Roslyn Russell, Kylie Winkworth
© Commonwealth of Australia, 2010
ISBN 97 80977544363 (pbk)
Distributed collections and significance: The thylacine across collections
The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), also known as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf, is Australia's best known example of recent species extinction, with the last known animal dying in Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, on 7 September 1936. The poignant reminders of its fragile existence, terminated within the living memory of many Australians, have been captured in physical specimens, in photographs and on film, and pictured in works of art. The thylacine has become a potent symbol of man's impact on the natural environment and, from being a vilified pest hunted to extinction in previous centuries, has now achieved iconic status, not least as the symbol of the only state in which it lived at the time when Europeans settled Australia.
These reminders of the thylacine, and the memories they evoke, are by no means confined to collections in Tasmania, or indeed in Australia. It demonstrates the capacity of museums and art galleries, libraries and archives to hold evidence of what has existed in the past, and to research its impact in the present and future.
National Museum of Australia
The thylacine in scientific collections
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) zoology department has about seventy thylacine specimens: taxidermy mounts, flat skins, osteological material including a male and female articulated skeleton, a rug and a pincushion made from the jaw of a thylacine. There are several thylacine artworks in the art collection, including the famous images by John Gould from his book, The mammals of Australia, and a notable watercolour by Edward Lear dated around 1830. TMAG also holds many photographs of thylacines. The Museum holds a small collection of documents, diaries, print casts, and cameras from the various searches for a still-living thylacine that have been carried on over the years.
The most spectacular of all the thylacine items at TMAG–and the most chilling to contemplate–is the rug made of eight pelts of young thylacines. Previously in private ownership, made probably as a knee rug at the turn of the twentieth century, then draped over a piano stool in the family home, the rug was bought at auction in 2002 for $270 000 by the museum in collaboration with a local brewing company.
The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, holds five thylacine mounts, and sixteen registered skeletal lots comprising skulls, part skeletons and skeletal elements, as well as an unknown amount of fossil and cave material. The South Australian Museum is said to hold the five best prepared thylacine mounts in the world as well as six full skeletons, one of which is articulated. The collection also holds six more skulls, two flat skins and two part skeletons.
Museum Victoria holds a partial skeleton and thylacine skin. The National Museum of Australia's display on the thylacine in its Old New Land Gallery brings together thylacine specimens and images from other collections, including the only known footage of the thylacine at Beaumaris Zoo in the 1930s (from the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive); a taxidermied 'puppet' thylacine skin (from Museum Victoria), and a mummified thylacine skull (from the Western Australian Museum). Its story of discovery in 1990 at Murra-El-Elvyn Cave shows that thylacine specimens still come to light in mainland Australia. The National Museum's collection includes a thylacine pelt and around thirty-five wet specimens from the former Institute of Anatomy collection created by naturalist Sir Colin Mackenzie.
The Australian Museum in Sydney, which holds numerous thylacine specimens, has been at the forefront of attempts to bring the thylacine species back from extinction, using DNA from preserved thylacine embryonic material in its collection. The project, initiated by former Australian Museum Director, Dr Michael Archer, stopped in 2004, but there have been recent suggestions that scientists, using new techniques, are again thinking about cloning a thylacine.
The Queensland Museum has several thylacine skulls and some post-cranial skeleton material in its collection. Museums in regional Australia also hold thylacine specimens. For example, a thylacine is included in the natural history cabinet at the Burke Museum, Beechworth, Victoria.
The thylacine in archives
The Archives Office of Tasmania holds around seventy records related to the thylacine at agency, series and item levels. These include information on vouchers for bounty claims for thylacine skins, research papers and photographs, ministerial files, and private papers such as those of the Roberts family (NG823). Mary Roberts created Beaumaris Zoo in 1895, breeding Tasmanian devils in captivity and caring for thylacines, among other indigenous fauna. After her death in 1921, the Zoo passed to Hobart City Council; the last known living thylacine died there in 1936.
The art of the thylacine
Ever since John Gould published Volume I of The mammals of Australia in 1863, with its iconic lithograph of two thylacines, artists have depicted this animal. Art galleries, museums and libraries around Australia hold copies of individual prints created by natural history artists, and illustrated books relating to the thylacine.
Contemporary artists have used the thylacine as a powerful symbol of humans' effect on indigenous species, and as a way to reflect on the loss of environmental diversity. Textile artist Beth Hatton, whose work is represented in state and regional galleries around Australia, has created, from kangaroo skin off-cuts, woven rugs that represent the thylacine. In her Extinct and endangered series, the stripes and silhouette of the thylacine conjure a fingerprint: 'Like finger prints left at the scene of a crime, the animal has gone but it has left its imprint on the land, and as a brand in our imagination.' 
Tasmanian artist Michael McWilliams, overall winner of the South Australian Museum's Waterhouse Art Prize for 2005, depicted a noble thylacine in a landscape of felled trees in his prize-winning work, 'The centre of attention'. McWilliams' chief concern in his art 'is for the original inhabitants of this vast country …such as the thylacine who belongs to an earlier time and whose territory has been taken over insidiously by introduced species…' 
Former thylacine display in South Australian Museum
Reproduced courtesy of the South Australian Museum
Statement of significance
Thylacine specimens and items in all media and collection types are significant across all the primary criteria. They are of immense historical significance for their ability to convey the story of this lost species to present and future generations. Many of the items and images associated with the thylacine story have considerable artistic significance. The many thylacine specimens housed in museums and university collections around Australia and the world are investigated for their research potential to unlock scientific secrets. Attempts to clone the thylacine from material held in museums attest to the passion that its memory still evokes in the scientific community and the wider world. There is considerable social significance surrounding the thylacine and the items and collections associated with it: from the 'true believers' who report and record sightings of the elusive animal in the wilder parts of Tasmania; to the whole state whose official symbol it is. One commentator has said: 'The thylacine is Tasmania. To that extent it lives on.'
Displaying a trapped thylacine
Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
The centre of attention 2005
Overall winner Waterhouse prize for natural history art 2005
Reproduced courtesy of the South Australian Museum
A thylacine in Burke Museum natural history cabinet
Photo: Roslyn Russell
Reproduced courtesy of Burke Museum, Beechworth, Victoria