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Saying Goodbye to Melbourne’s Weird and Wonderful Taxidermy

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. January 2021 is the end of an era. Yes, of …

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email.

January 2021 is the end of an era. Yes, of course, for the United States and all that, but also for something far less contentious: The “Wild” taxidermy exhibit at the Melbourne Museum.

I’ll never forget my first experience with the taxidermy room. While visiting my siblings in Melbourne when I still lived in Los Angeles, we took my son to the museum. We were slightly delirious with jet lag and the taxidermy room was a weird wonder, a tiered, starkly-white space filled with beasts from all corners of the world.

My sister pointed out one animal in particular, an otter with an expression so wonky and forlorn it sent me into fits of uncontrollable giggles. This, of course, was Sad Otter, who has since acquired a modicum of internet fame. (You can now buy Sad Otter plush toys at the museum gift shop.)

It is thought that Sad Otter got his bizarre appearance because the taxidermists who worked on him may never have seen a live otter. Whatever the cause, he is not alone.

While the otter is probably the weirdest specimen in the collection, he is one of many to appear with a certain macabre shoddiness. I also am quite fond of flea-bitten lion, disintegrating bat, and mangy bandicoot.

Many of these specimens are over 100 years old, and it shows.

(I highly recommend browsing the collection online, where you can see some amazing specimens that have not been recently displayed, such as this alarming leopard cat.)

It is the imperfection of the collection that makes it so endearing, at least to me. Often these types of displays in museums are so slick that it’s easy to forget these animals were once alive, are now dead, and one day will disintegrate completely. It is their impermanence that gives them gravitas.

The ‘Wild’ exhibit at the Melbourne MuseumCredit…Besha Rodell

Their impermanence is also one reason the display is going away. The taxidermy room will close on January 26, in part to make way for a 67-million-year-old triceratops skeleton, but also because exposure to the public leads to moth infestations and other environmental contaminants. Once the display is disassembled, the specimens will be put into a deep freeze to eradicate any creepy crawlies, before being stored.

I’m excited for the new triceratops — which is apparently one of the most complete and best-preserved dinosaur fossils anywhere — but I’ll always miss “Wild.”

Australia is often so eager to present itself as forward thinking and modern that it neglects to properly celebrate its own weirdness, and the taxidermy room was one place where that weirdness was on glorious display.

Now for this week’s stories.


Australia and New Zealand

Supporters of refugees outside the Park Hotel in Melbourne. Credit…Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
  • Locked Up in a Hotel for a Year, Then a Sudden Taste of Freedom. Asylum seekers detained in Australian hotels, deprived of sunlight and sometimes fresh air, had no idea how long their ordeal would last. For some, it’s now over.

  • India Celebrates as Cricket Team Humbles Australia on Its Own Turf. The sport is an unmatched national passion, and the turnaround victory was a welcome release at a time of Covid-19 and economic hardship.

  • Rash of Coronavirus Cases Poses Early Challenge for the Australian Open. With several positive tests among people arriving from abroad, and a strict quarantine, the Australian Open is not going the way organizers expected it would.

  • With Positive Tests, Australia’s Summer of Pro Tennis Has a Rocky Start. After some passengers on charter flights tested positive for the coronavirus, 72 players will not be allowed to practice for two weeks.


Around the Times

Newly elected US President Joe Biden approaches the White House.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
  • 2021 Inauguration Day: Joe Biden

  • ‘Moulin Rouge!’ Was Their Ticket. Then 2020 Happened.It was a Broadway smash with big plans until 25 company members took ill and a shutdown put everybody out of work. Inside a tumultuous year, in the words of those who lived it.

  • From Commander in Chief to Interloper in Palm Beach. If former President Donald J. Trump intends to live in South Florida full time, he is likely to encounter some friction. (Though his fans are thrilled.)

  • Bernie Sanders Is Once Again the Star of a Meme. The Vermont senator was cold, but comfortable. The internet noticed.


… And Over to You

Last week, we asked for your take on the Australian politicians who have been spouting misinformation and conspiracy theories about the American election and the pandemic.

“Born in Australia in 1944. I moved to America in 1978, living in New York where Donald Trump was widely viewed as the selfish self-centered individual he is. It’s sad that Australia (I am still a citizen) is going in the same direction.”

— Bill Quinlan

“Yes, folks, strangely enough we in Australia support freedom of speech! Freedom to say what you believe, even if I don’t agree with the point of view! No progress was ever made by censoring views that do not accord with the so-called ‘mainstream’ view. Look at how Galileo was treated! And Socrates! Needless to say, the MSM is NOT the font of all knowledge!

History has demonstrated that censorship is the tool of the Left, as seen in communist countries. It’s a shame, with all its ‘woke’ ideas, that freedom of speech is not included in the Left’s toolbox!”

— Kay Kelly

“What has gone on here is America is horrendously tragic and downright dangerous. Our incipient fascist has been flummoxed but his legacy carries on. Be careful, Australia. You are a lovely nation and it would be very, very sad to see you go down the same path.”

— Andrew Clark


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