Te Papa’s natural history collections span more than two hundred years of scientific endeavour. Combined with contemporary research techniques such as molecular biology, they offer an unprecedented opportunity for unravelling the secrets of New Zealand’s evolutionary history, shaped by its long isolation.
The islands that make up New Zealand have been cut off from the rest of the world for at least seventy million years. As a result, most of the flora and fauna is found nowhere else in the world. Only in the last thousand years has human occupation made an impact, beginning with the introduction of animals like the kurī and kiore and plants such as the kūmara. But most of the animals and plants existing here at the time of James Cook’s expeditions were unique to these islands and fascinating to the scientists who travelled with him.
For the next hundred years, research into New Zealand’s natural history was directed from Europe - this was still a young colony and almost all the scientific expertise was in the northern hemisphere. Visiting expeditions, notably the Antarctic voyage of James Clark Ross and the French expeditions of Dumont d’Urville, made extensive collections but, inevitably, specimens were taken back for study in European museums and herbaria.
In 1865, the Colonial Museum was established in Wellington. Its first director, James Hector, was for some time the only scientist in government employment. From the start, he emphasised the importance of building collections for research that would shed new light on the biodiversity and mineral resource of the colony. The early years were a struggle; limited space and a leaky building meant that much scientific material was damaged, but important plant and geological specimens remain from the work of Hector and John Buchanan. Subsequent directors encouraged collection development through fieldwork, but funding for the Museum as a whole was inadequate, leaving little money for research or collecting. Until 1950, the natural history holdings grew mainly through the donation of private collections and individual efforts of well-travelled scientists such as W R B Oliver.
Major expansion of the natural history collections began in 1965. A new generation of curators recognised the need for a series of specimens of each species from localities throughout New Zealand, the Southwest Pacific, and the Southern Ocean. There was also greater emphasis on collecting expeditions. These were initially limited by the Museum’s resources, but collecting has recently benefited from external funding and help from organisations with parallel objectives, such as the Department of Conservation, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, and the Ministry of Fisheries. International collaboration enabled Te Papa to play a leading role in the NORFANZ expedition of June 2003, which spent a month studying the marine life of the Norfolk Ridge and Lord Howe Rise, north-west of New Zealand.
Te Papa’s natural history collections have been developed not only by government scientists but also by private individuals. Collecting by early New Zealand residents, such as William Colenso, preceded the establishment of local museums, but after 1865 many private collections were donated to the national institution for the benefit of New Zealand science. For example, the plants of Charles Knight, Thomas Kirk, Leonard Cockayne, and Donald Petrie; the birds of Walter Buller; and the insects of G V Hudson have added immeasurably to the historical strength of Te Papa’s biological collections. Some specimens collected on the scientific expeditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have also found their way back to New Zealand from European museums. And, through the generosity of Charles Carter in 1890, Te Papa obtained the rare scientific reports of most of these voyages.
Today, Te Papa has one of the largest and best documented natural history collections in the southern hemisphere; in some disciplines, the range and quality of the collections is unrivalled. There are around 900,000 collections and many times that number of individual specimens. Data from about one-third of the collections are accessible via Te Papa’s database KE_EMu, enabling researchers to obtain, almost instantaneously, information that would previously have been impossible to retrieve. It is also part of Te Papa’s bicultural commitment to recognise and link Māori knowledge of the country’s plants and animals to that of Western science through the Museum’s growing information base.
Collections include introduced species as well as those that occur here naturally. Specimens range from minute molluscs and insects that are unidentifiable to the naked eye to the huge pygmy blue whale that towers above the Mountains to Sea exhibition. Many, like molluscs, crabs, and echinoderms, are stunningly beautiful, but the Museum’s collections don’t discriminate on aesthetic grounds: they aim to be comprehensive and representative of geographical range; habitat; morphological variation; and seasonal, sex, and age differences. The purpose of these collections remains much as it was in James Hector’s day: to catalogue and research the natural resources of New Zealand. Over a century later, scientists are still working towards a comprehensive catalogue of New Zealand’s biodiversity, and research brings new species into the Museum on a regular basis.
A vital role of the collections is to provide reference specimens for the correct naming of plants and animals. There are international rules to ensure worldwide consistency in the application of names. When a species is first described, a reference specimen is designated as the holotype. It is this specimen that remains forever as a verifiable reference point. The scientific name of an organism is the key to accessing all existing knowledge about it. So correct identification and naming are essential; otherwise, the resulting information will be irrelevant or dangerously misleading.
The collections also provide documentary evidence of changes in plant and animal distributions over time, the first occurrence and subsequent spread of weeds and pests, and localities of rare and threatened species. This is valuable in identifying secure habitats in which to conserve a representative selection for future generations of New Zealanders. Determining the genetic diversity, evolutionary origins, and relationships of native species is an important part of that task.
Te Papa draws on its collections not only to undertake research but also to promote knowledge and understanding of New Zealand’s flora and fauna through exhibitions, popular articles, identification guides, scientific papers, and lectures. While research has been greatly enhanced by new technology, so too has scientific education. To a greater extent than could ever have been anticipated in James Hector’s day, research tools such as computer modelling and satellite tracking of live animals are providing exciting opportunities for enhancing Te Papa’s exhibitions.