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The maritime industry has played a significant role in the history of New Zealand and the depth of collections on display at Otago Museum’s Maritime Gallery pay tribute to this.
Taking pride of place in the heart of the gallery is one of our oldest icons, the fin whale skeleton. The whale was originally found by Captain Jackson Barry in 1882 on a beach in Nelson at the entrance to the Waimea River. The skeleton became a touring display soon after. The Captain laboriously carted the fin whale overland, touring the South Island and charging people a sixpence to view it.
Thomas Jeffery Parker, a curator from the Otago Museum spotted it, entered into discussions with Captain Barry and in 1884 acquired the skeleton for display in the Museum.
Unfortunately, during the skeleton’s early life with Captain Barry several of the smaller bones were lost. The Museum received a near-complete skeleton, without the last eight vertebrae, the pelvic bones and some of the flipper bones. In order to show all the parts of the whale’s skeleton to visitors however, replicas of the missing pieces were crafted from wood by Dr Bourne of the University of Otago.
Despite its remarkable length at 17 metres, the fin whale skeleton is just a juvenile. As adults, fin whales can reach 27 metres and live to 80 years. They are a rarity in Museum collections worldwide, making the Otago Museum display an important and appealing one.
Dramatically located amongst a collection of model ships, original ship flags and bells, the impressive fin whale is just one example of many collection items on display – all with their own sea-faring story to tell. Other highlights worthy of a journey to investigate are a surface-supplied air helmeted, Siebe-Gorman style diving suit, an example of a Donderglass, an old weatherglass which was the forerunner of the barometer and a model of the inter-island ferry, the Wahine, which was used at the official inquiry after the ship was wrecked on Wellington Harbour reef in 1968.
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