A scientific cast of 'the Nation's T. rex', which is on display at the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum in Bathurst, NSW

Transcript: Episode 3, Penny Packham

This is transcript of Episode 3 of Fossils and Fiction.

Travis Holland 0:08
Welcome to Fossils and Fiction, a podcast exploring cultural and scientific ideas about dinosaurs.

This week on Fossils and Fiction, I talked to Penny Packham, Museum Manager at the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum in the regional New South Wales town of Bathurst, which also happens to be where I live and work. Throughout the episode you’ll hear sounds of children interacting with dinosaurs. In one of the museum’s current exhibitions Penny will give us more details about that exhibition throughout the interview.

Children/Parents 0:54
Look! I want to pat it. I want to pat this one. Say bye bye stegosaurus. Bye bye stegosaurus. Do you want to give him a cuddle? Give him a pat, I think he likes pats more. No he doesn’t, he likes cuddles. He likes cuddles? Oh, nice. Because I am a stegosaurus. I am a stegosaurus. See, he’s got little teeth there. It’s because he doesn’t eat meat. That’s right, that’s right. He eats bushes.

Travis Holland 1:45
Now you’re the museum Coordinator here at the Australian Fossils and Mineral Museum in Bathurst. What does that role involve?

Penny Packham 1:52
That role involves a lot. Basically, the museum has been open since 2004. And I’ve worked here as the public programs officer for about 14 years. And then I moved on and worked across Museums Bathurst, which is a group of museums. And now I’m back here on site as the coordinator. So it involves managing a museum and a heritage building the heritage building itself, the 1876 public school that we’re that houses this, this extraordinary collection is is in itself its own challenge. Because when you readapt and reuse an old building, you end up with all the problems. But when you look at our building, what better building could you have to have a T. rex in? It also involves looking after the staff, managing the everything that goes on in the museum. And that’s all sorts of things from making sure that the museum is clean and healthy. With COVID, there’s all sorts of things that go on with the with with COVID, and making sure that our museum is safe for the general public and our staff. But also there’s the day to day running of a museum with a shop, making sure we’ve got a shop that has fabulous things that people want to buy. But also there’s the fun stuff. I’ve just curated an exhibition called the Dino-Store and had a huge amount of fun with that one. So the curatorial work is the fun part. I love taking people through the museum I love talking about the collection, and I love talking about dinosaurs.

Travis Holland 3:16
Let’s jump to the Dino-Store then since that’s since you’ve already bought that one up. Tell us about that exhibition.

Penny Packham 3:22
The Dino-Store is an exhibition of three animated dinosaurs or animatronic dinosaurs. And they it’s put together as a bit of a dinosaur pet shop. So we got offered these dinosaurs, and we thought, well, what are we going to do with them? So we decided that the best way to do it was to pretend that we had these dinosaurs you could have them take them home, how would you choose a dinosaur? How would you look after a dinosaur? What would you need to think about if you had a pet dinosaur? So we’ve put it together? We’ve got all sorts of exciting things in there. For example, a pair of medieval gauntlets. Now, if you’ve ever tried to worm a cat, you will know that it’s a challenge. So we’ve decided that the dragon keepers got it right. And we’ve taken some advice from them

Travis Holland 4:03
And so worming a stegosaurus wouldn’t be easy.

Penny Packham 4:05
A Stegosaurus might be less of a challenge than something like a velociraptor.

Travis Holland 4:10
So the three dinos you’ve got out there, there was a Dilophosaurus?

Penny Packham 4:14
There’s a monolophosaurus.

A monolophosaurus. Oh God.

A monolophosaurus., which is a Jurassic carnivore, a theropod. There’s a velociraptor that basically the model was told we were told it was Velociraptor, but it’s actually too big to be a velociraptor,

Travis Holland 4:31
Just like the ones in Jurassic Park,

Penny Packham 4:32
just like the ones in Jurassic Park. So we’ve been a little bit more correct than Jurassic Park and we’ve decided it’s a Utahraptor. And the third one is a Stegosaurus.

Travis Holland 4:41
Great. And there was a there’s another one poking its head through the wall out there too.

Penny Packham 4:45
Yeah, I think that that’s an unnamed dinosaur with bit cheeky, but probably an Allosaurus.

Travis Holland 4:51
Yeah, great. It certainly looks like a large carnivore.

Penny Packham 4:53
It’s definitely a carnivore. With attitude.

Travis Holland 4:57
Breaking through the wall. How have the kids taken to that exhibition?

Penny Packham 4:59
They’ve loved it, I mean, where else in the world can you pet a dinosaur?

Children/Parents 5:03
Oh it’s a dinosaur look. Hello big guy? Hello big guy. Looky look. Big guy. Look! Big fella, big fella. Look at that. He’s a big t. rex isn’t he. Mummy, daddy, I want to go in there. Oh, you can’t go in there. Why? Because they might bite you. I like to pat them, don’t I?

Penny Packham 6:25
They’re no they’ve really loved it. It’s been it’s a great exhibition for kids to come and have a look at we, the bulk of our audience is families. But there’s a lot in there. For adults, there’s a lot of humor. I had two teachers, two retired teachers come through yesterday, and they just read every word of the labels, and they were just laughing. So, you know, it’s just a little bit of a lot of facts, but just a little bit of humor smattered through it,

Travis Holland 6:48
I’ve managed to catch some recordings of some children interacting with the dinosaurs. So we’ll scatter those throughout the podcast recording and people can get a sense of how kids are reacting to that exhibition. Now. It’s open till the end of this year, is that correct? 2022.

Penny Packham 7:02
That’s right. We don’t have an end date yet. So we’ll see how it goes. But it will definitely be here for the year. So far, it’s been a huge success. And part of the part of the theory of this exhibition is to encourage not only our tourists, which we have a lot of that come through to Bathurst, because Bathurst is actually becoming quite a destination, especially for museums, but also to encourage repeat visitation by locals and the locals are loving it. They’re all coming in to have a look. And they’re coming back as well and bringing other family members and friends.

Travis Holland 7:02
Great. Well, aside from getting the name of one of them wrong. I really enjoyed the exhibition as well. It was certainly made for kids. Certainly very exciting, but lots of interesting information, a great concept too I think. Well done on that one. You mentioned the extraordinary collection here at the museum. How did it all get here?

Penny Packham 7:49
This is this is a lifetime work. And it basically is an example of what you can do in your lifetime. If you are single minded and obsessed with something. It comes from a man call Warren Somerville. Warren Somerville was a famer from Orange. He grew up on a farm. His parents ran an orchard. And when he was a child, they were visiting a lot of friends and they played a lot of social tennis and the social the tennis matches. In those days, everybody had tennis courts on their properties. And so he’d be a bit bored and it started wandering the paddocks and picking up rocks. And he started to find more. So he started to learn about geology. He started to study the science of, of geology, got geological survey maps, and he started to go on his little pushbike. He’d bring home these 10 kilo rocks that he’d find in the field, he’d go there looking for things and he would go to the tailings of what is now the Cadia mine and sift through the tailings piles and pick up copper specimens. He would travel far and wide. And his mother decided there’s a lot of clutter around the house and these rocks were driving her crazy. So she took him along with an expert from the Australian Museum came to give a lecture in orange, she took him along and and she wanted him basically to say, Oh, this is rubbish, you know, throw them out. Instead, one of the objects one of these big 10 kilo rocks was a piece of 300 million year old coral and that hooked him. This this man Oliver Chalmers from the Australian Museum invited him next time he went to Sydney to for a private tour of the museum and the family went down and they had a look through the museum and saw what was there. And that was it. He was hooked for life. So he collected he’s still collects now. He collected for over 60 or 70 years. And it’s just an extraordinary collection. He sold his farm in about 2000 and donated half of that private private collection to the public. And that’s what’s displayed on display here in this museum.

Travis Holland 9:36
Yeah, so of course it is known as the Somerville Collection. There’s about I think a third fossils and about two thirds minerals.

Penny Packham 9:46
That’s right. But if you go by size when you put a T. rex in that mix here. The fossils is quite a big, big collection, but no, that’s right. And it’s actually he’s donated about half of his private collection at the time and this is only probably about a third that’s on display as well. So by number, the mineral, some of the mineral spent specimens are what we call thumbnail specimens. So they’re about the size of your thumbnail and anything that would fit in a matchbox. So they’re tiny. And then, you know, it goes all the way up to giant skeletons.

Travis Holland 10:15
Yeah, absolutely. You’ve mentioned that beautiful heritage buildings that we’re were located in. Could you tell me a bit more about the advantages of being in a building like this?

Penny Packham 10:25
Well, firstly, the building is spectacular. It’s a beautiful building. For this. I mean, you need a building that’s this size, with this sort of pitched roof to sort of stick a T. rex in it. But it’s a great atmosphere. It was opened in 1876, as the Bathurst public school. And I have a mind that likes to make up stories. So I love the idea of a kid walking through a time tunnel in 1876, when dinosaurs hadn’t even been on display, and coming across this skeleton, that is now in their classroom, I love the history of the kids. I love the fact it’s still being used continuously for education. And it’s also been used for something that sparks such incredible imagination.

Travis Holland 11:04
Yeah. And it’s really centrally located in the town, which I think is ideal for people to you know, be able to come here while they’re going about other business or visiting the town and look around as well. So

Penny Packham 11:15
That’s right, it’s right in the center of town. It’s it’s right next door to the post office. So we’re part of the Town Square. I also like that we do Torchlight tours here in the winter months in school holidays. And I like to think I like to sort of do a spooky component to it. This site, somewhere but in this town square area was where the original gallows were, which was where the Rribbon Gang were hanged. So I like to add that into the mix. I also like to add in the fact that on Friday afternoons, our front doors at about three o’clock in the afternoon, often spontaneously open. And I think it’s perhaps the headmaster leaving the building. We have a light just above where I do the tour, there’s a light that always flickers. And that’s just coincidental, but it’s right next to the bell tower. And the bell tower was where the headmaster used to give kids six of the best, which is the cane. And I like to think the headmaster might be judging me, and perhaps I wasn’t quite giving the right sort of tour he approved of. So I like to add those little components into the tours, because they’re are a lot of fun,

Travis Holland 12:13
Fantastic and love being you know, right in the centre of town, part of the fabric of the history of the town. And a building like this, I think is really nice. And it’s a great way to showcase a collection like this. So tell me a bit more about the collection itself. What are some of the best, most extraordinary pieces you’ve obviously got that T. rex, which we’ve mentioned a few times, what else can people expect to see?

Penny Packham 12:36
Well, in the fossil gallery, you go on a history, it’s an encapsulated history of life on Earth, you start with very small single celled life forms from the ancient seas that that appeared 3.5 billion years old are probably our older specimens are closer to 2 billion years old. But you go through to the emergence of of early life and emergence of early animal life forms. We’ve got a piece of the Burgess Shale for anyone who’s interested in fossils knows that that’s a Cambrian fossil that’s very significant. It was one of the first fossils of its type. And we have examples of early Cambrian life forms from Kangaroo Island, things like anemona cowries, which is an extraordinary sort of fossil creature that they thought was actually more than one fossil animal fossilized together in the fossilization process that a bit like the way a platypus was thought to be a bit of hybrid. Well, they thought that this wasn’t actually one animal it was one but then they realized it was such an anomaly. It was such a weird and wonderful creature that, that that worked out what it was. So then we’ve got through through examples of life in the ancient seas. We’ve got an beautiful collection of Amber, we’ve got insects in amber and a little gecko in amber, which is a really significant fossil. I recently also found a mosquito in amber in one of the recent items I was going to sell in the shop and I put it under the microscope and lo and behold, there was a mosquito in us. That’s now on display in our exhibition that talks about amber and, and how you can’t actually get dinosaurs from amber but wouldn’t it be great? Yeah. And, and we’ve got saber toothed tiger skull, we’ve just got really an overview of life on the planet. It’s only small, but there’s a lot in that gallery. And in the mineral gallery, we’ve got minerals from all over the world, we’ve got a uranium specimen, which is called Cuprosklodowskite and Sklodowska was Marie Curie’s maiden name. So these are historical specimens. They come from a museum in Europe that had a collection of some of the specimens from the same site that were found or gathered at the same time that the specimens she worked on were. So you know we’ve got some there it’s probably not one of the most valuable it’s just one of the ones that has the backstory the provenance of an object is often is often just as important as the object itself

Travis Holland 14:52
Telling the cultural story as much as the as much as the physical or the scientific story I guess.

Penny Packham 14:56
Exactly right. You know, we’ve got a little diamond that comes from Mudgee and I want to ask Warren Somerville, where he got it from. He said, There was a fossicker that had basically there’s some volcanic mountains around the Mudgee region, some very old volcanic mountains. And he, he went to this fossicker and he had all the diamonds that he was going to find in the field, he pretty well picked over the area for most of his life, and Warren wanted to buy one, so this, this old fossicker just reached his pocket pulled out an old rusty old tobacco tin, and it was just full of diamonds. I love that story. You know, I love that as much as one of the ones that’s, you know, the crystallized gold, which in itself is very spectacular. Gold in crystal form because gold is so malleable, it’s usually sort of in a nugget form. And if it’s in crystal form, it’s that’s how it was when formed in the sort of crust of the earth and, and that in itself is very special. But it’s some, you know, I love the diamond just as much as some of the specimens that, you know, each one Warren had a story for, there’s ones that he brought back from, it’s a gem and mineral show in Tucson in Arizona, and he brought that one, some of these ones back in his overhead luggage, you know, in his suitcase, in his hand luggage, he sort of went to the motel room of the dealer who was selling it and climbed under the bed with his UV light to see whether it was fake, or if it would have been damaged or anything like that, to examine it closely. He put all the blankets beside the bed and climbed under there. You know, we’ve got all sorts of stories like that, that we’ve collected from Warren about his personal relationship with every single one of these minerals.

Travis Holland 16:29
Great is the family so involved very much I know, when the museum was opened, Warren was made a professor of Charles Sturt University, which, of course, is my employer, and they support the podcast. Is the family still involved much in the museum?

Penny Packham 16:46
Not so much anymore. Mark Warren. He’s quite elderly now. But he’s still collecting. He’s still passionate. I’ve had a few conversations with him lately. And he’s still very passionate about the collection. And, and but no, he’s not as engaged as he was when he was he was living back here in Bathurst. But I he’d have to love this collection, he’d have to love them. You know, it’s his life’s passion, and it bears his name. And it we, you know, every person who walks out of here is grateful for this, this donation to the public.

Travis Holland 17:18
Absolutely. Look at it, it really is an extraordinary collection. And I guess most people walking through the doors would hope to see the dinosaurs. But you know, like, like a supermarket that puts the good stuff at the back if you make them walk through the fossil gallery first. But I think that’s extraordinary, because people see things that they wouldn’t have expected to see they go through the wing that maybe they didn’t come here to see. And they’ll see something extraordinary on the way.

Penny Packham 17:46
Yeah you go to the Australian fossil and Mineral Museum, you kind of think you’re gonna be let’s, let’s put it this way. You don’t think you’re going to be excited by what you see?

Travis Holland 17:55
Excited by the rocks. Right?

Penny Packham 17:56
Exactly, exactly. And pardon the pun, you find a hidden gem, you walk through that mineral gallery and is beautiful and then you get that reveal it’s that it’s that moment where you see these legs peering up over showcase. It’s not until you actually walk up the ramp into the fossil gallery that the whole thing opens up and and you often have people sort of looking at the ground or looking around because there’s just so much to see and then they suddenly look up and you can watch them and that there’s a T. rex above me. And where else can you get face to face with a T Rex as well? You often dinosaurs are looming above your head, you’re not actually able to look them in the eye or, or do a nice little selfie where you pretend you’re petting one on the head.

Travis Holland 18:34
I was thinking that, that’s one of the more extraordinary aspects of the way the T. rex is displayed here is you can go up and you’re you’re face to face with the thing. Up on the second level on the mezzanine so.

Children/Parents 18:46
Is that a T. rex? That’s a T. rex over there. I’ll go and see if it wants its baby. Do you want your baby? Do you want your baby? He’s going to [inaudible]

Travis Holland 19:22
What are some of the challenges for a museum like this?

Penny Packham 19:29
Ah, it’s probably because it’s we’re kind of unknown. And we’ve been open now for 17/18 years, it will be 18 years soon. And yet, we’ve just becoming known to everyone in Sydney over the last two, two years since travel was limited to statewide, we suddenly became discovered and that’s been quite interesting because this change of dynamic and change of visitation and this excitement that people come and they’re so so grateful that we’re here. They’re so grateful. And it’s the fact that people walk out the door and say, I had no idea because we are a world class museum our museum is, is a standard that you would find anywhere in the world. I mean, it’s small, but it’s of a standard. And people are surprised by that. They don’t expect that in a country town. They don’t expect that in a little town, so close to Bathurst [Sydney]. But we’re only one of four brilliant museums in Bathurst and others that are not run by council. But people just don’t understand what we’ve got here.

Travis Holland 20:31
I think that’s really interesting to talk about that impact on COVID visitation because everybody automatically assumes the you know, with the lockdowns and everything else that visitor numbers fell off. But actually, I’ve been speaking to different museums and different facilities, and particularly the ones here in regional New South Wales, they found that when Sydneysiders couldn’t fly overseas or fly interstate, they came into the regions. And it’s actually been a good news story.

Penny Packham 20:55
They discovered their backyard, they discovered what’s here. And you know, they really put us on the map. And we’ve been we’ve been I think it’s been a privilege because it’s just really shown what what these country towns have. People, people have rethought Bathurst. We’re more than a mountain, we’re more than we’re more than the race, we’re more than, than the history of Bathurst. We’re an incredibly vibrant, vital cultural city.

Travis Holland 21:20
And this museum is obviously a real important part of that.

Penny Packham 21:23
I think so yeah. And also the employment that goes with it. We Museums Bathurst runs four museums. And we have probably the biggest network of museums run by a regional, any Council in regional Australia, so and we’re also building the collections facility, which is a big collection store to to house the collections. And so we want to be and I hate to use the term best practice, we want to be a cultural facility that is the highest standard that can be

Travis Holland 21:51
and really engaged with, with the community to do it.

Penny Packham 21:55
That’s also a challenge in a regional area. I actually have been in the museum industry for 30 years or something. And I have worked in isolation quite a lot over the years, professionally isolated, because I, when I first moved to Bathurst, I’d been working in Sydney in the museums field, but there wasn’t a job here in museums. So I did other things. I’ve worked in the cultural industry in other ways. But it’s it’s the network of museums, the distance is always a bit of a challenge, you know, you still have to go and you still have to visit the museums all over the world. I’m sorry, museums around Australia anyway. And when I have traveled and gone all over the world, I remember my one of my children, who basically grew up here she was two when I started working here, and we’d stand outside the museum anywhere in the world. And she’d stamp her foot and say, “If there’s a dinosaur in that museum I am not going she knew that all she got to see.”

Travis Holland 22:50
She didn’t want to get near the dinosaurs?

Penny Packham 22:53
She’d seen too many of them. That’s all we went to see.

Travis Holland 22:56
Kids really love dinosaurs. But we found one that doesn’t.

Penny Packham 22:59
Yeah, there you go. I think I had the only ones on the planet that were over them.

Travis Holland 23:04
Yeah. When when something becomes prosaic, just part of everyday life. Sometimes you take it for granted.

Penny Packham 23:10
That’s right. And and I don’t think people in – kids – in Bathurst understand that everybody doesn’t have a dinosaur in their town. Yep. Yeah. He’s I don’t know what they’ve got here. Yeah.

Travis Holland 23:19
That’s really good point as well, you know, when we’re not too far from Sydney. And so it would be easy for people to simply assume that the big museums are in Sydney, the important ones are in Sydney. Go and see them there. But here we have a fantastic Museum and locals should absolutely get out and support it.

Penny Packham 23:36
That’s right. Yeah. And also, you realize your age when you come across someone in the museum profession, who tells you about how they used to come to this museum as a child, and that’s why they’re now in the museum profession. You suddenly think, I’ve been in this too long,

Travis Holland 23:55
even though you’ve only been open 18 years.

Penny Packham 23:57
Yeah, that’s right. Well, they’re grown up now. And they’re, they’re qualified, and they’re working in the museum industry. So that’s nice to know. We’ve inspired someone.

Travis Holland 24:04
Fantastic. What is the relationship like with some of the other museums? You mentioned? This is a question without notice. But you mentioned that you have you visit other museums, you collaborate with, obviously people in the profession. Is there some partnerships or some conversations that you hold that you can tell me about there?

Penny Packham 24:24
Yeah, well, firstly, statewide, there’s a museums network, and there’s museums network for regional museums. That’s one thing and there’s also museums, conferences and things like that. But our collection is actually technically owned by the Australian Museum. So this museum, the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum has an ongoing relationship with the Australian Museum so they they provide our security they also provide curatorial advice and and professional advice. And they oversee they sit on our board as well so so we run the museum we do the day to day management of the museum, but they they actually are the custodians of the collection. So that we had that ongoing relationship so that builds a network.

Children/Parents 25:04
I should pat him. Yeah, ok. Cheese. Ooh, now I’m patting a dinosaur. Can I, can I pat him?

Travis Holland 25:29
Look, if people want to find out more about the Australian fossil and Mineral Museum, how can they find out more information? And where can they find you more importantly for a visit?

Penny Packham 25:38
They need to visit us. That’s exactly right. Firstly, we’re run by Museums Bathurst. So our website is MuseumsBathurst.com.au. But we also, were also you know, we’re located at 224 Howick St, Bathurst. We’re open. During school holidays, we’re open seven days a week, but otherwise, we’re open six days a week, from 9am to 4:30pm. And we’re closed on Wednesdays. Right in the heart of Bathurst, you go to the post office and you go next door, where the beautiful old school building next door

Travis Holland 26:10
Easy enough to find. One, half a block off the main street.

Penny Packham 26:14
It’s a bit hard a bit of a challenge to find the entrance. But once you’ve done that, it’s worth it.

Travis Holland 26:19
Absolutely. Yeah. And it was worth this conversation today. Thank you so much for your time, Penny. I appreciate it.

Penny Packham 26:24
Thank you, that was very good.

Children/Parents 27:11
Dinosaurs! Dinsoaurs! Dinosaurs! That one nearly bit me. Don’t worry, it’s okay.

Travis Holland 27:11
Thank you to Penny Packham for her participation in Fossils and Fiction, and also to the wonderful children whose sounds you heard throughout the interview.

Thank you for listening to the Fossils and Fiction podcast produced by me, Travis Holland, with the support of Charles Sturt University. The podcast theme music is Sonora by Quincas Moreia via the YouTube Audio Library. Find more content on our social media channels, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Tiktok. Shownotes are available on the website fossilsfiction.co You can subscribe to the podcast on all major podcasting platforms.

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