The museum holds many treasured taonga and archives. It also houses a large natural history collection which includes many taxidermied animals including mammals, birds and fish.

Some were taxidermied by Samuel Drew, the founder of the museum, more than 100 years ago. It is a testament to his skill that a lot of these animals are still wonderfully preserved today.

Birds were proven to be some of the most challenging animals to preserve because the taxidermist usually observed the animal in its natural habitat to present the most life-like specimen possible; this wasn't always possible with foreign species.

However the museum does hold some beautiful exotic specimens with interesting tails and beaks, and with some unusual mating habits.


The king bird-of-paradise, which lives in lowland forests of New Guinea and nearby islands, is one such bird. The male is crimson and white with bright blue feet and green-tipped fan-like plumes on his shoulder, and two elongated tail wires with emerald green disk feathers at the tip.

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The male displays by perching upright on a branch, vibrating his wings and then holding his body parallel to the branch, spreading his pectoral feathers and raising his tail over his head while dancing. He then swings his tail and body side to side and finally hangs upside down on the branch with his wings folded, swinging like a pendulum.

Astrapia Nigra, Whanganui Regional Museum Collection. Photo / Supplied
Astrapia Nigra, Whanganui Regional Museum Collection. Photo / Supplied

Another, the male Arfak Astrapia is about 76cm long, including the tail which is almost twice the length of its body. He has a black head with a bluish-purple sheen, elongated jet-black nape crests extending from neck to the eyes, a shiny metallic greenish-yellow cape from the mantle to the nape, and very black dense and elongated upper breast feathers.

The birds are found mostly in cloud forests at 1700-2250m at the apex of the Arfak mountains of West Papua, New Guinea. The Arfak Astrapia was first discovered and illustrated as early as 1734; however, it took until September 1872 before the exuberant L. M. D'Albertis was the first European to collect a specimen.

The keel-billed toucan is found from Southern Mexico to Venezuela and Colombia. It roosts in rainforest canopies up to altitudes of 1900m, in holes in trees often with other toucans.

Keel-billed toucan, Whanganui Regional Museum Collection. Photo / Supplied
Keel-billed toucan, Whanganui Regional Museum Collection. Photo / Supplied

It has a beautifully coloured bill with green, yellow, orange and red; hence the nickname rainbow-billed toucan. Although scientists have yet to confirm the exact function of their large bill, they believe it may play an important role in courtship displays and be used as a defensive weapon.

In their native regions, toucans are sometimes associated with evil spirits and are thought to be the incarnation of a demon. In certain religions of South and Central America, the father of a new child must not eat toucan flesh as it might bewitch the newborn and cause it to fade away. The toucan can also be a tribal totem and the medicine man can use it to fly to the spirit world.


Early 20th century visitors to museums would have been as awestruck at the sight of these exotic birds as we are today. Taxidermy enables the public to learn about fascinating and even extinct animals from around the world.

It is also a useful tool enabling conservationists to keep learning about these precious creatures and may be helpful in taking steps to save them from extinction.

• Kathy Greensides is the Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.