Lying in bed at my Dunedin Airbnb, I’m faced with a dilemma that I haven’t grappled with since childhood: should I risk walking to the bathroom in the dark? Or should I just give in to my fears and wet the bed?
The essence of my accommodation is pretty stock standard. There’s a queen-sized bed, a television, and a bathroom with an Instagram-worthy claw-foot tub.
The problem is that just outside my room, there’s also a collection of human skulls, cabinets full of bones, and a gurney from a mental asylum.
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I’m spending the night at the Museum of Natural Mystery, a small privately-owned museum in Dunedin Central. Located in an unassuming 1880s Victorian villa, it houses an extensive collection of “biological curiosities, ethnological art, and unusual cultural artefacts”.
Curated by artist Bruce Mahalski, it’s part of a growing trend of small private museums opening worldwide. Although exact figures are difficult to come by, private museums are now believed to outnumber public institutions globally. According to Larry’s List, an art market research company, the vast majority have opened in the last 20 years.
The idea may seem progressive, but its origins are in the 16th century’s Kunstkammer or “cabinets of curiosities”. These private museums were the norm until the 18th century when they were replaced with the public model we’re now familiar with.
Mahalski’s cabinets of curiosities spread out across three rooms, with a fourth space dedicated to his art. His beautifully intricate sculptures and masks are made, in part, of rabbit and wallaby bones collected from the Waimate Valley.
Bones dominate the other rooms too, but the museum is as much about Dunedin as it is about the artist’s own history.
A heap of monarch butterflies from Dunedin butterfly breeder Judy Egerton fills one jar. Moa bones, excavated from a garden by a local homeowner, sit in a display case. A doll, found in Larnach Castle in the 1970s, leans against an Ouija board. Even the skull of Mahalski’s “much loved” pet cat, Stockard, is on display.
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