Reflections of the UNE Natural History Museum During #MuseumWeek 2021

By Dr Kirsti Abbott & Dr Jean Holley, UNE Discovery

Have you ever wondered how the UNE Natural History Museum began? Why it was started? What it is used for?

For those people who remember the original UNE Zoology Teaching Museum, and newer explorers of the current space in the Agricultural Education Building, below we reflect on the origins, purpose and impact of the UNE Natural History Museum and collections.

The beginnings of the UNE Zoology Museum

For more than 50 years, the UNE Zoology Museum was operated first and foremost as a zoology teaching facility for undergraduate students enrolled in biological, geological and paleontological degrees at the University of New England. It was also the first point of contact that many school students from around the region had with UNE. The displays emphasized form, anatomy, taxonomy and evolutionary relationships within major zoological groups, and included important sequences of fossils. Dioramas and interpretive displays were carefully crafted to teach the discipline of zoology; and still, there are no comparable museums that exist between Sydney and Brisbane.

Natural history collections are key teaching and research repositories and hugely popular visitor destinations worldwide. They play a vital role in our understanding of biodiversity, evolution, population genetics and the environmental impacts of climate change, pesticide use and many other areas of science. The collections held at UNE provide base-line data against which modern observations can be compared and to produce predictive models, and harbor stories of our landscapes fundamental to an understanding of who we are.

Up until 2010, the Zoology Museum had a professional curator and taxidermist technician, as well as zoology technicians that contributed to both the conservation and collection of specimens. Staff were dedicated to the task, and were instrumental in the care and maintenance of the collection since they had expert knowledge across a range of fauna, and were a valuable link between teaching and research. With the retirement of Pat Watters and Zoltan Enoch, the Zoology Museum remained integral to the teaching of zoology and biology, but unchanged in terms of physical space, resources and displays.

The Move, aka “A whale crossed the road!”

In 2016, the UNE Zoology Museum was officially closed, and so began the task of moving the hundreds of thousands of specimens to the new Integrated Agriculture Education Building, W077. Museum display professionals Environmental Creations and Thylacine were engaged to prepare, design and create the new space.

With the opening of a modern physical space, the opportunity to develop the UNE Natural History Museum was realised. Though its foundation lies with zoological specimens, the new location afforded UNE the chance to showcase material from our botanical, geological and palaeontological collections too.

Preparation for the move was complex and required consideration of specimen conservation, mobility, storage, pathogen and pest management, quarantine procedures, wet specimen jar transport and handling, and much more. The actual transportation of the collection was then the point at which the materials were most vulnerable to loss and damage. Recruitment of extra staff and volunteers was required to document, dispatch, transport and receive material, the most entertaining move being the killer whale skeleton being walked from the old Zoology building across the pedestrian crossing and to its new home in W077.

A distinctly modern space

The transition of the Zoology Museum to the new building also allowed us to reimagine the specimens on display and the arrangement of the public visitor gallery. An opportunity to showcase the work of UNE palaeontologists came with the discovery of one of Australia’s newest dinosaurs named ‘Lightning Claw’.

The Natural History Museum space is dominated by this one of a kind sculpture; a 3D printed reconstruction of a megaraptor species discovered in opal rubble at Lightning Ridge by UNE researcher Dr Phil Bell and colleagues. In the cabinets are displays of taxonomic groupings, highlighting the diversity within each. In addition, interpretive exhibits show our regional fauna and fossil material, as well as a cabinet allocated to current UNE research and researchers. One of the more recent additions is our beautiful female Cassowary, “Connie”, whose name was chose by a member of the public in a naming competition. Connie, who is an adult bird, provides visitors with a rare opportunity to see a cassowary up close, and learn more about this unique species.

The NHM Education Program

We are lucky to have opened up the museum to school and community groups in 2021. A visit to the museum is an opportunity for students and the community to engage with objects from the UNE zoological, botanical and geological collections and understand something of the human desire to collect, classify, document and preserve life on earth.

By booking a group tour or activity, you can access a free 30-minute expert-guided tour for 10-30 people, followed by time to wander and explore the specimens and collections. Groups can also book into one of our six educational activities that range from adaptation, taxonomy, form, function and paleontology, to scientific illustration and art. These activities are run in the Collaborative Learning Room in the museum, a room that sits behind the glass Birds cabinet, providing a stimulating and beautiful backdrop for children to learn and discover. For more information on our educational program, including how to book, see