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The polar bear (Ursus Maritimus) and three musk oxen (Ovibos Moschatus) display, known as the ‘Arctic Group’, is a favourite of many Museum visitors and has been on almost continuous display at Auckland Museum for more than a century. However, if you visit the Museum today, you won’t see this special taxidermy group in its usual spot.
This popular display of rare animals not previously seen in New Zealand was purchased in 1906 for £100 from prominent taxidermy firm Gerrard & Sons of London. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but in today’s terms, that would be nearly $24,000 NZD. The ‘exotic’ display quickly became the focal point of the main hall in the Museum’s previous location on Princes Street in Auckland city. In 1929, the four animals were moved, along with the rest of the collection, to the new Auckland Museum building in Auckland Domain, our current building. The polar bear and three musk oxen were then on show continuously in various galleries until 1997. The taxidermy group then had a brief break from display, before being returned to the Museum floor in 2002 for our 150th anniversary exhibition later that year.
Fast-forward to 2019 and Auckland Museum is undergoing major works to transform the visitor experience. The last time the building underwent renovations was in the 1960s and many of our collections and objects have been in the same storage sites since then. These works mean we’re moving some of these collections to new resting places in the Museum and offsite, as we’re also refreshing our galleries.
We have a team dedicated to safely relocating our collections throughout this process. They have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure all our objects are carefully moved and rehoused before demolition and construction work commences in the sites they were in.
And so, the Arctic Group had to be moved. This project was thoroughly planned out step-by-step and then executed one evening on an afterhours mission.
As soon as the Museum closed its doors to the public at 5pm we were ready to go. Professional glaziers were employed to remove the glass walls from the large rectangle case. This allowed the relocations team to get to work inside the case vacuuming up the thick layer of artificial snow which had disguised the mounts or platforms the animals were secured to. The snow was made from gypsum, a common white mineral rock which is processed to a fine white dry powder.
Removing the gypsum revealed that the animals were originally each connected to separate mounts, which had been joined together to make the rectangle shape of the scene, back when the display was created. We then separated the mounts so we could move the animals.
Once separated, we tested the weight of each animal on their respective mounts. The heaviest was more than 100kg and we deemed that four people would be needed to safely carry each object out.
Once each of the mounts were moved out of the case and onto dollies where they could be inspected, the relocations project conservator performed a condition survey on each. A condition survey is where an object is looked at closely to note how stable the item is, what would be needed for safe transport and any evidence of pest damage. Taxidermy can attract common museum pests like Dermestid Beetles and Silver Fish which both enjoy snacking on organic material.
We then placed each animal on a pallet and sealed them in plastic for protection. Wooden frames were custom built to support each mount and foam cushions inserted where necessary to prevent the animals moving on the pallet during transit.
It took four collection technicians to move each object.
Nestled between Origins Gallery and Weird and Wonderful, the musk oxen and polar bear were in a unique position, making transport within the Museum a challenging affair.
Our arctic animals were then transported, along with other objects, in a small air ride suspension truck to the Museum’s offsite storage facility, Manu Tāiko. Manu Tāiko is the recently built open storage facility designed to house more than 30,000 Museum objects, many of which have recently come off display. These objects are from our old well-known, much loved galleries, Auckland 1866-Centennial Street, The Armoury, Castle Gallery, Wild Child, Butterflies, Landmarks and Encounters.
Once at Manu Tāiko, the polar bear and musk oxen were first treated for potential pest infestations. They were placed in an anoxic chamber, a sealed environment that gets pumped full of nitrogen until it contains less than 0.1% oxygen, in order to destroy any living pests. Objects are treated for up to four weeks to account for the lifecycle of insects, or any other creatures.
Finally, the Arctic Group were moved to their new home to rest. Safe in Auckland Museum’s state-of-the-art collection care facility, Manu Tāiko, for a much-needed break from continuous light and exposure.