This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book with Dr Craig Hilton called ‘Seeds of Life’ which will be published this year on Rim Books.
Why did I start collecting and why bones in particular? It’s always easiest to just put the blame on my parents. My father was a medical specialist and my mum taught psychology. My father started off collecting insects when he was in the army in Malaysia after the Second World War. Later he studied tropical medicine and parasitology. His first specialty was mosquito borne diseases such as malaria. Later he got into cardiology and sports medicine but he kept up his interest in mosquitoes and in New Zealand he’s still recognised as something of an expert on their taxonomy and morphology. We used to go on special holidays to places where there were lots of the little bastards and he’d put me outside at night as bait. As well as insects he also had a small collection of shells, fossils and skulls. Mum was also quite serious about fossils, particularly when she was young, and she had a nice collection. Each one was beautifully labelled with her very small precise hand-writing. When I was a pre-schooler in the mid-sixties she studied mud crabs on the Otago Peninsula near where we lived. I suspect all those hours I spent watching her watching crabs is why I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for them myself.
I can’t actually remember when I started collecting biological ephemera. I think I was about eight. I used to fill up old chocolate boxes with things I found locally as well as on our travels. Mostly shells, bones and fossils to begin with. When we moved to Sweden in 1972 I started pressing flowers. Later I started skinning the odd dead animal and occasionally buying specimens. I used to go round the old junk/antique shops when we were in England and try to buy old curios that the Victorians had picked up on their travels. There wasn’t much of a demand for that kind of thing back then. One item I bought was a saw-fish rostrum – the dried teeth-studded beak of a big fish like a ray. I also picked up a Nile crocodile and a gharial (the long-beaked member of the crocodile family). Later I got rid of most of my taxidermy collection. It made the animals look too undignified.
I have some other collections (ethnic masks/antique etchings of animals/old bank notes/old books about paranormal research) but it’s bones, particularly skulls, that I’m really keen on. I prefer to find and clean them myself but I’ve got some good friends who also find things for me. Sadly once they start looking for skulls for me they often get bitten by the bug and start their own skull collections and then I get jealous when they find something I don’t have! I also do swaps and deals with other collectors and sometimes I’ll buy a skull at an auction or on the Internet. You’d be amazed what comes up for sale on Trade Me! I recently bought a mutated bull’s skull with a horn in the centre like a rhino as well as the two normal horns on the sides.
I still pick up the odd insect/crab/shell/fossil. One of my favourite things used to be my dried coconut crab. What an amazing animal. The Chuck Norris of the crab world! They’re giant land crabs which literally eat coconuts. The internet tells me they’re also partial to kittens (!?!). I bought this mighty crustacean in Tahiti when I was fourteen. Sadly it was destroyed a few years back by an American film director. I’d leased out part of my dead animal collection as props for a movie called ‘Waterhorse’ which was being made in Wellington. The director was trying to demonstrate the next scene. He wanted his young actor to throw a vegetable into a metal rubbish bin where they were going to digitally insert the baby monster. Instead of reaching for a vegetable he grabbed my rare giant crab and threw that. Needless to say it smashed into a million pieces. My contact at the props department was pretty embarrassed. These crabs are now protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreement and its not like you can just go down to the shop and buy one. In the end we settled for a wedge of cash and a few spare props.
Crabs are just so under-rated. When I was a teenager I made up my collection of dried crab carapaces into a small wall mounted display which still looks good today. My ex-wife credits it for getting us together. According to her she thought I was just some random guy until she clapped eyes on my crustaceans! My son liked my display so much he made his own when he was a teenager. His partner recently told me she thought he was just another casual fling until she noticed his case-full of carapaces.
But crabs aside it’s my skull collection that really floats my boat. I wouldn’t be myself without it. If the house caught fire the first thing I’d grab would be my giraffe skull.There’s no doubt collecting is highly addictive. Where one skull looks good ten looks even better and what looks better than ten? A hundred skulls! A thousand skulls! I really don’t have anywhere near enough!
If I am trying to justify my collecting addiction I might make the argument that my collection as a whole is my greatest work of art. It’s constantly changing and improving. Things are added and taken away. New displays are made and old ones improved. If it was all skulls it might be a bit overwhelming. I think variety is important in a good collection (besides which I am easily distracted). To my admittedly biased eye the skulls, the fossils, the tribal art, the crabs and the antique etchings all combine together in perfect harmony I see the collection like a big three dimensional painting where each object relates to and reinforces the whole. The well-known English collector and museum owner, Viktor Wynd, agrees.
‘For me the best collectors are artists. Their homes and museums are their canvases and the pictures and objects within them merely their tubes of paint.’ (Viktor Wynd – Viktor Wynds’ Cabinet of Wonders).
This notion of collector as artist is an appealing one. It also enables me to justify my collecting by telling myself that I’m not buying that giant porcupine skull for my own selfish pleasure. I might use it as the centre piece of an artwork or one day I might set up my own small museum and charge you to look at it!
There’s no doubt that my art is influenced by the aesthetics of museum collections, particularly old Victorian era displays like the one in ‘The Animal Attic’ at the Otago Museum in Dunedin. The labels can be almost as important as the objects themselves. I like to be able to tell people what things are and where and when I found them. It’s a fine line with some of my work as to whether it’s a work or art or a small collection but as I’ve already said I’m not making a distinction between the two. I’ve even made up some displays in glass fronted printer’s trays of collections of small skulls, shells, fossils and other natural history objects (all nicely labelled of course) and sold them under the name ‘Collection Number One’, ‘Collection Number Two’ and so on. I don’t need to own these collections. It was just a lot of fun to put them together
Some people think it is the collector’s desire to create the semblance of a perfect ordered world over which the collector has a sense of power and control, in order to enhance his or her feeling of security.
Simon Winchester talks about this in his book Skulls; An Exploration of Alan Dudley’s Curious Collection.
‘The difference between unorganised acquiring and hoarding on the one hand and the systematized acquisition and classification on the other, is often a pathological need to win psychological security through the domination of inanimate entities. But in most cases – stamp collecting, coin collecting (etc) – collecting is entirely harmless. But (skull collecting) can lead somewhat more easily than can other kinds of collecting, into somewhat unseemly behaviour and unsavoury company. The pursuit of skulls has led to grave-robbing, poaching and the hunting of animals that should be well protected.’
I’m not trying to impose order on chaos. In fact I think a bit of chaos (or the illusion of it) can serve to enhance a collection and move it more in the direction of an artwork. However I definitely agree that my collection is a bit like a big security blanket and the bigger it gets the more secure I feel.
I also agree that bone collecting can lead to some major ethical dilemmas. In 2008 English skull collector Alan Dudley, the subject of Simon Winchester’s book, was convicted on seven counts of having breached CITES regulations and a number of specimens from his collection were confiscated as a result. Before I buy a skull I always want to know where it came from and what its legal status is. I’m not going to get it if it looks dodgy! I do have some skulls of animals which are protected overseas (including the giraffe) but which came into New Zealand with legal CITES certification. Without this documentation they shouldn’t be able to cross the border. In this case of the giraffe the animal purportedly came from a national park in South Africa where it was culled as part of a species management programme. But sadly we all know that officials can be bribed and paper work can be faked.
In New Zealand bone collectors are governed by the 1953 Wildlife Act. Most species of native wildlife (including mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians), are absolutely protected under this Act and no-one is allowed to kill or have in their possession any such bird or animal (or their remains) unless they have a permit. So what if you find a seal skull while you’re walking on the beach and decide to take it home? Are you breaking the law? The answer is yes unless you obtain (and pay) for a permit to hold it. You can’t actually own it because under current laws most native species and their remains fall under the ownership of the Crown. So with or without a permit the Department of Conservation (DOC) can come and take your seal skull away (permit or not) at any time. Most collectors I know would like to see the Wildlife Act amended so that some form of proper legal ownership is made possible. If this was the case I think more people would pay for permits and this in turn would provide DOC with the resources they need to enforce the law.
I’ve already said that I am attempting to partly justify my collection on the grounds that it’s more than just a collection. It’s a work of art and one that is the very foundation of all my other artworks using bone. I also hope that by being a responsible collector I can use my collection and my collecting practice to raise awareness about conservation and animal rights. All of the bone collectors I know are responsible people who love animals. We can’t own a real fox or a live porcupine but we can own a piece of one. I sometimes wonder what would happen if all the bones and fossils and crabs in my collection suddenly reanimated and came back to life. The house wouldn’t be able to contain them! The sharks wouldn’t fit in the bath! The bear and the big cats would terrorize the neighbours’ dogs. The big birds would swoop down on their cats and the crabs would form a long line as they marched down the path on their way back to the ocean. It’d be just great.
Bruce Mahalski 2017