University of Melbourne. It is usually open during the Uni semester, but you can get in touch with the Museum here to have a look or find out more.

 

Rohan Long, “Iguanodon and Megalosaurus: two Victorian-era dinosaur models in the Tiegs Museum,” in Collections 18 (June 2016): 22-25.

Rohan Long, “Tiegs Zoology Museum,” in My Learned Object: collections & curiosities (Melbourne: The University of Melbourne, 2016), 100-103.

 

Many thanks to Rohan Long for showing me around this wonderful collection.

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