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Phar Lap's skeleton to stand proud

October 20, 2011

by Neil Clarkson

» Dear Aussie, here's the gen on Phar Lap Blog

Phar Lap's skeleton will be back on display next year, standing prouder than ever before.

Dr Alex Davies checks the positioning of Phar Lap's thoracic vertebrae. © Kate Whitley, Te Papa
New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa, has announced that the bones of the famous racehorse are to be re-articulated to closely match the stance of Phar Lap's mounted hide at the Melbourne Museum.

Phar Lap's skeleton was the source of considerable debate in 2009, with its mounting publicly criticised by Dr Alex Davies, a retired teacher of veterinary anatomy at Massey university, and long-time Phar Lap enthusiast Robin Marshall.

Dr Davies is now helping Te Papa with Phar Lap's makeover.

Te Papa defended the exhibit as an example of 1930s skeleton mounting, but Dr Davies noted at the time that museums around the world were full of old, poorly articulated skeletons.

Marshall said at the time: "As a long-time fan of the horse, I'd personally rather see him standing tall than look upon him as an example of 1930s taxidermy.

An overlaid image highlights the poor posture of Phar Lap's skeleton, as discussed here.

Phar Lap at the Melbourne Museum.

"He's a champion. He should look like one."

Colin Miskelly, writing on Te Papa's blog, said Te Papa staff had long debated whether it was more important to maintain the 1938 articulation as a historic exhibit, or whether to re-articulate the skeleton in a more anatomically correct posture.

"The latter argument has finally been accepted!" he wrote.

Miskelly said the 1938 articulation was done by Dominion Museum taxidermist Charles Lindsay and osteologist E.H. Gibson of the Otago Medical School.

"Given that neither man was an expert in equine anatomy, they did a remarkable job," he said.

"But there are a series of minor errors that collectively mean that the skeleton does not quite match the proud physique of Phar Lap in his prime.

"This was exacerbated by metal fatigue of the rod holding up the neck and skull, resulting in the skull drooping from its original position."

Phar Lap was a Depression era hero on both sides of the Tasman, winning 37 of the 51 races he entered, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

He was foaled at Seadown, near Timaru, in 1926 and was bought by the Sydney-based American businessman David J. Davis in 1928.

Robert Clendon and Dr Alex Davies discuss the positioning of Phar Lap's left forelimb and scapula.
© Kate Whitley, Te Papa

How to mount a horse? Hayden Prujean and Alex Davies discuss the re-articulation of Phar Lap's skeleton.
© Kate Whitley, Te Papa

He dominated racing fields in Australia before heading across the Pacific for a much-anticipated race campaign.

Despite a foot problem, Phar Lap stormed home in his first start to claim the richest race on North American soil in 1932. A fortnight later he died in mysterious circumstances.

The cause of his death is still debated today.

After his death, Phar Lap's enormous heart was given to what is now the National Museum of Australia, in Canberra. It is now considered very fragile and is unlikely to ever leave the museum.

His mounted hide is in the Melbourne Museum, and is considered a remarkable example of the taxidermist's art.

His skeleton went to the then Dominion Museum in Wellington, where it sat in crates for several years before a well-known racing writer launched a fundraising effort which quickly raised the money needed to mount his bones.

The skeleton was loaned to the Melbourne Museum in September 2010 as part of the celebrations for the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup.

Miskelly said that, displayed alongside the magnificently mounted hide for the first time, it was clear that the skeleton was overdue for a makeover.

A 1938 newspaper clipping showing the original Phar Lap articulation. E.H. Gibson on left, Charles Lindsay on right.
© Te Papa
Now back at Te Papa, a team is working to have the skeleton re-articulated and back on display early in 2012.

Miskelly said Dr Davies is a crucial member of the team. The retired professor has had a long interest in Phar Lap, and is relishing the opportunity to work alongside Te Papa staff in making sure that the re-articulation is as accurate as possible.

"One of the key decisions in the re-articulation process is to present the skeleton against a life-sized image of the Phar Lap mount from Melbourne Museum.

"We intend to match the posture of the skeleton closely to that of the skin."

The physical work is being undertaken by object conservation staff Robert Clendon and Hayden Prujean, with expert advice from Dr Davies.

Some of the changes that have already been made include increasing the length and curvature of the spine, and lowering it at the front to increase the projection of the shoulder blades above the spine.

Australian tribute: The bronze of Phar Lap at Melbourne's Flemington racecourse.
More subtle adjustments include improving the position of the minor limb elements, including the patella (hind knee-cap) and sesamoid bones.

Phar Lap fan Marshall is delighted at the news that Phar Lap will be put right.

"To be honest, I never thought it would happen in my lifetime.

"I'm sure all horse lovers will pleased with the outcome.

"Personally, I can't wait to get up there to see Big Red standing tall."



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