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Book review: The Owl That Fell from the Sky by Brian Gill

Book review: The Owl That Fell from the Sky by Brian Gill

by Emma McCleary - Thursday, 20 December 2012

One of our 2012 highlights was the launch of Brian Gill’s book The Owl That Fell from the Sky: stories of a museum curator. Emma McCleary of Booksellers NZ reviews this elegant book by our former Curator Land Vertebrates.

It would be easy to underestimate this new release from Awa Press being that it’s small in stature (14cm x 14cm) with an elegant, yet unassuming cover. Yet what a mistake you would make.

I was entirely captivated by The Owl That Fell from the Sky – a journey through the stories of 15 museum objects held in collections around the country.

As author Brian Gill writes on page 23, “These stories – of which a selection from my own experiences make up this book – show how developing, curating and understanding collections can provide richness and endless fascination.”

My copy is now shamefully dog eared (I spent a lot of time flicking from the stories to the excellent appendixes) and has several corners turned over (the books is very quotable and you want to access those again).

Far from being simple stories of museum objects, these are detailed, rich tales that are captivating, contemporary (in their writing), upbeat and at times very funny.

“Like hospitals, postage stamps, fire brigades, and sliced bread, public museums were such a good idea they caught on everywhere.” (Page 7, introduction).

The Owl That Fell from the Sky is also the start of a potential adventure – I found myself immediately wanting to see the Kaikoura moa egg in real life – and thanks to some very well done referencing, the cataloguing details, including museum registration details are listed at the back of the book.

For the more earnest amongst us I can imagine this book sitting nicely in the glove compartment of the car – to be whipped out for spontaneous object viewing around New Zealand museums.

There’s also quite a lot of detail for amateurs wishing to learn more about how museums operate. I found the description of naming conventions particularly interesting – especially in relation to what is and isn’t acceptable to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

Brian Gill not only takes us through great objects, but great careers and the idiosyncrasies of life as a museum employee. For almost six years I worked in the exhibitions team at Te Papa so when reading about the career of Peter Whitehead (1930-1992) that, “[Whitehead] worked on the draft of a satirical novel about events behind the scenes in the running of the museum,” I laughed out loud.

I’m a bit old fashioned in that I think to be called an expert in your field you need to have either a) studied to the highest degree, b) given your life to your subject or c) (and most preferable) both. As a web editor it makes me insane to hear people talking about ‘social media experts’ so Owl by contrast was refreshing – it was filled with ‘real’ experts whose life and work was written about in the most honourable and endearing way.

[Thomas Cheeseman] “While a strong advocate of the museum’s work and a top biologist was by all accounts a quiet achiever and a gentleman.”

The stories in Owl are far bigger than the ten or so pages that each occupies and this is surely the type of book that should be read, re-read and referenced by its owners for years to come.

It’s also filled with all sorts of jolly good inside information – like how the former paging system of the Auckland Museum worked (it’s hilarious), the public service the museum playing during the war by publishing guides for airmen of what fruits and vegetables were safe to eat if shipwrecked or lost in the Pacific, and where the best place to dry elephant bones was.

By far my favourite story was about Rajah the elephant – one of the sadder stories but also one of the most gripping. There’s no detail spared about how to taxidermy an elephant (including scraping, draping and drying); “in some places his skin was five centimetres thick,” so that’s one best left for well after dinner.

Many of the stories in Owl include a call from the public that can either be nothing or lead to incredible discoveries, and in some cases, corrections of history.

“An unexpected telephone call or visitor, heralding what may be a rare or unusual find, adds spice to the natural history curator’s day. Amid routine interruptions there will sooner or later, and quite at random, be an event to write home about.”

The Owl That Fell from the Sky is definitely a book to write home about.

Published by Awa Press. You can buy a copy of The Owl That Fell from the Sky: stories of a museum curator from the Museum's online store.

  • Post by: Emma McCleary

    Emma McCleary is the web editor for Booksellers NZ, the trade organisation for bookshops in New Zealand. She runs the organisation's online channels, including organising book reviews, and aims to get more people reading and shopping locally.

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