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.

Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more New Zealand stories.

Latest

Simon Bridges searches for a miracle
108491 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Politics

Simon Bridges searches for a miracle

by Graham Adams

The opposition leader hoped to pick up election-winning tips in Australia.

Read more
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on the tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa
108416 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela on the tragedy of post-apa…

by Clare de Lore

Scathing critic of South African Government corruption Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, here to give a public lecture, has insights about forgiveness after...

Read more
Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Underland
108287 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Books

Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Und…

by Tony Murrow

In a new book, Robert Macfarlane heads underground to ponder mankind’s effect on the planet.

Read more
Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for frying
108203 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for…

by Jennifer Bowden

For decades, the word in the kitchen has been that olive oil shouldn’t be used for frying, but new research could change that.

Read more
Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours
108108 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours

by Linda Herrick

Gretchen Albrecht paintings may be intangible, but they are triggered by real-life experience, she tells Linda Herrick.

Read more
That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a punch
108435 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Television

That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a pun…

by Diana Wichtel

The taboo-busting doco is trying to change our default settings on race, but some people aren't stoked.

Read more
Are there too many tourists in NZ?
108444 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Are there too many tourists in NZ?

by North & South

Here's what's inside North and South's August 2019 issue.

Read more
Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a breakthrough in New Zealand?
108428 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Tech

Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a break…

by Peter Griffin

The tech company at the centre of a trade war between the US and China is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prove it can be trusted.

Read more