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Too much risk in sending Phar Lap's heart to New Zealand

News from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa - 20/01/06

The National Museum of Australia in Canberra has decided, in consultation with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, not to send the preserved heart of the race horse Phar Lap to the Wellington museum for a short-term loan.

It had been planned to loan the heart to Te Papa to coincide with a celebration marking the centenary of the Wellington Racing Club's track, Trentham.

Why Phar Lap?
The famous racehorse Phar Lap was born in Timaru, New Zealand, in October 1926. This means that many New Zealanders think of Phar Lap as a New Zealand horse. He was sold at the January 1928 yearling sales at Trentham and is one of New Zealand's most famous exports. He was outstandingly successful in races in Australia and on these grounds he is regarded as an Australian champion. He was a 17-hand chestnut gelding, who raced in 51 races and won 37 of them from 1929-1932. He was placed second or third in five others. He set records in at least eight of his stakes races. His successes include the 1930 Melbourne Cup where he carried a 62.6 kg handicap. No other horse in Australian racing history has been favourite for the Melbourne Cup for three consecutive years. His successes were hailed as occasions for joy in the dark days of the Depression.

He was brought back to New Zealand for six weeks from December 1931 to prepare for what was to be his final race in the USA in March 1932. he beat North America's best horses by two lengths in its richest race, the Agua Caliente Handicap, in Tijuana, on March 20. Sixteen days later he died quickly, painfully and mysteriously in Atherton, USA, on April 5, 1932. The mysterious circumstances have been the subject of debate ever since.

Careful planning for the proposed display of Phar Lap's heart
The huge preserved heart was to be on display, next to the horse's skeleton at Te Papa in Wellington, for a month from January 27, after crossing the Tasman accompanied by at least two museum conservators.

The Wellington Racing Club, which is holding its centenary dinner at Te Papa on January 26, sought Te Papa's help in requesting the chance to exhibit Phar Lap's heart.

The curators at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra took very seriously the decision to send Phar Lap's heart for exhibition.

Freda Hanley, general manager in charge of collections at the Canberra museum, said that the problem was making sure that the organ was not damaged in travel. It is seventy three years since the great galloper died and the fragile heart is only periodically displayed in Canberra because of the possibility of damage from light.

If the request had been for it to go to a non-museum environment, it would have been unlikely to be granted, but it was seriously considered when it would be on display at Te Papa, in what are international museum standards.

After that, hours of research went into seeing if it was feasible to transport the heart by air. The 6.2kg heart has been on display in a new case, surrounded by a liquid called Wentworth's solution which prevents the organ from leaching colour.

Ms Hanley said that would have to be drained because it would increase the risk of vibration during travel. The heart was then going to be placed in a specially built case for the trip to New Zealand and packed with water crystals which absorb vibrations.

Two, or possibly three, conservators were to accompany the heart on the trip to Wellington and back.

"We did our level best to loan the heart," said Ms Hanley. "We knew the risks, and did our best to mitigate them."

Advised by vibration experts that keeping the heart in its preserving fluid could subject it to damage in transport, in preparation for travel, Museum conservators removed it for the first time in some 20 years to assess the heart's condition. In doing this they saw the tissue was unexpectedly fragile and discovered a tear about 1.5 centimetres long.

National Museum of Australia in Canberra and Te Papa in agreement about the decision
Having weighed the risk and in consultation with Te Papa, the Museum has decided to keep the heart in Canberra.

"As custodians of this national icon, we agreed that moving the heart would be unwise," Ms Hanley said. "The tear will be repaired and the heart will continue to be seen and enjoyed by visitors for many years to come."

Te Papa's Chief Executive Dr Seddon Bennington said today that while he was disappointed he understood and supported the National Museum's decision.

"Under the circumstances, the decision to withdraw the loan of the heart is the right one. The Museum's primary responsibility is to care for this unique object. Te Papa would have done the same if it was part of our collection," Dr Bennington said.

Phar Lap's abnormally large heart, weighing 6.2 kilograms (the average horse's heart weighs 4kg), came to the National Museum in Canberra from the Institute of Anatomy, where it had been preserved since the 1930s.

After conservation treatment, Phar Lap's heart will return to the National Museum's Australian Sports display next month.

Editor's comment
Phar Lap is an iconic name in racing industry. What does Phar Lap mean to you?
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