Mummies, Whales and Butterflies at the Otago Museum

Dayym, the south of New Zealand really knows how to do museums! Far from your dusty old museum of bad mannequins, the Otago Museum is going to be another southern regional museum that blows us away. After seeing the Southland Museum back in Invercargill, we really thought it couldn’t be matched in its diverse collections of impressive artifacts. But, hold up! We think we just found it in Dunedin at the Otago Museum!

Even before entering the museum on the corner of Great King Street and Albany Street, we are drawn to a science experiment on display in the museum reserve outside. Two large discs at either end of the reserve challenge one person to stand at one end and whisper, while the other person sees if they can hear on the other side. And guess what? We can hear each other clear as day! It’s like hearing voices in our heads, however, Robin ruins it for everyone in the park when he starts to experiment whether Laura can hear his farts…

Ok, that’s our cue to get inside the Otago Museum, thank you, Robin…

We don’t know where to start in this museum, as we walk up the stairs to the sight of the Sir Edmund Hillary Collection. A pick axe, camera, camping mug, passport to Tibet and more are on display in glass cases along the staircase, celebrating the New Zealander who was the first to summit Mt Everest.

Discovery World Tropical Forest

While the museum is free-entry, there are a couple of exhibitions experienced for a small fee, one of which we head to first: Discovery World Tropical Forest.

Following the butterfly stickers on the floor, we pull a sliding door into a dark room with neon butterfly prints on the walls and ceiling, then pass through a chain curtain, open another door, and… Whomf! The hot air hits us as we enter this artificial tropical forest. Hundreds of colourful butterflies can be seen flapping their delicate wings from ceiling all the way to the forest floor, which is a couple of floors down.

Searching the tropical forest for butterflies, birds and Robin Searching the tropical forest for butterflies, birds and Robin
One of hundreds of beautiful butterflies in the Otago Museum One of hundreds of beautiful butterflies in the Otago Museum
Learning about the southern Maori culture Learning about the southern Maori culture
A fiery science experiment A fiery science experiment

Watching the METAMORPHOSIS

A waterfall cascades into a pond below filled with fish and turtles. Tiny flightless birds dart around the gardens and forest floor footpath (so watch your step)! Through a window, we can see the butterflies during the pupa stage of their life cycle, with some even emerging from their chrysalis right before our eyes!

Everyday at around 11am, we can watch butterflies make their first flights into the tropical forest. They are not quick to depart their netted container, but rather cling onto the nearest person they find. Nevertheless, this gives us the closest look we can to the beautifully complex body of the butterflies, from the body covered in hairs to the intense fish-eye eyes too round and magnified for our own eyes to comprehend properly. Basically, the eyes give a weird illusion.

A museum member of staff at the exit makes sure we don’t have any hitchhikers on our backs as we leave through the many doors of the butterfly house. We feel like Discovery World was an activity in itself, but we have a whole museum to explore!

What happens when you mix fire and music?

The butterfly house leads into a science area where a science demonstration is taking place. A small gas canister lights up a series of small flames coming out of a tube. A balloon is tightly stretched over one side of the tube, once touched, the flames start to dance. The vibrations manipulate the flames.

“See what happens when we put music to the balloon…” says Eden, the demonstrator. She holds up a speaker plays jazz music to the balloon and the flames go nuts! The sound waves makes the flames go higher in a way just like the equalizer found on a computer music player! “Any requests?” shouts DJ Eden.

“Carmin Burana!” replies Robin. When we though “O Fortuna” couldn’t get more epic, we then see it with a flame equalizer…

One of the ocean’s giants!

Pacific Islands to southern Maori history

Treasures of the Museum is a museum tour you can take highlighting the key collections of the museum and finding out the story behind the objects in the Otago Museum. We give it a go with the lovely Emily who first takes us to the Pacific Cultures gallery. Filled with treasures from all over the Pacific Islands, Emily tells us the story of unusual currencies and how such isolated islands got populated with rich cultures.

Bringing back to something more local, Emily then takes us into the Tangata Whenua exhibition, explaining how southern iwi (Maori tribes) used to live differently to those in north. We also learn how Maori history has been rediscovered thanks to excavations of old villages, particularly around Shag Point.

New Zealand’s largest fossil

From southern people to southern land, Emily then takes us to an exhibition of another fascinating discover in Shag Point: the fossil of a plesiosaur! Not only that, but a collection of articulated moa skeletons, a huge New Zealand bird now extinct, look down at us. Specimens of huge royal albatross help us understand the size of this seabird, who’s only mainland colony right here on the Otago Peninsula! We even encounter Autahi the leopard seal found at Waikouaiti Beach. Again, the size is only appreciated when you get this close.

A 17 metre whale skeleton

Speaking of size, perhaps the grandest piece on display in the Otago Museum is in the middle of the Maritime exhibition. The skeleton of a 17 metre fin whale dwarfs us all… And this is just a baby! 

More animals await upstairs in the oldest part of the Otago Museum. Animal Attic displays the animal kingdom in the Victorian theory of evolution: that animals evolved from something simple to something complex. So the display starts with cases of sea sponges to cases of monkeys and humans… (Of course, we think we’re the most intelligent of them all)…

The bones of the ancient moa The bones of the ancient moa
The many canoes of the Pacific The many canoes of the Pacific
Robin plays with the interactive displays outside of the Planetarium Robin plays with the interactive displays outside of the Planetarium

 The Rat King and the Mummy

All sorts of weird and wonderful animals are on display, but a pretty unusual sight is the rat king. Not to be confused with a rat sat on a throne, a rat king is when so many rats are crawling over each other that their tails get tied in a knot leaving them to be stuck together in a clump until their untimely death. Not only did with realise this was “a thing”, but that thing has a name!

From dead to deader, we have a look around the People of the World exhibition with the grand finale showing a real Egyptian mummy! 

The night sky over Dunedin

Finally, our last experience in the Otago Museum brings us to the 2pm show of the Perpetual Guardian Planetarium. Although they have different showings at this 360-degree theatre, today we are learning how the night sky looks over Dunedin. One of the most standout things for people like us coming from the light-polluted Europe in the Northern Hemisphere is how different and clear the Southern Skies are here in New Zealand. Hell, the skies are so dark and the stars so vivid that it makes you want to learn more about “what’s out there”.

The Southern Skies are put into more context thanks to Moss, who commentates has he takes off the atmosphere around the Earth and reveals star constellations, the Milky Way, satellites, our nearest planets, and the Southern Lights. All of which can be seen from Dunedin!

Rounding up another day in Dunedin

Now can you see why the Otago Museum just blew us away?! And this is just the “short” explanation of what you can see and do in this free-entry museum.

From the land of non-fiction we walk back to the land of fiction back at the Hogwartz Backpackers, always so clean thanks to, what we like to think is, the house elves. Sadly, we think it might be a mix of respectful backpackers and WWOOFers

Tomorrow, we are going on a train journey from the fantastical and famous Dunedin Railway Station. Join us then!

Laura and Robin

Checking out what remains of the plesiosaur
Checking out what remains of the plesiosaur Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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See you tomorrow!

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