Phar Lap’s Trip to Melbourne – A Conservation Perspective

Phar Lap’s Trip to Melbourne – A Conservation Perspective


Phar Lap on display at Te Papa
Phar Lap while on display at Te Papa (c)Kate Whitley 2010

As many of you know, Phar Lap is on his way back to Melbourne for the 150th anniversary of the Melbourne Cup to take place later this year.

Phar Lap was foaled on 4 October 1926 in Seadown, near Timaru on the South Island of New Zealand. Bought by David J. Davis and trained by Harry Telford, a Sydney trainer, Phar Lap was ultimately trained to race in Australia. He died while in America on 5 April 1932.

Upon his death, Phar Lap’s remains were divided up between Canberra, Melbourne and New Zealand and his skeletal remains have lived on display at Te Papa since they were articulated in 1938 by Charles Lindsay and E.H. Gibson.

Newspaper Article
Newspaper article published in August of 1938 regarding the original articulation of Phar Lap's skeleton

On 30 July 2010 he was disassembled by Conservator, Robert Clendon, and Collection Manager Gillian Stone, who will also courier the skeleton to Melbourne in September 2010. As a visiting intern working with Robert, I was given the opportunity to help in his dismantling, condition assessment and treatment prior to being sent to Melbourne.

Dissassembly 1
Removal of the skull was the first step in the dissassembly of the skeleton (c)Kate Whitley 2010
Dissassembly 2
Intern Cindy Lee Scott assists Te Papa Conservator, Robert Clendon in removing the right front leg (c)Kate Whitley 2010
Removal from Case
The whole team works to remove the torso from the display case safely (c)Kate Whitley 2010

The conservation of Phar Lap’s skeleton did not begin in July of this year, however. Prior to the disassembly of the skeleton, some remedial work to the slumping framework supporting Phar Lap’s head and neck was conducted in his case by Robert Clendon; this was done in order to that he would “look ‘proud’ again” (Jane Keig, Media Release 2010).

In preparation for the take-down of the skeleton, there were several meetings first to discuss all of the steps necessary, not only for taking the skeleton apart, but also for how he will be crated and shipped to ensure that the skeleton arrives safely in Melbourne and returns safely to us at Te Papa in March of 2011.

The disassembly started at 7.30 in the morning on Monday, July 30th so that we would have time to get him off of display before the museum opened to the public. Under the watchful eyes of the media we took the skeleton apart into its larger pieces: first the head, than the seven cervical vertebrae, then the hind legs (to ensure that the weight distribution remained as even as possible on the remaining torso), the front legs, and finally, the torso was lifted up from its two support posts and placed onto a bed of beanbag pillows in his crate and the lot were transported up to the conservation laboratories at the Tory Street facilities.

Torso (c)Te Papa 2010
Placing the torso carefully into its crate for transport to the conservation laboratories
Transporting the crates to the docking bay for transport to Tory Street conservation laboratories (c)Kate Whitley 2010
Conservation Lab
Unpacking the vertebrae in the conservation laboratory (c)Kate Whitley 2010

Once in the conservation lab, the long process of assessing the condition and cataloguing any damage began. This was done by myself and fellow conservation intern Elizabeth Stephens who is studying conservation at the University of Lincoln in the UK. Together we catalogued and measured every one of the 205 bones in Phar Lap’s skeleton and quite the task it was! It took us over a week!

Condition Assessment
Elizabeth Stephens works on the condition assessment of Phar Lap's vertebrae (c)Cindy Lee Scott 2010

After the condition assessment it was time for some minor conservation treatment. This consisted of the consolidation of fragile portions of the sternum and ribcage with a conservation grade acrylic adhesive, the over-painting of newly created fills, and the over-painting of spots of dark blue-black paint on the hooves, which had been applied during an earlier, though undocumented, conservation treatment.

After treatment, it was time to get Phar Lap all safely crated for shipping! The crates were made by crate-maker extraordinaire Pierre Lagace, and as you can see, they are an art form in and of themselves!

One of the many crates used to safely transport Phar Lap to Melbourne (c)Kate Whitley 2010

The Melbourne Museum exhibition will open to the public on 16 September and we hope to have photos and another blog up soon after that!


  1. Awesome! Thank you so much for the information! I am doing a project at school for this and this is a great help, thank you so much Te Papa Museum!! I’d love to come up there and see the skeleton with my own eyes!

  2. Happily, I don’t think there’s too much to worry about in getting the skeleton back! There are always legal contracts involved in any type of loan, and therefor, the Victoria Museum in Melbourne is bound by law to return the skeleton to Te Papa.

    And I think that loans between museums are very important too!! And they certainly keep us conservators busy!

  3. I think its awesome that the museums can share like this! Although only as long as we get Phar Lap back as the skeleton belongs in New Zealand! 🙂

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