Book Review: The Unburnt Egg, by Brian Gill

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

theunburnteggbookBrian Gill was curator of birds and other land vertebrates at Auckland Museum for over thirty years. He has written many books on natural history and has written for New Zealand Geographic and Forest and Bird. He studied zoology at Massey and Canterbury Universities in New Zealand and held a research fellowship at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Auckland Museum is an imposing sight sitting on top of a rise, gleaming white in the sunlight; a large magnificent stone building fronted by monumental columns. It sits proud on the Auckland skyline.

When Brian Gill sat down for his interview for a position on the staff of Auckland Museum he was asked what he would say to a farmer ringing to complain about magpies. The question threw him but rather liking magpies and wishing them no harm, he gave an answer that obviously satisfied them, as he was successful with his application.  Three decades of a vocation that was enjoyable and very satisfying followed. Brian managed a public collection of 20,000 natural history specimens. The collection had been built up during more than a century. It included items of intense historical interest as well as scientific importance.  He was able to research his fields of interest, especially on the life history of New Zealand cuckoos and songbirds and on the palaeontology of extinct New Zealand birds.

Brian Gill has put together a fascinating collection of stories about collections he has had the privilege to be involved with. When labels on lost items were lost, his job was to try and unravel the story behind these collections and find out as much as he could about the particular specimen. He was often called upon to identify mysterious objects, using methods that he had devised over his long association with the museum.

One such story is the unburnt egg. In New Plymouth in February 1961, a house caught fire and its occupant was killed – a woman of eighty named Blanche Halcombe. This tragedy had a connection to the land vertebrate’s collection at the Auckland Museum. In the 1980’s, Brian became aware of a large fossil egg in the collection that was partly encased in fine-grained sediment. It was about 208 millimetres long, and the shell was ivory-coloured. There was no label with the egg, nor any other information recorded elsewhere.  What followed is an amazing story, linking the egg to a certain bird once common on the East Coast of the South Island.  Blanche had been passionate about natural history and spent a lot of time in the New Zealand bush, and had built up a large collection of natural history specimens, some passed down from her grandfather, William Swainson.

This book is incredible – so many stories behind many of the collections that Brian Gill was involved with over his career.  As a frequent visitor to Auckland Museum over a lot of years – now days with small grandchildren and often attending special exhibitions ourselves, I found this book a great read.  This book has allowed me more knowledge about the background of some of my favourite exhibits.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Unburnt Egg – more stories of a museum curator
by Brian Gill
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249291