Phar Lap’s skeleton – a personal opinion


Phar Lap’s skeleton has been the subject of a series of blogs and articles on this website over the last year, looking at the way his skeleton is mounted.

Guest blog – by Don Maxwell

I feel compelled, perhaps belatedly, to offer my own opinion on the skeleton.

I am but a humble South Islander, who two years ago got his first opportunity to visit Wellington’s magnificent museum, Te Papa.

It took me two full afternoons to cover the museum to my satisfaction. I have been back again since, and found even more to my liking.

Phar Lap is our most famous racehorse. He is as close to a household name as any equine is ever likely to get.

He is a colourful part of our history – a history which I’m pretty passionate about.

I feel sorry for those for whom history is the stuff of dusty old books written by dead-handed historians.

Many New Zealanders, I believe, have a passion for history. The vast numbers of the late Michael King’s magnificent 2003 book, The Penguin History of New Zealand, is testament to this.

History, to many people, is a living and breathing thing. And Te Papa breathes a great deal of life into it.

Te Papa stands proundly on Wellington’s waterfront. The building itself is a sight to behold.

Inside, exhibits unfold floor after floor after floor.

My visit over two days lasted close to 10 hours.

To me, there were two wow factors.

The first was early on in my visit, when I climbed a long staircase and cast my eyes upon a cannon from Captain James Cook’s ship, Endeavour.

Cannon from the Endeavour

On the night of June 11, 1770, after the Endeavour became stuck fast on a coral reef off Australia, the crew began desperately to jettison as much weight as possible to help efforts to refloat the ship.

Six cannons went overboard among the 50 tonnes of material sent seaward.

The efforts paid off and Endeavour came clear.

Nearly 200 years later, an American team went searching and, on Endeavour Reef, as the spot was later called, they recovered all six cannons.

The Australian government took ownership and set about preserving the cannons, one of which was gifted to New Zealand to mark the bicentenary of Cook’s first visit here.

I stared at it for five minutes.

One of Cook’s cannons! It seemed remarkable that something of such historic significance, thrown overboard in such desperation, could be found again.

We can, in this day and age, only imagine the fear the crew of the Endeavour must have felt as they feverishly tried to save their good ship, so far from home.

Endeavour finally floated free and the rest, as they say, is history.

It must have been a good two or three hours later before I came across Phar Lap.

I again found myself staring. Here he was, if not in the flesh, then at least in the bones! It was the horse I had read about as a child. A true equine hero!

Phar Lap is known the world over and we have his skeleton!

There is no question he is standing ackwardly and is noticeably short in the back. The question for me is whether we, as a nation, are doing this horse justice.

I think not.

I agree with those who believe Phar Lap should be in a much more dynamic pose. I simply cannot see him as a historic exhibit. He’s Phar Lap!

Phar Lap’s story is a living part of our history, not a shoddily assembled bunch of bones.

Phar Lap's skeleton at Te Papa

Those were the two Te Papa exhibits that stopped me in my tracks.

I have no doubt other people will see Te Papa differently.

Perhaps, for others, it is the giant squid or the sad array of extinct birds. Perhaps they were moved by the paintings or Pacific art.

All of which, I hasten to add, are displayed with beauty and dignity.

Not so Phar Lap, I am sad to say.

Latest research and information from the horse world.

5 thoughts on “Phar Lap’s skeleton – a personal opinion

  • July 21, 2010 at 8:44 am

    I agree 100% with the writer; the skeletal remains should be posed much differently. As it is he appears to be woefully underslung, straight shouldered, back at the knees and on and on. It’s hard to imagine the athlete he was while looking at the posture of the skeleton. The short back appearance wouldn’t concern me, given the Arabian blood in his heritage.

  • July 25, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Skeletal remains of Phar Lap could never give the honor and dignity that he so greatly deserves, and could never touch his spirit and beauty that will live on for all time.

  • July 31, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Can’t they clone him from the bone dna?
    then breed the clones?

  • August 2, 2010 at 12:19 am

    I agree with Don about the Phar Lap’s skeleton and I felt the whole exhibit was rather uninformative and not in the least bit exciting. I was really looking forward to seeing Phar Lap at Te Papa but came away feeling sad.

  • April 5, 2015 at 5:09 am

    I have just posted this comment on the Victoria Museum www-site. And invite your members and readers to agree or disagree with me about Phar Laps Final resting place. I wrote:

    I was horrified to learn that the legendary Phar Lap after his unfortunate death, has been turned into a carny show in a museum. For Gods sake give this magnificent race horse a decent funeral, a State Funeral is worthy of him. Putting him in a glass case in a museum I find highly disrespectful to Phar Lap honour. Phar Lap belongs to all of us, and turning him into a freak show, something to gawk at, lowers is immense dignity and standing all over the world. Bury him where he belongs on Melbourne Racecourse, near the winning post. Signed: English Racegoer.

    * In an American poll for the ten greatest race horses ever in the world Phar Lap came 10th.


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