Otto and the whale


Why grandma, what a big mouth you have…

A brief recap on yesterday’s post: a Busselton whale was claimed by Daisy Locke in 1897. It was agreed to donate it to the museum in Perth, so it was now an issue for taxidermist Herman Franz Otto Lipfert to work out what to do with it. Now read on…

In later life, Otto Lipfert was described as a bespectacled, white-smocked, fuzzy-haired, lightly-built man, looking considerably less than his seventy-three years of age, with a modesty and manner out of place in modern society. He was said to be soft of speech, unruffled in demeanour, unhurried in manner, painstaking and methodical.  In other words, Perth folk found him a stereotype of German efficiency.

Otto had arrived from Germany at the right time, 1892. A trained furrier and taxidermist, he was exactly what a new museum needed.  Chronically underfunded, the museum eventually offered him a month-to-month contract in 1895 on a salary of £210. Throughout his decades working there, his wage was barely increased, and he had to supply all his own tools of the trade and work in pitiful spaces, originally just a wooden shed out the back.

So how do you prepare a creature that’s been rotting on a beach for some weeks? The annoying thing about the whale, at least for the taxidermist, is that its carcase cannot be preserved. The skin is very thin and attached to blubber up to five centimetres thick. It’s impossible to scrape the blubber away and preserve the surface.

So Otto supervised a man named Hunt and two Japanese gentlemen to remove all the flesh before the bones could be taken above the high-water mark.  It must have been an awful job to undertake. The bones were left there for a few months, to let all the remaining soft body decay and the skeleton to bleach in the sun. The Bunbury Herald blandly reported in May 1898 that the bones had been “sent for exhibition at the Perth museum” from Bunbury Railway Station, but this does not even begin to describe the complexity of the operation.

Otto made another trip down to Locke’s farm, and got busy numbering the bones. Then he supervised the loading of them. The skull alone weighed 1,370 kg, while each of the lower jaw bones weighed 813 kg, so the job of transporting them to the railway line was no easy matter. It needed six men with winches just to place them in position on the wagons. To rail them to Perth, five and ten tonne trucks were needed.  “It was not easy to shift,” Otto understated some years later.

After this, the whale needed to be installed as an exhibit at the WA Museum. But that’s a story for another day.

When museums were fun

two_headed_calfThe Western Australian Museum used to be interesting.

No. Wait. Hear us out. We’re serious.

In 1888 they displayed a (dead) chicken with three legs.

The following year they outdid themselves and had a four-legged chicken on display. 1890 appears to have passed without the number of legs on chickens increasing.

Not until 1903 did the museum collect a small dead wallaby with four hind legs and two pouches, which was shot somewhere near Bunbury.

1906. Two headed calf from Australind.

1910. A Bunbury lamb that looked like a rat.

The following year another four-legged chicken (yawn). This one pickled in a bottle of spirits.

In the middle of World War I, the museum obtained a fish with the body of a snake but the head and tail of a fish. They think of naming it the Anzac Frost Fish.

1920. Two headed lamb (haven’t we had one of those already?)

In 1936 Otto Lipfert, the museum’s taxidermist, stuffed Bricky, the Bayswater freak calf, and put him on display. Bricky later went on tour to UWA.

During World War II, two-headed lizards were all the rage. (And also in Japanese horror movies in the following decades.)

After that there were a whole string of two-headed lambs, bobtails, and the like.

The WA Museum should open its archives and redisplay each and every one of these donations. Or explain why they’re hiding them.

Also, a new museum is about to open in Perth. It had better have at least one freak of nature, or it’s letting the side down.

Why WA’s museum loved cats

Noolbengers looking unbearably cute

Noolbengers looking unbearably cute

Colin Barnett may not like cats. He even passed a ridiculous piece of legislation forcing cats to be on some kind of sex offender register.

But we’ll tell you who does like cats. The West Australian Museum. That’s who.

Why? we hear you ask. Because they added to the Museum’s collection of native wildlife, and that institution had no money to spend on assembling one.

In 1939, a cat belonging to Mr W. Skeet, of Forrestdale caught a live noolbenger. (Don’t worry, we had to look it up on Wikipedia too. Turns out it’s a honey possum, which is half the size of a mouse.)

Mr Skeet did what any good citizen would do, and posted it to the WA Museum. The cute little critter was put in a cage with another noolbenger, which had been caught by a Shenton Park cat a couple of weeks earlier.

The Museum’s curator, Ludwig Glauert, loved cats. He encouraged people to send in anything they caught. Other than mice. Apparently mice were boring.

You see, cats are “instinctive collectors”, who don’t (so we are told) eat West Australian native marsupials, they just like bringing them home to play with.

The top unpaid animal collector in WA was an unnamed black and white cat owned by Miss May Tree, of Newlands near Donnybrook. (Dodgy Perth can’t help thinking that Miss May Tree sounds like a great name for a black and white cat.)

For years, in the course of its “unscientific researches,” Miss Tree’s cat donated ring-tailed possums, wambengers, dunnarts, noolbengers, quendas, and even bats.

Without this hard work, the WA Museum wouldn’t have had much of a collection said Ludwig.

Especially since many of these animals were nocturnal. And curators can’t go out at night. Apparently.

So let’s hear it for WA’s unsung hero of scientific research. The humble pussy.

h/t Christen Bell