Dear Aussie, here’s the gen on Phar Lap

Phar Lap at the Melbourne Museum

Dear Australia,

We’re genuinely pleased you’re going to be looking after Phar Lap’s skeleton for a few months.

How proud were our nations when the so-called “Red Terror of the Antipodes” travelled to the United States and, with limited training and carrying a hoof injury, strode clear to win the richest race in North America?He was a magnificent racehorse and we know how much you admire what he stood for as he won race after race during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The euphoria could only have been matched by the despair that followed a fortnight later, when he died in mysterious circumstances.

It is fair to say that our shared story of Phar Lap tends to part company somewhat at this point.

It is all a matter of history now that Phar Lap’s hide went to the Melbourne Museum, where he still stands proud as a fine testament to the taxidermist’s art.

His now-delicate heart is held at the National Museum in Canberra, on display under special lighting to limit its deterioration.

Phar Lap is an Australian national treasure.

It appears that New Zealand in the 1930s did not share the same love of the Phar Lap story.

His unassembled bones were shipped to Wellington but lay in packing cases in the basement of the Dominion Museum for nearly five years.

Racing writer S. V. McEwen, then editor of the New Zealand Referee, asked about the bones and was told the museum did not have enough money to prepare the skeleton for display.

He opened an appeal in the Referee and within two weeks enough money had been subscribed to allow the bones to be articulated. They were put on display in 1938.

Phar Lap occupied a glass and mahogany case at the Dominion Museum until it closed in the early 1990s. Phar Lap’s bones were partly dismantled and taken to Trentham Racecourse where they were reassembled for temporary display in a cabinet specially built for the purpose.

A new glass cabinet was erected at Te Papa after the $300 million building’s completion and Phar Lap’s skeleton was, again, partly dismantled for the return journey to central Wellington, where he now remains.

The two reassemblies since the early 1990s have seen Phar Lap retain his same pose, and all original mounts and struts were used.

Phar Lap's skeleton overlaid with a 1930s photo.

Phar Lap’s skeleton overlaid with a 1930s photo.

Sadly, his skeleton-mounting is far from impressive. He is standing sickle-hocked and the vertebrae in his back have virtually no space between them, where the disks would normally reside, meaning he is up to 20 centimetres short in the back.

Anyone who knows horses can see he’s not right.

He was a huge, long-striding thoroughbred. Instead, we’ve had him on display in New Zealand more in the pose of a laminitic pony.

Many horse lovers believe Phar Lap needs to be re-mounted; placed in a more dynamic pose.

Te Papa is not having a bar of it, suggesting Phar Lap is a historical exhibit and seemingly suggesting we should be in love with the story of how a public fund-raising campaign led to his display.

I fully understand the concept of a historic exhibit, but I cannot be convinced that Phar Lap’s poorly mounted bones fit in this category.

Surely, visitors who see him do so to see Phar Lap, not to view a shoddy example of skeleton-mounting from the 1930s.

I imagine there are hundreds of dinosaur skeletons in museums around the world that are older than Phar Lap which have been re-articulated to reflect our growing knowledge of how dinosaurs actually walked.

I also don’t imagine that those who raised the money to have Phar Lap’s bones assembled all those decades ago would be concerned if he was re-articulated, either.

Most would have been horse lovers – and loved Phar Lap – and would surely have been delighted by the prospect of Phar Lap stretching out in full stride.

So Australia, we hope you enjoy Phar Lap and do, please, look after him. We want him back.

I hope Te Papa puts up large signage to explain that the “laminitic pony” is, indeed, the great horse.

I suspect they’ll have to employ some pretty sharp spin doctors to sell the story of how our most famous racehorse remains in such a dire pose.

Personally, I’m not convinced your average Australian will buy it.

» More on Phar Lap

» Phar Lap reunited

3 thoughts on “Dear Aussie, here’s the gen on Phar Lap

  • June 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Nice work Robin – you are so right about the poor articulation of the skeleton. It doesn’t show Phar Lap off to be the horse he was in the slightest. Why can’t they employ someone with a relevant knowledge base (like Sharon May-Davis) to re-articulate him and in the process take some meaningful measurements and details? Would be an extremely interesting exercise. Absolutely pitiful reflection of the horse that he was….

  • June 21, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    They could make a replica ‘laminitic pony’ and use it as a teaching tool, and then re-articulate Phar Lap. “here’s ‘laminitic pony’ as technology allowed for in 1930s, now see the REAL Phar Lap, with modern assembly showing his true form & stature” – history & reality – what a museum should explain and show.

  • July 9, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Robin: Well said – I resonate with everything you say. The loan of the skeleton to the Melbourne Museum provides the best opportunity in seven decades to do something dramatic with it. However, it will require public or political pressure on Te Papa to happen. This could partly result from NZ’ders who go across for the Melbourne Cup and, I imagine, compellingly take in the integrated exhibit at the Melbourne Museum when there. As interstate Aussies and international visitors flock pass the exhibit in reverent awe, and Kiwis feel pride that ‘our boy’s bones’ are part of the reverence, I nevertheless anticipate that there will be a tinge of regret that our contribution is comparatively modest in its presentation rather than stunningly dynamic like it could be. Recently a truly inspiring bronze artwork of international repute of Phar Lap was unveiled at Timaru. The cost was around a half-million dollars and the money was raised by a small group of mainly local enthusiasts with their hearts in the right place – the Phar Lap Charitable Trust. The NZ Ministry of Tourism was generous enough to provide around thirty thousand dollars for the beautiful bronze plaques around the statue that tell the story for visitors, highlighting the NZ origins of the legendary galloper. Perhaps an insightful Minister of Tourism, after visiting the Melbourne exhibit as he surely must, might see merit in going a step further to provide both the impetus and funding to Te Papa to have them get on with doing something truly appropriate for a 21st century articulation of this famous horse’s bones. Australian children and international visitors continue to flock to the Melbourne Museum to see Phar Lap’s hide as their primary target. The opportunity for a similar focus exists with an exciting Phar Lap skeleton exhibit, supplemented by attractive signage, at Te Papa. I hope some good sense follows from this temporary loan of NZ’s modest exhibit to Australia. Phar Lap may be in Australia’s and America’s Halls of Racing Fame as well as our own, but the world should never be in doubt of where he was born – New Zealand. So let us honour him properly in our National Museum in the way you suggest. Strength to your heart and prodding, Robin.


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