Killer Marsupials, fearsome crocodiles, and hundreds of Australia’s natural treasures highlight Sydney’s natural history museum.

One of the first things I did when I got off the plane in Australia was head to Sydney’s Australian Museum, a treasure trove of Australian and natural history artifacts. As the continent’s first public museum, opening in 1827, its main goal was displaying rare and intriguing natural specimens. In the 192 years since its humble beginning in the city’s old post office, the collection has swelled in size and relocated several times, eventually settling into its current location outside of Hyde Park in 1846. The building has continued to expand in order to better serve its scientific and research goals. The future could not be brighter for the museum. In 2018 the museum received $50 million to improve exhibit halls, and will welcome one of the largest King Tut exhibits ever in early 2021 to mark the centenary of the pharaoh’s discovery.

The increased flow of funds and interest in the museum will do wonders for the museum and its public displays. Although a new modern wing was added in 2008, several of the exhibits inside are dated and certain specimens (especially taxidermy mammals) are literally busting at the seams in their animal exhibit. But the strength of the museum is its very interesting and peculiar collection of Australian natural history items, ranging from a huge skeleton of a thundering diprotodon to a morbidly-wonderful horse skeleton bucking its skeleton rider into the air.

The Australian Museum was hosting a traveling exhibit about whales while I was there and had an interesting display of whale skulls near the entrance to the main foyer. The species of whales and porpoises represented by these skulls ran the whole gamut, from the thin-snouted, needle-toothed South Asian river dolphin to the hulking skull and thick, curved teeth of the killer whale. This display was an interesting introduction to the museum.

From left to right: killer whale skull, short-beaked common dolphin skull, South Asian river dolphin skull and Cuvier’s beaked whale skull

From left to right: killer whale skull, short-beaked common dolphin skull, South Asian river dolphin skull and Cuvier’s beaked whale skull

After entering the main foyer, adorned with a huge inflatable whale, I made my way through both the Wild Planet and Indigenous Australia galleries. Some of the aforementioned taxidermy was worn out, making for a few depressing-looking stuffed kangaroos and wallabies, but the abundance and amount of Australian animals was impressive for someone not familiar with these creatures. The taxidermy was supplemented with some impressive skeletons including a whale suspended from the ceiling, an Asian elephant, and a hippopotamus displaying its gnarly tusks. The Indigenous Peoples exhibit gave an interesting overview of their culture through many pieces of art on wood and some less traditional media, like the bill of a sawfish.

Up the stairs is the Dinosaur exhibit, which contains several very cool set pieces like the theropod vs. sauropod battle that greets you as you enter, a cast of gigantosaurus, and coolest of all, a life-size model of a dissected Tyrannosaurus rex, made for the 2015 National Geographic special, full of corn-syrup blood and rubbery organs. But the exhibit’s information was not spaced out making some specimens and information seem cluttered. Several of the models were dated, especially the very much reptilian, Jurassic Park-era raptor models near the end of the hall, lacking any semblance of feathers we now know they had. 

I would have loved to see more space dedicated to Australian dinosaurs. The only big Australian specimen of the exhibit was a very cool skeleton of the herbivorous muttaburrasaurus. The exhibit was trying to tackle the complete essence of dinosaurs, which is a very fair goal for a dinosaur exhibit, but it comes off a bit unoriginal. It would have been awesome to see more of Australia’s very cool and unique dinosaur history displayed.

Images Above: Image 1: Cool view of the sauropod-carnivore duel that took place in Northern Africa millions of years ago. Image 2: A life-size T-rex “cadaver” after the televised autopsy, missing an eye, a tooth, and the contents of its guts. Image 3: Muttaburrasaurus skeleton, one of the few Australian dinosaurs displayed.

Surviving Australia was one of the museum’s highlights. Located on the same floor as the dinosaur exhibit, the exhibit offered the Australian-themed exhibition I had been hoping for, exploring Australia’s weird, wonderful, and often times deadly inhabitants since the end of the dinosaurs. Some highlights centered around the bones and models of several famed Australian megafauna: a giant horned turtle with a spiked tail, resembling a creature straight out of Pokemon, a huge duck known by the fantastic name “Demon Duck of Doom”, a giant monitor lizard (more about them in future pieces), and, of course, the giant marsupials. 

The exhibit did a nice job of complementing bones and skeletons of the marsupials with life-like models (albeit older models with some patchy fur) of what these creatures could have looked like in life. These included the large wolf-like prehistoric thylacine, giant short-faced kangaroo, and the largest marsupial ever, diprotodon, a fantastic cross between a rhino and its modern cousin, the wombat. But the most interesting ancient marsupial displayed to me was the ferocious thylacoleo, a lion-sized ball of muscle and teeth that fed on the giant kangaroos and wombats of its day. The museum displays its fossilized jaws which may have equipped thylacoleo with the strongest bite of any mammal ever. All of these monster marsupials make prehistoric Australia seem like a fantastically strange and treacherous land, which is clearly the exhibit’s goal.

Image 1: Thylacoleo is also known as the marsupial lion and has the bone-crushing bite to back that up! Image 2: Thylacoleo’s murder weapons were its jaws (lower jaw shown here) which it used to dispatch other megafauna, like giant kangaroos. Image 3: a giant short-faced kangaroo skeleton.

A menacing look at the museum’s diprotodon model

A menacing look at the museum’s diprotodon model

The museum’s diprotodon skeleton perched above the rest of Surviving Australia

The museum’s diprotodon skeleton perched above the rest of Surviving Australia

The rest of the Surviving Australia exhibit contains awesome specimens of the continent’s modern natural marvels, including a spectacular saltwater crocodile that truly lets you take in the species’ immense size. In the next room are interesting displays about the continent’s marine wonders, ranging from the Great Barrier Reef to penguins. On level three, there is a great display of the many unique birds that call Australia home. 

The standout exhibit at the museum was the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum, taking up the lower two floors of the Westpac Long Gallery. The second floor of the exhibit contains information on 100 people who have had significant impact on Australian scientific discovery, along with display cases depicting specimens from every department at the museum. The other half of the 200 is on the first floor, where 100 of the museum’s standout specimens are displayed together in large exhibit cases. The items were selected for historical significance, scientific importance, rarity, or just plain wonder, like an opalized (petrified with the mineral opal) plesiosaur skeleton that shimmered in soft hues of pink and gold. 

A few other specimens worth mentioning are the large Irish elk skeleton perched off the second floor balcony; a large gold nugget found in Australia; specimens and equipment from an early Australian Antarctic expedition, including a beaten-up sled and a penguin; and a thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, pup embalmed in a jar. One interesting story I will take away from this exhibit was conveyed by a large red chair towards the front of the exhibit. It belonged to Gerard Krefft, an early museum director who was ousted over his belief of evolution by creationist museum trustees. Krefft decided to make a statement with his exit, refusing to leave his office or his chair. The trustees’ solution was to hire two prize-fighters who broke down the door to his office, picked up the chair and carried him out.

Image 1: The main exhibit hall containing the Australian Museum’s treasures, including the skeleton of an Irish elk, one of the largest deer species in history. Image 2: The opalized remains of an Australian plesiosaur. Image 3: Former museum director Gerard Krefft’s chair, which he was carried out on when he was ousted from the museum. Image 4: A preserved Tasmanian tiger pup from 1866. These large marsupial carnivores were hunted to extinction last century.

A piece containing a few of my favorite specimens from the exhibit. The only two not pictured above are a stuffed emperor penguin from an early Australian Antarctic expedition (top right) and the skull from the giant turtle, Meiolania (bottom left),…

A piece containing a few of my favorite specimens from the exhibit. The only two not pictured above are a stuffed emperor penguin from an early Australian Antarctic expedition (top right) and the skull from the giant turtle, Meiolania (bottom left), mentioned earlier in the piece.

Stories like Krefft’s, and the incredible specimens collected by the museum in both Australia and around the world, are what I took away from the Australian Museum. It is at its best when it plays on Australia’s natural history in the Surviving Australia exhibit, and its own history, in 200 Treasures. It is worth a visit for both natural history lovers and those who are just curious about Australia. 

All photographs and art in this piece was taken or created by Jack Tamisiea