Bright and early on a Monday morning in September, Conservators Carey Ward and Vanessa Pitt made the long and sometimes bumpy ride in the Powerhouse Museum (PHM) truck to Alstonville Plateau. Carey and Vanessa had been given the task of taking a very special A category object to the Crawford House Museum – a rare platypus skin rug made from the pelts of approximately 80 platypuses, and bordered in possum fur, backed by soft felt.
The rug, which has been in the collection of PHM since 2004, has a close historical connection to the Alstonville community. The rug was shown to Crawford House volunteer Curator Jane Gardiner when she visited PHM as a regional intern this year. Jane was exceptionally keen that the rug be able to make the journey to Alstonville for display in Crawford House and set about negotiating the possibility with PHM and her local council. Her success is testimony to the Powerhouse Museum’s commitment to working with Regional communities and ensuring that objects are available and displayed in Regional venues as part of the Museum’s Outgoing Loans Program.
The pelts from the platypuses were collected in the 1880s by local Alstonville sugarcane industry businessman Charles Bulwinkel. When Charles died in 1918 the pelts were passed to his daughter Greta Denison, and it was Greta who had the pelts put together as a rug (Turnbull, 2012, p.18)*. The rug has been designed in a diamond pattern fully taking advantage of the two main colours of a platypus’ fur – the golden underbelly and the dark brown back. Though it can be disturbing today to think of how many animals were killed to make the rug, the rug is reflective of a time when it was considered normal to use native animal products for food, rugs, clothing, and decoration, and prior to legislation banning the practice of hunting platypus and other native animals (Turnbull, 2012, p.18)*. Thankfully platypuses continue to be plentiful in the Alstonville area today.
To prepare the rug for travel and display, Textile Conservator Frances Fitzpatrick brush vacuumed its surface and repaired some of its fragile stitching.
The rug was then carefully rolled onto a large cylinder which had been wrapped in washed linen and acid-free tissue paper. The rug on its cylinder was then wrapped in Cell-Aire® and bubble wrap, and inserted inside a large polypropylene bag to make the long trip safe for this very precious object.
A large showcase was also prepared by Carey Ward and Vanessa Pitt to travel up with the platypus skin rug for its display. The showcase itself has a long history being around 100 years old and still used for its original purpose.
Carey and Vanessa were greeted and made very welcome by a lovely group of Alstonville community members and Crawford House volunteers, including Jane Gardiner and President John Simm. Having a very enthusiastic and helpful group of local people assist Carey and Vanessa in their tasks meant that everything ran smoothly.
The festivities to celebrate the rug display happened later that same afternoon beginning with several speeches by local dignitaries including a member of the extended Bulwinkel family, and a speech by Carey Ward. A large number of local people and several members of local media came to share in the celebrations, but it was particularly lovely to see so many members of the Bulwinkel family amongst the group, several of whom had travelled long distance to attend the event.
The following evening Carey and Vanessa were excited to be invited by some of the Crawford House volunteers to one of the local creeks to see live platypuses in their natural habitat – and they were happy to report that they were lucky enough to see some in the water.
Reference: *Turnbull, A 2012, ‘A tail of a platypus’, Powerline, Spring 2012, no.107, p.18.