Why the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery is bound to attract the curious

by Ellen Rykers / 22 January, 2019
The Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery

The Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery. Photo/Alan Dove

Inside the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery and the artist behind it.

From the outside, the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery looks like any other well-kept city villa – but for the black-and-white hieroglyphs emblazoned on the garden wall. These strange symbols are “rongorongo”, an enigmatic script found on Easter Island, says artist Bruce Mahalski, who’s created a gallery of curiosities inside his house.

The museum, which opened last year, is spread across three rooms. Dark wooden cases are filled with bones, cultural artefacts and other ephemera, including more than 200 skulls, masks and figurines from far-flung places, vintage books and pinned butterflies – immaculately presented in classic Victorian style.

dunedin museum of natural mystery bruce mahalski

Artist Bruce Mahalski in his Ōwhiro Bay studio (left) in 2013, before moving to Dunedin. In March 2018, he opened the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery in three rooms of his central-city villa, displaying a peculiar assemblage of ephemera, including a wall of animal skulls (right). Photo/Mike White/Alan Dove.

Inspiration for the peculiar assemblage came in part from the Otago Museum’s Animal Attic, where Mahalski worked as an unofficial intern in his teens. He specialises in nature-themed murals and intricate bone sculptures, and has been captivated by natural history for as long as he can remember. His parents were “big collectors” and “by age eight, I was starting to go around junk shops to buy antique dead animals”.

The museum is the result of a lifetime of collecting: objects acquired on worldwide travels, inherited from his parents, found while bone-hunting or bought on Trade Me. Items are regularly donated, with recent acquisitions including the jaw of an extinct cave bear, and a digital painting of a chicken embryo. “I’d like to be a repository for strange things that people don’t know quite what to do with.”

Read more: An eccentric Helensville collector lets go of a lifetime of curios | The sparkling 50-year career of Dunedin master jeweller Tony Williams

dunedin museum of natural mystery

A human skull is part of the collection. Photo/Alan Dove

Each item is accompanied by a label, describing the natural history of the specimen or simply a quirky personal tale associated with a particular object. Mahalski’s favourite piece is a huge hippopotamus skull. “It’s the biggest skull that looks like what it is,” he says. “Whale skulls don’t look like whales, and elephant skulls, even with the tusks in, still don’t really look right.”

A number of artefacts, including a human skull, are part of the Dr E.R. Nye collection, in memory of Mahalski’s father, physician Ted Nye. “I’ve always thought it’s very sad when people die, and it would be great if we could have little memorials to everybody,” he explains. “So, the museum is partly about making little memorials – not just to my parents, but to other people as well.”   

Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery

Photo/Alan Dove.

Despite its seemingly macabre material, the museum is as much a celebration of life as it is a miscellany of mystery. For Mahalski, bones are symbols of life and conduits for a conservation message. “Bones are part of our hard drive; they’re part of everything else’s hard drive, too. We’re all part of a continuum – animals and humans aren’t separate. I think that’s my greatest work of art. If I can flip people’s thinking on that, then I’m a good artist.” 

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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