28 Jul 2015

A Treasure Trove of Natural Sciences at Puke Ariki

From Our Changing World, 3:30 pm on 28 July 2015

by Ruth Beran

Behind the exhibitions at New Plymouth’s museum Puke Ariki is a treasure store of natural history collections, and natural science cataloguer Jo Fitness has been brought in to make it easily accessible.

A photo of Jo Fitness with the Ken Fox collection

Jo Fitness with the Ken Fox collection Photo: Puke Ariki

“We’ve got taxidermied animals, mostly birds. We’ve got a wet collection...a really awesome insect collection…a huge geology and fossil collection here,” says Jo. “Part of my job has been to find it and put it all together.”

The project is called Natural Wonders and Pouarahi Tukuihotanga/Heritage Manager Andrew Moffat describes it as bringing the amazing collection that is stored at Puke Ariki into the light.

“People often think of museums as perhaps exhibitions and whiz bang things out the front,” he says. “But…a very important part of what we do at Puke Ariki is caring for the collections and making those things available for all the great uses they can be put to.”

Part of what Jo is doing is cataloguing the collection.

“It’s a huge job, but it is a fun one!” she says.

A photo of moths in the Ken Fox collection

Moths in the Ken Fox collection Photo: Puke Ariki

The most exciting thing she’s worked on so far is the Ken Fox collection. Fox was a medical doctor who collected insects from the local area. “There’s thousands of insects in there and it’s all Taranaki related and really, really beautifully preserved,” she says.

The collection is stored in a cabinet made from native wood containing fourteen drawers of insects, although only eight are from the Ken Fox collection. In his obituary it was noted that Ken Fox had New Zealand’s greatest alpine collection of moths and there are over 1000 moths in the collection.

“So my job was to make sure each individual insect was catalogued,” says Jo. Photos were also taken which are now available online. “It’s an amazing collection that at some point I’d like to see on exhibit.”

Photos from left to right of the book of pressed ferns being catalogued and Jo Fitness with the Dr Ken Fox collection

From left to right: the book of pressed ferns being catalogued and Jo Fitness with the Dr Ken Fox collection Photo: RNZ / Ruth Beran

Recently, Jo has been working on cataloguing a book of pressed ferns that she found by accident on a shelf. She is cataloguing each page and giving it a part number, and identifying the species. She’s also been putting tissue on top to help protect the plants from friction from the pages above and to help absorb moisture that might get in. “Although this room is temperature controlled and so that’s unlikely to happen, it’s just a safety precaution that we are carrying out to make it last,” she says.

Once catalogued, the book will be photographed and that will go online. This means people can go to the Puke Ariki website and search the database, and items like this will come up. “That’s one way that we want to be able to share our collection,” says Jo. Other ways are through education, events, and upgrading exhibits by knowing what is available to be used.

The ultimate goal, according to Jo, is to allow people to see what the museum has. “It can’t all go on exhibition because it’s only a small space over there,” she says. “It gives them the opportunity to come to us for more detail if they want to, or are interested in it.”

There is still more of the Natural Wonders project to go, but Jo says they are getting there. “We had a list of priorities to do, this is a huge collection,” she says, with the insects, most of the plants and out in the exhibition done. “The useful stuff is definitely well and truly on its way to being completed,” she says.