Look Inside: Nature Stilled by Jane Ussher

Page 1





007

Introduction

011

Chromatic Plates

313

Species Information

365

314

Birds Colin Miskelly

321

Bryozoans Rick Webber

322

Cnidarians Rick Webber

325

Crustaceans Rick Webber

328

Echinoderms Rick Webber

334

Fishes Andrew Stewart

344

Insects Phil Sirvid

353

Molluscs Rodrigo Salvador

358

Plants Antony Kusabs / Bridget Hatton

364

Collection Ephemera

Closing Notes 366

About the Photographer

367

Acknowledgements



Jane Ussher

May 2020

007

MNZM

At the southern end of Tory Street in Wellington, just before Pukeahu National War Memorial, there is a big squat building that I have driven past ­dozens of times without a thought for its purpose. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has owned this building since 1999, not long after it moved out of the imposing classical-style ­National Museum, located on the hill above the war memorial. The botany, art, Māori and Pacific collections are all now housed at the National ­Museum’s successor, Te Papa, on Cable Street on the waterfront, but the bulk of the rest of the vast natural history collection, as well as much of the history collection, the museum archives and the conservation labs, are at Tory Street. I first went inside that building in 2018 to ­photograph several of Te Papa’s natural history ­curators and collection managers for the book 100 Natural History Treasures of Te Papa, which was published to link with the museum’s new ­natural history exhibition space, Te Taiao Nature. My ­memory of the two days I spent shooting there are of a labyrinth of dark corridors and concrete walls, of access pads being swiped and doors ­opening onto vast spaces. I was there to shoot complex group portraits, and so it took me a while to realise that the rooms in which the curators stood were full of c ­ abinets of pinned butterflies of dazzling colours, shelves ­holding the bones of great whales, and cupboards full of taxidermied and mounted birds, including kākāpō that looked ready to waddle out into the daylight when the doors were opened. Elsewhere there were trays of tiny birds, forever silent and still, and great stainless-steel tanks like cold ­sarcophagi in which fish floated. There was even a stuffed ­timber wolf. In the months following that shoot I became preoccupied with the objects and collections I had seen and I started thinking about how I would ­photograph them, if such a thing were possible. I began to develop my ideas about what sort of photographs might pay tribute to these hidden

Introduction

treasures. I made initial enquiries about the ­permissions I would need in order to be allowed back into the building to photograph, and about the logistics involved — fully realising that it would be a complex process. And then that day came. The Te Papa Press publisher and I approached then Head of Science at Te Papa, Susan Waugh, who agreed to pull all the levers necessary to let me have access. It was now up to me to make the most of this ­extraordinary opportunity.

In the spring of 2019 I spent two days at Tory Street, and then a further day in the botany ­collection ­storage area at Cable Street, scoping out the ­project. I asked each of the curators and collection managers for two hours of their time and together we went through the collection, looking at this and wondering about that, taking notes of registration numbers and building up a shot list. I wanted them to highlight specimens that they thought ­important to shoot, and they indulged my amateur enthusiasms as I exclaimed over things I saw on the way. In the bird collection room, for example, I could see how important it was to shoot huia and the Chatham Island snipe and kākā, with their wings like Flemish tapestries, but I was also stopped in my tracks by the Jesuitical-looking rooks, usually considered a pest and found in only a couple of locations, but so compellingly muscular and mysterious. When Phil Sirvid, Assistant Curator ­Entomology, opened the many cabinets that house the ­entomology collection, I was astonished: so many colours, such remarkable patterns, a dizzying ­variety. In the botany storeroom, Kaitiaki Taonga Collection Manager Botany Antony Kusabs showed me ancient books of pressed flowers, and in the crustacea storage area Curator Invertebrates Rick Webber showed me giant crabs and the most ­delicate starfish. In the mollusc department former Collection Manager and now Research Associate Bruce Marshall and Invertebrate Curator Rodrigo


Salvador showed me wondrous shells. I was so fortunate: Te Papa conducts some back-of-house tours for members of the public, but generally only museum staff and visiting researchers have access here. Te Papa, which opened in 1998, is the descendant of the iterations of the national museum that came before it, beginning with the Colonial Museum, established by James Hector in 1865; followed by the Dominion Museum (1907–1972), for which the Gummer and Ford-designed building at Buckle Street was specially built in 1936; and then the ­National Museum (1972–1992), housed in the same place. As I explored the cupboards and shelves I could see that some of the vast collection, which totals around one and half million items, was from that earlier ‘cabinet of curiousities’ era, when ­almost everything and anything was collected. That ­explains why the invertebrate collection, for example, has so many glorious tropical specimens of butterflies and moths. These days, those parts of the collection are really what you might call ‘legacy’ specimens. No one studies them much; they are not endemic, and for decades now science at Te Papa has been ­focused on Aotearoa and New Zealand’s ­territories, ranging north to the Kermadec Islands, east to ­Rekohu Chatham Islands and south to the ­subantarctic islands. The museum holds the ­national collections of land snails, fishes, lizards and whales, and the strongest collection of birds and fossil vertebrates of any New Zealand collection agency. South American butterflies and tropical birds are, therefore, a little irrelevant these days, but as objects of interest and beauty I felt they needed to have a place in the book. It was agreed that I would come back to the museum towards the end of the year for a solid two weeks of shooting. That November I packed my camera gear and moved back to my old home town. There’s something distinctive about collection storage ­areas in museums: for a start, they have an unusual smell. I could never quite identify it —

008

some kind of ­preservative and fumigant, certainly, colliding with a sort of remnant animal scent in the bird storage areas. And they are very silent and very dark. In those first exploratory meetings I had soon realised that I had a problem: the lights were ­fluorescent, which gives photographs a ghastly yellow cast. I wouldn’t be able to work with that, but nor could I take any of the specimens out towards a source of natural light, which is ­always my favoured location for any sort of interior shoot. The solution revealed itself after a conversation with David Hamilton, one of my old classmates from the Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey ­University) photography class of 1976, who now runs a photo equipment hire business in Wellington. David ­recommended that I hire his LED Falcon Eyes light, which gives the effect of diffuse natural light and was versatile enough to perform well in all the ­different areas I would be working in. It was a huge relief to know that such a light existed, and that not only would David deliver it to the museum but his assistant Bridie MacInnes, who has a master's in photography, was also happy to come and be my studio assistant for much of the two weeks. My other lifesaver was the totally marvellous Rick Webber, whose speciality area is crustacea such as crabs, lobsters and shrimps. Rick agreed that I could set up to shoot in a corner of his ­crustacea collection area, and that I could keep the fluorescent lights in that area off for the next two weeks. I will be forever grateful to him. David helped me set up my studio and the lighting. With my Hasselblad camera attached to my tripod and tethered to my laptop, I could ­immediately see what I was photographing and could make all the minor adjustments that each image required. Painstaking work. I already knew what I wanted: a soft, luminous, delicate effect that would capture the remarkable colour of these ­specimens with subtlety. All of the photography was done with maximum depth of field, which often required very long exposures but was essential to achieve the available-light look I was after and

Nature——Stilled


to deliver the information hidden in the shadow and highlight areas of the objects I was shooting. And no flash, obviously. We had worked out a ­shooting programme that gave each collection one and a half solid days of shooting time. In the end that was too ambitious and I had to extend the shoot into a third week. We started with birds. Colin Miskelly, ­Curator Vetebrates and one of New Zealand’s bestknown ornithologists, could not have been more ­accommodating, wheeling trays of birds in to me in succession and taking them back to the storage area when I had finished. From that initial scoping visit we had drawn up a list of about a dozen trays of birds to shoot, but Colin happily brought me more that he thought I would be interested in. It wasn’t until I went through the files later that I ­realised we had shot 150 specimens of 24 different ­species. This mission creep was to typify the next 10 days as my initial narrow and slightly naive focus ­expanded and grabbed whatever was possible. I did not want to overlook anything, and I knew that because Te Papa was going out on a limb for me I would never be able to ask to come back. It was now or never. I couldn’t touch any of the bird specimens, of course — one of the reasons being that the older specimens are preserved with arsenic — and so Colin helped me place the birds in the various ­arrangements you see in this book. Only a few of them are mounted; the rest are what are called study skins. Te Papa has 11,600 skins of New ­Zealand birds, ranging across 290 species, mostly endemic but also exotic. The older ones are closed and stitched around a stuffing that ­taxidermists call tow — a mix of coarse linen and hemp fibre; more recent study skins are closed around foam plastic or cotton wool. They all lie on their backs in trays, mostly alongside others. Their feathers have lost none of the vivid quality of life. Their claws are very apparent. Sometimes a m ­ etal rod, inserted for ease of handling, protrudes through the centre of the filled cavity.

009

Introduction

I didn’t try to duck this fact with the photos, as this was one of the things that drew me to the project: ­depicting these fantastic objects as they are stored. These are specimens and they were ­collected for science; and many of them still serve a scientific purpose now that DNA testing can draw important ­information from the feathers of very old specimens. I was captivated by all of them, from the tiny tītipounamu South Island rifleman and the showy yellow-crowned parakeet to the vivid-red collared lory and the elegant huia. Huia! I took especial ­delight in the beautiful old labels, many with their original antique copperplate inscriptions that state the scientific name, the specimen number, and where and when and by whom the specimen was collected.The oldest specimens I photographed were collected around 1875.There was a magnificent Antipodean albatross that had to be released from a complicated shelving unit before it could be set down for me to shoot. There were trays of prions, gathered on a shoreline in their dozens after a huge storm; bushy-browed crested penguins; mohua yellowheads ... they were so beautiful, and they were brought to me in tray after tray, riches upon riches. It all ought to have been elegiac but, in truth, I was ploughing on ­urgently so that I could release Colin back to his day job, which at that time included ­editing a major book on the birds of the subantarctic Auckland Islands. It was Bridie who had the time, the scientific background and the curiosity to ask Colin ­questions as we worked. I knew that he spent a lot of time in the field, in some fairly inhospitable and ­challenging places, and Bridie drew so much out of him as they chatted. I learned a lot about birds in those couple of days. The long days of photography were broken only by a brief lunch, but the variety of objects each curator brought into the studio meant that the days never felt repetitious. And not once did I lose the sense of being in a privileged position, not only to have access to these fantastic collections but


also to spend time with the curators and get to know something about the uniqueness of each of the specimens. They became as enthusiastic as I was. Rick, in particular, was so keen to have me shoot the stars of his collection that we did an extra half-day. The day I moved on to the fishes collection was one of the most difficult. Innumerable ­specimens are kept in the steel tanks I had seen the year ­before, and although their lids can be lifted for brief ­periods and the specimens, eternally suspended in alcohol, can be seen, it soon became clear that it wasn’t possible to shoot them through this tea-coloured liquid, stained by the specimens over time. Besides, I was reluctant to shoot too many of the specimens in jars. When Carl Struthers ­suggested that we could take the specimens out of the tanks and lay them on an underlit sheet of plexiglass, I was delighted. Problem solved! It gave me a lot of scope to play with composition and combining specimens from different storage ­areas. The underlighting created an amazing e ­ ffect: each specimen seemed to glow. They were out of their tanks for only a few minutes and then taken straight back again; this level of exposure to the outside air does not harm them. When Salme Kortet then suggested photographing some of the ­collection’s dozens of sheets of X-rays of fish I wasn’t sure it would work, but these shots turned out to be some of my favourites. A lot of my work as a photographer is quite solitary. This experience was fantastic because it gave me the opportunity not only to photograph the collections but also to do it in a collaborative way. It was very generous of the Te Papa natural history team to be so welcoming and to embrace a project that initially didn’t seem to have much value for them. I am so lucky to have had the ­opportunity to be the beneficiary of their ­collective experience and wisdom.They know their collections intimately: Rick has been at Te Papa for 40 years, Andrew for 38, Bruce for 44, Phil for 27 and Colin for 10, so this is h ­ ardly surprising.

010

I began to see how easy it was to fall in love with the collections and the stories behind them. For ­example, Te Papa holds the remarkable collection of the pioneer entomologist and ­ ­astronomer George Hudson, a Wellington Post ­Office official who began collecting in 1881 when he was a ­teenager, and who carried on until the year of his death in 1946. His specimens are housed in nine beautiful kauri ­cabinets, and as we worked with this collection, I became familar with his handwriting on the labels. How can one not admire a man so focused and fastidious? It’s no longer considered best practice in the museum world to have idiosyncratic bespoke ­cabinets or handwritten labels. Over time the ­information on these labels will all be modernised and standardised and made available through the collections database — although with a collection as large as Te Papa’s this will take a great deal of time. I feel lucky to have caught a glimpse of an earlier era of collecting and storage, and privileged to have gazed upon the handwriting of collecting legends such as Hudson and Sir Charles Fleming. Museums have their own photographers and tend to need a particular sort of photograph: ­technically and precisely lit so that as much ­information as possible can be discerned from them. Such images are especially important in this ­digital era, in which having as much of a ­collection online as possible is now standard. My ­photographs will not be of much use to that end, and for that reason I will be eternally grateful to Phil, Colin, Rick, Rodrigo and Thomas Schultz, who spent so many hours with me when they had other demands on their time. I am also grateful to Antony’s colleagues in the botany team, Carlos Lehnebach and Bridget Hatton, who together curated the selection of specimens that were carefully transferred from Cable Street to my little studio possie at Tory Street. Not only were they and their colleagues incredibly generous, but they have also written the w ­ onderful words at the back of this book. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

Nature——Stilled


011

Chromatic Plates


Apteryx mantelli North Island brown kiwi Kiwi

012

Plate 001

North Island brown kiwi egg, collected by Selwyn Bucknell, Mangakino, 12 December 1963.





Plate 036

Pterois volitans Red lionfish Beautiful but deadly: the dorsal spines can deliver an excruciating sting, and sometimes lionfish will try to see a diver off by swimming towards them dorsal spines first. They can also hunt smaller fishes as a pack — the stripes and rippling fins hypnotise their prey. The lionfish take it in turns to feed by sucking in individual victims.

078



080


The G V Hudson Collection

081

Plate 037

Three drawers of New Zealand insects collected by G V Hudson and forming part of the G V Hudson insect collection.




Plate 042

[Previous] Nestor meridionalis meridionalis South Island kākā Detail of South Island kākā underwing (OR.027958, adult female, collected by Department of Conservation at Duckpond Stream, Big Bush, Nelson Lakes National Park).

Plate 043

[Opposite] Nestor meridionalis meridionalis South Island kākā Three study skins of South Island kākā (OR.001089 and OR.001133, collected by Alexander Yuill, 1904; OR.016241, collected by Roger Sutton, Five Rivers, Southland, August 1970).

092



Plate 047

Ophiothrix (Acanthophiothrix) purpurea Purple brittle star There’s something about purple when it comes to marine invertebrates: in this book we have the brittle star Ophiothrix (Acanthophiothrix) purpurea, along with the unrelated bryozoans Iodictyum yaldwyni (page 281) and Akatopora circumsaepta (page 278), which still retain their purple coloration decades after they were collected.

100




Pachyptila vittata Broad-billed prion Study skins of 16 broad-billed prions killed in a July 2011 severe mortality event.

Plate 048



Peltorhamphus latus Speckled sole

113

Plate 053

This X-ray plate is of the type species, used to describe and scientifically name the species. These specimens were selected as having the typical characters that cover the natural range of variations that can occur within any species, as opposed to the differences between species. In this case we can accurately count the very fine, thin fin rays and vertebrae.




Family Papilionidae Male birdwing butterflies

134

Plate 064

A variety of male birdwing butterflies (family Papilionidae) collected from the Indo-Malayan and northern Australasian regions. Male birdwings are strikingly coloured compared with their female counterparts.



Plate 066

Order Orthoptera An assortment of crickets, locusts and grasshoppers This order of insects is noted for the large, powerful hind legs that allow many species to leap.

138






Family Cerambycidae Longhorn beetle These beetles were all collected by R R Forster during his wartime ­service. War was no barrier to ­collecting beetles it seems!

Plate 122



Ophiopsammus maculata Snake star These specimens were collected in 1948 by past director of the Dominion Museum Richard Dell at Erie Bay in Tory Channel. They were subsequently identified by echinoderm curator Alan Baker, who later became director of the museum.

Plate 142


Corvus frugilegus Rook

302

Plate 153

Four study skins of rooks, collected by Peter Bull (Ecology Division, DSIR) at Pirinoa, Wairarapa, on 6 November 1966.




313

Species Information 314

Birds Colin Miskelly

321

Bryozoans Rick Webber

322

Cnidarians Rick Webber

325

Crustaceans Rick Webber

328

Echinoderms Rick Webber

334

Fishes Andrew Stewart

344

Insects Phil Sirvid

353

Molluscs Rodrigo Salvador

358

Plants Antony Kusabs / Bridget Hatton

364

Collection Ephemera


Birds

Plate 001 Plate 107

p.012 p.214

Kiwi lay enormous eggs, up to 23 percent of the female’s body weight.They are often described as having the largest egg in relation to body size of any bird, but the situation is more nuanced than that. Some storm petrels lay eggs that are up to 29 percent of the female’s body weight; however, storm petrels are very small birds, and the pattern across all bird species is for small bird species to lay relatively larger eggs than large bird species. At the other extreme, the largest egg of all is laid by the ostrich (the largest living bird), but this is the smallest egg of any bird when expressed as a percentage of female body weight (less than 4 percent). When egg size is graphed against body size for all bird species, there is one clear outlier: kiwi have eggs that are far larger than predicted for their body size when compared with any other bird — about six times larger than expected for a bird of 1–2 kg. Perhaps we should say that in relation to female body weight, kiwi eggs are unexpectedly larger than those of any other bird.

p.062

The Te Papa research collection contains a large series of Chatham Island snipe and New Zealand shore plover skins collected on Rangatira South East Island in Rekohu Chatham Islands, c. 1900. The specimens have two different but distinctive data labels attached to their legs, indicating that they had been in the possession of either Henry Travers or Sigvard ­Dannefærd. Travers and Dannefærd were the main suppliers of rare New Zealand bird specimens to museums and private collectors for several decades around the end of the nineteenth century. Both men went into the field ­themselves, but they were also dealers, sourcing specimens from others who visited remote sites, and onselling them to willing buyers. Forensic analysis of the labels on these snipe and shore plover ­specimens by the New Zealand Police Document Examination Section revealed that a third (unnamed) person had written on the labels, and that they had worked for both Travers and Dannefærd (and had ­apparently been supplied specimen labels by both men). This collaborative study with the New Zealand Police also revealed that the same mystery person had collected other notable specimens from around Rakiura Stewart Island (and held in the Te Papa collection) that had long been attributed to Henry Travers.

p.065 p.294

Little spotted kiwi are the smallest kiwi species, with adults typically weighing less than 1.4 kg. As a result, they are more vulnerable to stoat predation than the four other kiwi species, and are considered extinct on the mainland. Fortunately, five birds from South Westland were released on Kāpiti Island in 1912. All the little spotted kiwi known today are descended from these five birds, including about 1200 birds now on Kāpiti Island (the largest population). Kiwi chicks are fully feathered when they hatch out of their enormous eggs. Weighing less than 150 g, they look like miniature adult birds, and are able to forage for themselves within a few days of hatching. In the absence of introduced predators, little spotted kiwi have a mean life expectancy of 45 years. It is likely that some birds live to a much older age; however, marking studies have not been running long enough to confirm this. The genus name Apteryx means ‘without wings’, but this is not quite true: their tiny wings have just a few feathers, which are similar in length and structure to the shaggy body feathers that conceal the wing. The oldest fossil kiwi found is estimated to be 19–16 million years old, but it is not known when they lost the ability to fly.

Apteryx mantelli North Island brown kiwi Kiwi

Plate 026 Coenocorypha pusilla Chatham Island snipe

Plate 027 Plate 149 Apteryx owenii Little spotted kiwi Kiwi pukupuku

314

Nature—Stilled


Birds

Plate 043 Plate 061 Plate 092

p.085 p.129 p.185

The 42 species of birds-of-paradise are among the most spectacular birds in the world; many have astonishing plumage and courtship ­displays. The largest and showiest of them all are the six species in the genus Paradisaea. The first specimens of the genus to reach Europe (via ­Arabian spice traders) had been preserved for their plumes, with their legs ­removed. As a result, Carl Linnaeus, in 1758, described the greater bird-of-paradise as Paradisaea apoda (meaning ‘legless’). This ­contributed to the belief that these beautiful visitors from paradise ­remained aloft, borne by their gorgeous plumes, until death brought them to earth. The Raggiana bird-of-paradise was named after the Marquis Francis Raggi of Genoa. It is mainly found in southern Papua New Guinea, i­ ncluding along the Fly River and around the capital, Port Moresby. Other members of the genus Paradisaea are found in the north of the country, in Western New Guinea (now part of Indonesia), or on offshore islands.The ­distribution of the Raggiana bird-of-paradise, as well as its large size and s­ pectacular plumes, resulted in it being selected as the national bird of Papua New Guinea, and it features on the nation’s flag.

p.087

One of New Zealand’s least known extinct birds, the little bittern was extinct within 30 years of being formally described. It was named in 1871, based on a specimen collected at Lake Wakatipu. All subsequent records were from the West Coast, with most of the information about the birds in life being recorded by the surveyor Charlie Douglas and the prospector and bird collector William Docherty. Douglas referred to little bitterns living in ‘such impossable swamps’ that it was no wonder that they were seldom seen. Docherty (quoted by Walter Buller) found them on the forested side of coastal lagoons, ‘­ standing on the bank of the lagoon, with their heads bent forward, studiously watching the water; at other times I have seen them standing straight up, almost perpendicular’. He considered them to be ‘very solitary, and always found alone, and they stand for hours in one place’. Only 13 mounted specimens or study skins of New Zealand little bittern are known to survive, including four in Te Papa, three in Canterbury ­Museum, and one each in Whanganui Regional Museum and Otago M ­ useum; one is in Melbourne, and the remaining three in the United States.

p.090 p.093

The kākā was abundant in the nineteenth century, and was hunted in large numbers for food by Māori and European settlers alike. People expressed concern at its decline in numbers in the late 1880s, and it has been fully protected since 1907. As with many New Zealand forest birds, it was long thought that clearance of forests for farming was the main cause of the kākā’s decline. Kākā have become common throughout the Wellington Town Belt after they were reintroduced to the predator-proof-fenced Zealandia sanctuary in 2002–2007. The town belt comprises mainly over-mature pine trees and low-stature native shrubs, with an almost complete absence of the tall native canopy tree species found in surrounding forest parks. In contrast, however, nearby Remutaka and Tararua forest parks have largely intact native forests — but kākā are rare or absent. How can this be? We now know that introduced stoats killing female kākā and their chicks in their nest-holes was the main reason why kākā disappeared from much of the mainland. In the absence of nest predation, kākā are able to thrive in highly modified habitat that, until recently, was considered unsuitable for them. It was unsuitable only because it was overrun with rats, stoats and possums.

Paradisaea raggiana Raggiana bird-of-paradise

Plate 040 Ixobrychus novaezelandiae New Zealand little bittern Kaoriki

Plate 042 Plate 043

Nestor meridionalis meridionalis South Island kākā

315

Species Information


NATURE STILLED Jane Ussher RRP: $70.00 ISBN: 978-0-9951136-9-5 PUBLISHED: October 2020 PAGE EXTENT: 364 pages FORMAT: Hardback SIZE: 250 × 202 mm

FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO ORDER https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/about/te-papa-press/natural-history/nature-stilled