There has been some debate about the pose of the mounted skeleton of Phar Lap on display at Te Papa. Using digital photographs, an image of the skeleton has been superimposed over photos of Phar Lap and used to “prove” that the skeleton has been mounted incorrectly.
Unfortunately, the image of the skeleton that has been used was taken with a wide-angle lens. As wide-angle lenses tend to exaggerate the size of objects closest to the lens this results in considerable distortion (known as parallax error), and the ribcage is out of proportion to the rest of the skeleton. To compare the skeleton it is essential to use an image from a camera with a lens the same as that used for the original photograph.
When the two images from cameras with lenses of similar focal length are combined it is apparent that the skeleton is not so badly mounted after all! Even in this combined image the lenses used were not exactly the same, so the two images cannot be aligned.
The skeleton was mounted in the 1930s after public donations raised sufficient funds to employ two taxidermists. The value of Phar lap’s skeleton is as a historical object rather than an anatomical specimen.
Should the skeleton be dismantled and reconstructed in a pose that we today consider to be “correct”? There may be some imperfections in the way the skeleton was mounted – but this is part of the story of Phar Lap. We wouldn’t erase the cigarette out of a Rita Angus painting simply because today smoking isn’t fashionable.
Museums preserve and look after objects for future generations – and that does not include altering them fit our twenty-first century perceptions.