Thursday, July 07, 2016

The Unburnt Egg - More stories of a museum curator

Publication 8 August

Does a frog’s leg taste like chicken? Perhaps an Auckland grocery store thought so when it put on sale the legs and abdomens of large frogs, packaged in polystyrene trays and covered with clear plastic, as ‘chicken thighs’. Or maybe it just hoped no one would notice. It had not counted on the detective skills of Brian Gill, curator of land vertebrates at Auckland Museum.

Asked by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research to examine samples of the ‘chicken thighs’, Gill immediately noticed that the lower part of the legs were very slender. He knew chickens’ leg bones were thicker. Result: the store and its suppliers of frog meat were prosecuted and received a hefty fine for ‘recklessly selling unauthorised goods’.
The fascinating story is told by Gill in his new book The Unburnt Egg, to be released by Awa Press on August 8th – a sequel to his critically acclaimed 2012 book The Owl that Fell from the Sky.

‘People would be surprised how often museums get called on to identify mysterious objects,’ Gill says.
Among countless items he identified during his more than thirty years at the museum were a dead ‘snake’ (in reality an Australian legless lizard), a feather in a bag of sugar (it had come from a myna, but whether it had got into the sugar in Fiji or New Zealand was impossible to tell), a gecko in a can of New Zealand beer (Gill proved it had entered the beer in Singapore after the can was opened), and an ostrich egg decorated with scrimshaw and up for auction (a clever plastic fake).
This is the lighter side of a curator’s work, much of which involves lengthy and painstaking research, extensive travel, and engagement with other research institutions around the world.

Gill weaves gently engaging stories of history, science and personalities. In the title piece he explores the strange journey of a rare and priceless moa’s egg in the Auckland Museum collection, and the eccentric, reclusive woman who once owned it. In others we are introduced to the spectacular migrations of New Zealand cuckoos, theories on why the huia and moa became extinct, the quest to identify Pacific island geckos and skinks, and the cautionary tale of how a small group of rats decimated the bird population of a New Zealand island, and its lessons for human survival – and much else.

A major theme of the book is the growing importance of natural history museums, whose meticulous researchers and scientific samples play a critical role in the national effort to protect biodiversity, tackle environmental challenges and promote sustainability, as well as informing public debate on issues crucial to our common future.

But at a simpler level, as Gill’s stories show, the museums also inspire interest and wonder about the natural world.

The Unburnt Egg: More stories of a museum curator by Brian Gill
Published with the assistance of the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Release date: 08 August 2016
RRP: $38

‘Brian Gill brings a ‘dusty’ museum, its scientists and its creatures to life as never before’                  

Joel Cracraft, Division Chair and Lamont Curator, Department of Ornithology, Division of Vertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History, New York


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