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The animal specimens in the Australian Institute of Anatomy collection arouse a wide range of visitor reactions, from horror to curiosity and wonder.

by Martha Sear, Senior Curator, People and the Environment

The heart display at the Australian Institute of Anatomy, with Phar Lap's heart lower right, displayed next to the heart of an army remount.
The heart display at the Australian Institute of Anatomy, with Phar Lap's heart lower right, displayed next to the heart of an army remount.
National Museum of Australia.

There is one corner of the Museum's Mitchell collection store where the rows of microscopes, hatboxes, spears and bits of the Play School clock give way to shelf after shelf of bottles and jars. There are thousands of them, of different shapes and sizes, packed closely together. At first it's hard to make out what's inside. Strange forms float in amber-tinted fluid. Then, if you stop and look closely, you begin to recognise them. A baby monkey, curled up as if asleep. A spiky desert lizard. A human foot. What on first glance looks like a jellyfish trailing its frilly tentacles in a tall glass cylinder is labelled 'echidna: brain and spinal cord'. This is the Australian Institute of Anatomy collection, one of the oldest and most extensive parts of the Museum's collection.

Perhaps you remember a long-ago visit to the Australian Institute of Anatomy (AIA)? Until the early 1980s, these bottles and jars, along with skeletons, skins, casts and models, could be viewed in the halls of the AIA building at Acton, beside the Australian National University in Canberra. Specially constructed in 1930, the building now houses the National Film and Sound Archive – but eagle-eyed visitors can still spot the decorative animals peering down from the walls. They are a reminder of what it used to be: a place dedicated to investigating how knowledge gained from Australia's unique fauna could help solve human medical problems.

Photograph of Sir Colin MacKenzie, 1930.
Photograph of Sir Colin MacKenzie, 1930. National Museum of Australia.

The creation of the institute was the culmination of a lifetime's work for Melbourne orthopaedic surgeon Sir Colin MacKenzie. Comparative anatomy – studying the body structures of different animals to understand how they evolved – was MacKenzie's passion. Like most of his scientific colleagues in the early 20th century, MacKenzie believed that Australia's marsupials and monotremes were primitive compared with the placental mammals of the Northern Hemisphere. He thought that dissecting and preserving specimens of native species could reveal how more 'advanced' anatomical structures, including those of human beings, had developed.

MacKenzie was worried that Australia's animal species were fast disappearing. He began collecting marsupials and making dissections of them while working as a doctor and lecturer in applied anatomy at the University of Melbourne. In the early 1900s, there were major outbreaks of infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis) in Australia, which left children with weak, withered limbs. Most treatment focused on helping children recover the use of their legs, but MacKenzie targeted his efforts on the upper body. He made careful dissections of the arm and shoulder of the koala, trying to understand how it could grasp and climb so well. He used what he learned to design splints that helped retrain shoulder muscles following surgery or disease.

Eager to continue his research, MacKenzie took Australian specimens with him when he travelled to England to work at the Royal College of Surgeons during the First World War. Returning home in 1918, MacKenzie converted part of his house into a laboratory and museum, which he called the Australian Institute of Anatomical Research. He also founded a native animal sanctuary at Healesville, near Melbourne.

Koala forearm, about 1910.
Koala forearm, about 1910. National Museum of Australia.
Anatomical study of a koala's arm by Victor Ernest Cobb, taken from bound volumes of plates entitled 'The National Museum of Australian Zoology', 1905-28.
Anatomical study of a koala's arm by Victor Ernest Cobb, taken
from bound volumes of plates entitled 'The National Museum of
Australian Zoology', 1905-28. National Museum of Australia.

MacKenzie published the results of his research in a four-volume collection called The Comparative Anatomy of Australian Fauna in 1918 and 1919. Many of the illustrations were by artist Victor Ernest Cobb, who worked as a professional artist in Melbourne and was known for his detailed etchings of the city's architecture and rural surrounds. Between 1905 and 1914 MacKenzie employed Cobb to draw his dissections. Cobb worked with MacKenzie again in the 1920s at the St Kilda-based National Museum of Australian Zoology, producing hundreds of drawings of the museum's anatomical collections. These illustrations are now also part of the National Museum of Australia's collection.

We don't know the source of many of the specimens in MacKenzie's collection as he rarely recorded this information, but some, like the thylacine, came from the Healesville Sanctuary. MacKenzie dissected many of the specimens himself. Protected from decay – or 'fixed' – using alcohol or formalin, they were then stored in glass jars filled with preserving solution.

MacKenzie didn't only collect Australian native animals – he also sought out specimens of animals from around the world so he could compare them to Australian species. The AIA collection contains skeletons and wet specimens from horses, sheep, mice, chickens, cows, cats, orangutans and monkeys. It also includes animals with unusual anatomical features, such as a nine-legged spider.

Phar Lap's preserved heart, 1932.
Phar Lap's preserved heart, 1932. National Museum of Australia

By the early 1920s, MacKenzie's specimen collection had become extensive and well known. It attracted sizable bids from buyers in the United States of America, but in 1923 MacKenzie decided to donate it to the Australian Government. A year later, an Act of Parliament created the National Museum of Australian Zoology to house and expand the collection. MacKenzie was appointed its first director and professor of comparative anatomy.

The museum was to be built in Canberra, but works were delayed and the collection stayed in Melbourne. In 1928 responsibility for the museum, renamed the Australian Institute of Anatomy, was transferred to the Department of Health. Thanks to funding from MacKenzie, building work was completed in 1930 on the Acton site.

MacKenzie moved to Canberra that year, directing the institute, as well as an auxiliary research station and animal reserve at Tidbinbilla, south of the city. MacKenzie had hoped that the institute's displays and research would show 'the importance of zoology to medical science', but economic depression meant the institute's work was severely constrained by limited government funding. Ill-health forced MacKenzie to leave the institute in 1937, and he died in Melbourne the following year.

From the 1930s, the AIA's collections expanded beyond MacKenzie's foundation donation to include material gathered by private collectors, researchers and administrators. These included Aboriginal stone tools and human remains dug from burial mounds along the Murray River by farmer and collector George Murray Black, platypus-focused fauna specimens collected by Henry (Harry) Burrell, and anthropological material from Australia and Papua New Guinea acquired by Herbert Basedow, Sir Hubert Murray, George Horne and Edmund Milne.

Visitors to the AIA at Acton could view MacKenzie's collection of skeletons, skins and wet specimens arranged in two large exhibition halls. In the middle of one gallery was an 'island' featuring more than 400 platypus specimens. Also on show were collections of human material, including the remains of Indigenous people, casts of the skulls of criminals like Ned Kelly, and war wounds such as amputated legs with shrapnel wounds that MacKenzie had collected while in England during the First World War. Many visitors remember seeing Phar Lap's 6.35-kilogram heart displayed alongside a normal-sized horse's heart (4 kilograms). In later years, the institute's exhibits focused on public health issues such as the benefits to teeth of putting fluoride in the water supply.

Young pouch wombat, about 1920.
Young pouch wombat, about 1920. National Museum of Australia.

The collections of the AIA were displayed at the Acton building until 1984, when the institute closed and its holdings were transferred to the National Museum of Australia. The AIA collection includes about 100 preserved body parts and a skeleton from the now-extinct thylacine, as well as what is understood to be the only complete adult thylacine wet specimen in the world.

It's fair to say that over the last 30 years, there have been differing views on what the Museum should do with the AIA's anatomical material. Phar Lap's heart is probably the Museum's most popular object – but what about its less famous companions? How can we store and preserve the significance of fragile specimens in original preserving fluid, when even small vibrations cause them damage? What is their continuing importance as a resource for researchers? What does it mean to hold scientific or medical collections in a history museum? What are the ethics of holding or displaying human and animal remains? Our position on Indigenous human remains is clear: the Museum has made a decision to never display them, and has a long history of repatriating them to Indigenous communities. Rigorous debate and consultation continues around other remains. Should they be displayed as evidence of the scientific thinking of a hundred years ago? Or can they be reinterpreted in a way that restores some sense of dignity to the animals dissected, and illuminates the collection in the light of contemporary ecological issues?

We've begun to explore some of these questions in a range of different ways, one of which is a new display about the AIA in the Museum's Old New Land gallery. A selection of preserved specimens and skeletons, revealing the range of Australian and international species in the AIA collection, appear as part of the newly-updated 'First Encounters' module, which also features renewed exhibits about human interactions with the platypus, thylacine, bee, salmon, rabbit and buffalo in Australia.

Stand for a while in front of the AIA exhibit and you'll hear people's reactions to the display: 'Ooooh … eeeeew … yuck … wow … beautiful'. Most visitors experience a wide range of emotions in response to the animals they encounter, from horror and repulsion to curiosity and wonder. A century ago, Sir Colin MacKenzie preserved each creature's physical form for future medical research, hopeful that their tissues, skin and bones would help scientists find new ways to heal the human body. Today, the collection he amassed seems to affect human hearts in an even more direct way, as those who encounter it grapple with what, in the 21st century, connects them to these motionless, fragmented animals and their living relatives.

A selection of wet speciments are on display in the Old New Land gallery.