Creatures of the dusk and dawn

By Campbell Phillips 7 November 2013
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A new exhibition in Melbourne showcases urban animals which are often seen at dusk and dawn.

THERE IS ANOTHER BREED of city dweller that comes out at night – and some of them are rarely ever seen.

The city is not usually a landscape that people associate with native animals, however a new exhibition in Melbourne reveals just how many species have come to call the urban sprawl home.

Crepuscular, created by writer and former Melbourne Museum producer John Kean includes a variety of materials from the City of Melbourne’s Art and Heritage Collections, the city archives, Museum Victoria, private collections and original artwork –  and includes a host of different animal specimens. The theme and title for the exhibition is ‘crepuscular’ – a word used by naturalists to describe animals that are active at dawn and dusk, and John has used this to showcase species that are commonly only seen in the twilight hours.

“I like to use a mixture of media,” says John. “Aside from the many pieces of artwork, we’ve used museum taxidermy examples and scientific specimens alongside the more recent work of taxidermist, Dean Smith.” Perfectly prepared examples of possums and owls hunch on salvaged branches, watching visitors from above with glassy stares. They are presented by the professional Museum Preparator Dean Smith, who is acutely aware of the plight of our nocturnal neighbours.

“The majority of animals we prepare are provided as a direct result of collisions with vehicles,” Dean says. “But, taxidermy also covers what is termed ‘skin studies,” he says. “This is where a skin becomes an important record that those species actually existed in environments that society has altered.”

‘Replicant: Parrot, 2006’ – a lifochrome print featuring the rainbow lorikeet by Andrew Brooke

Durable little species

Such an exhibit includes the skins of eastern quolls from a colony that survived in parklands in inner Melbourne as recently as the 1970s, long after they had disappeared from most other areas of Victoria. It is examples of species like this that John Kean has built Crepuscular around. “Quolls are a very durable little species,” says John. “There’s plenty of room for reintroduction and acclimatisation for Australian species like these back into the city.”

It is this ability to survive within human-dominated landscapes that many conservation biologists find interesting. Some native species are proving to be very suited to the city life, like brushtail possums, while still others are often forced to seek refuge among us.

“Because we bring in so much water and nutrients into the city, we see examples like powerful owls dying off in the woodlands due to drought, but then coming to the city and thriving as they encounter these big, fat brushtail possums.”

If anything, the exhibition highlights the fact that we are now very much in control of the future of many of these species, and our understanding of how they live will dictate our ability to ensure their survival. “It’s about being sensitive to nature,” John says. “So that we can create environments that are conducive to building up these complex, natural systems.”

Crepuscular: the wild animals of Melbourne is running from May 12 – June 6 in the City Gallery, Melbourne Town Hall. Admission is free.