Australian Museum: Whales/Tohorā

Thank you Ziggy for yet another fantastic blog post! Enjoy reading about the Whales/Tohorā exhibition currently on display at the Australian Museum.

The Whales/Tohorā exhibition, currently on at the Australian Museum, explores the evolution and biological diversity of whales, and their significant role in the cultural history and heritage of South Pacific Islanders. This exhibition was created by, and is on loan from, Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand).

All images included in this post are courtesy of Te Papa or the Australian Museum and have been retrieved from the Australian Museum website. Click here to visit the website.A huge thank you to Claire Vince and the Media and Communications Team at the Australian Museum for providing us with the following images and videos. Attribution information can be found beneath each image.

For cultural sensitivity reasons, no photography is allowed within this exhibition. A free self-guided audio tour and interactive Whale Trail are both available to download from the Australian Museum App.

As you enter the exhibition space, you pass under a Māori wharenui (carved meeting house). It depicts Paikea, a Maori ancestor, riding a whale, reinforcing the cultural importance of whales in Maori tradition as explored throughout this exhibition. The first part of the exhibition centres on the evolutionary development of whales, including the reduction of the pelvis as the tail developed, and how flippers have the same skeletal structure as a hand, as demonstrated by x-rays. I particularly enjoyed this section, learning much about the evolutionary branches and development of whales. This was clearly outlined in this section through the exploration of various whale ancestor species and their variations.

Whales Family Tree from the Whales|Tohora exhibition. Courtesy of Te Papa, New Zealand.

Also included in this section was a fairly detailed display case relating to the differences between toothed whales and those with baleen – along with the various feeding methods relating to them. Killer whales, which are in fact a type of dolphin, have teeth but swallow their prey whole. Baleen whales, however, filter food by letting the water move through their mouths. For younger visitors, there were a number of interactives, such as trying to design your own whale/dolphin using different fin designs and body shapes, which ended up being quite frustrating. Another highlighted the various skeletal, muscular and digestive systems of whales and explained their purpose, which was easy to understand without overloading the visitor with too much information.

Having visited both the Mammoths and Spiders exhibitions shown previously at the Australian Museum, I have noticed a distinct pattern in exhibition design and layout. All three exhibitions begin with the evolutionary history and biological specifications of the species in question. For both the Whales/Tohorā and Mammoths exhibitions, the parallels are more obvious, as they both present the evolutionary history of the species in a clear and concise manner, using examples, specimens and displays to highlight particular key developments. Both also examine the different types of the species in question, displaying skeletons indicating aged-related decay and degradation. For example, Mammoths compared two teeth from a younger and an older mammoth, showing the wearing away of the grooves in the older specimen. Whales/Tohorā achieves something similar, as in the second section of the exhibition, a male and female Sperm Whale skeleton are displayed side by side, highlighting arthritis and injury from fighting.

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Sperm Whale Skeletons – Photographer Nick Langley. Courtesy of the Australian Museum.

Along the far left wall, we move into the contemporary history of whales, specifically the long history of hunting and killing whales for their blubber throughout New Zealand from 1820 onwards. The environmental impact of such practice is continually referenced throughout, noting the drastically reduced numbers after some years of this unchecked practice. Objects of note include whaling tools, spears, and scrimshaw (decorated whale teeth). Into the late 20th century, New Zealand stopped its whaling practices and to this day actively promotes a conservation effort to rehabilitate and care for the whale populations near New Zealand.

The next section related to the cultural significance of whales in Maori tradition and society. Information included how only the chief could wear whale bone necklaces, and how many of the decorative carvings and patterns on weapons reference whales.

Similar to Mammoths, this exhibition presents the contemporary 21st century challenges of conservation and the importance of continued research. It examines why whales beach themselves and how it is often very difficult to safely return them to the ocean. One clear improvement, when comparing to Mammoths, is that this section had a distinct narrative and a clear structure. Mammoths, however, had inset displays from The Field Museum that, for me at least, were in such contrast to the other displays that it broke the immersive experience. However, this could simply be due to subject matter as mammoths are extinct, whereas whales are contemporaneous so discussing contemporary issues and their significance to culture is far easier and relatable. This was perhaps most evident in the small theatre near the end showing three clips of Maori people telling three stories about whales, showing the clear and ongoing significance to Maori people and their intangible cultural heritage.

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A pod of Orcas, also known as Killer Whales, breaching. Photographer, Mark McGrouther.
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A pod of Orcas, also known as Killer Whales, breaching. Photographer, Mark McGrouther.
Humpback Whales by Jeremy Cresswell. Images used for the Australian Museum Whales|Tohora exhibition 2018.
Humpback Whales by Jeremy Cresswell. Images used for the Australian Museum Whales|Tohora exhibition 2018.
Humpback Whales by Jeremy Cresswell. Images used for the Australian Museum Whales|Tohora exhibition 2018.

Overall, Whales/Tohorā is a comprehensive exhibition that manages to cover species evolution, history of whaling, and the cultural significance to Indigenous cultures. The latter left me with more knowledge than when I entered, but also a distinct awareness and appreciation for the species within Maori cultural heritage frameworks that were previously unfamiliar to me. Whales/Tohorā is currently on at the Australian Museum and I would encourage all readers to go and experience this exhibition for yourselves.

Author: Rebecca Lush

Curator, Integrated Pathology Learning Centre.

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