Phar Lap's ticker to stay put in Canberra

July 2, 2010

by Neil Clarkson

Phar Lap's mighty heart powered the champion racehorse to 57 wins in the 1930s, but it is now too fragile to go any further.


Phar Lap's heart being moved from display. © George Serras.

As expected, the National Museum of Australia in Canberra has turned down a request to loan the heart to the Melbourne Museum to marks this year's 150th running of the Melbourne Cup.

Victoria's racing minister, Rob Hulls, wrote to both the Canberra museum and New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa, last Easter in a bid to reunite Phar Lap's bones, hide and heart for the 150th Melbourne Cup.

His plan was for the bones and heart to join Phar Lap's mounted hide, which is already on display at the Melbourne Museum, for a display that he expected would draw thousands.

While Canberra said no, Te Papa agreed in mid-June to release Phar Lap's skeleton to Melbourne for the temporary display.

The National Museum of Australia said the request to loan the heart was declined because research indicated there would be an extreme risk of damage during transit.

"Phar Lap's heart is in an extremely fragile condition and the risk of damage to the organ from shock and vibration associated with transport is considerable," the museum's director, Andrew Sayers, said.

"We are very keen and willing to share our collection with the nation and treat every request for loan seriously.

"Having said that, it is also our responsibility to preserve the items in our collection for current and future generations of Australians. In this case we must follow the unequivocal advice of experts."

Sayers said the museum consulted with national and international authorities, and all warned of the grave risk of transporting Phar Lap's heart.

One international expert noted: "If we want to keep it in one piece, we should not lend it."

Mr Sayers added: "On the basis of current scientific consensus, the heart of Phar Lap will not leave the National Museum."

In researching the technical issues associated with Phar Lap's heart, the museum consulted the Australian Defence Force Academy, sound and vibration laboratoriess and the ANU School of Anatomy.

It also consulted with institutions that hold tissue and wet specimen collections, including the Royal College of Surgeons, London, and the Museum of Anatomy, in Leiden, Netherlands.

Phar Lap's heart is currently off display in Canberra as the Nation gallery, in which it was housed, was closed on February 1 to make way for a new permanent gallery, called Landmarks: People and Places across Australia.

The new gallery is set to open in 2011 and Phar Lap's heart will go back on display then.