Home is where the heart is

Project manager Belinda Betts and conservator Peter Bucke with Phar Lap's heart. (Photo: Isa Menzies)

Isa Menzies, curator of our Connecting the Nation module, was recently part of the team that installed Phar Lap’s heart. Here Isa shares her photographs of the installation, along with some reflections on one of our most popular objects.

Phar Lap’s heart is the object most often asked for by visitors to the Museum, and when I became the curator responsible for interpreting this iconic object in the new gallery I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. But I also felt a mixture of both reverence towards, and doubt about, the object itself.

Conservator Cathy Collins tests the pH level of the solution preserving the heart. (All photos: Isa Menzies)

Reverence because I, like many others, was brought up on stories of the heroic horse Phar Lap, who could win anything and became the darling of a nation suffering under the economic depression of the 1930s. The doubt was because I wasn’t sure the heart muscle of a long-dead race horse warranted such widespread adulation. Was he actually a great horse, or do we just accept what we’ve always been told, without any interrogation?

The heart is so fragile that it cannot leave the National Museum building, and any change to its location must be undertaken with care so as to minimise vibration and disturbance of the tissue.

It was while researching the history of Phar Lap that I became a true fan of the horse. He didn’t just win the Melbourne Cup, but 36 other races as well, including the WS Cox Plate twice. The WS Cox Plate is considered by many racing aficionados to be the weight-for-age championship of Australia. Most of his wins were achieved with ease, however he was able to dig in and push for victory when asked, for example in the 1930 Futurity Stakes at Caulfield racecourse, which the jockey, Jim Pike, regarded as the horse’s hardest-won and most gallant victory.

The heart makes its way, with assistance, through the Landmarks gallery space.

Of his 51 starts Phar Lap only finished unplaced nine times. In comparison the modern wonder-horse Makybe Diva raced 36 times and finished out of the money 14 times (she achieved 15 wins and seven places). Phar Lap even raced in America, winning the most prestigious race of the day, the Agua Caliente Handicap and setting a track record, while becoming the third highest stakes winner in the world at that time.

But it isn’t just his impressive track record that sets Phar Lap apart. He emerged onto the racing scene at a time when the media was changing. Newspaper design had moved towards eye-catching headlines and images on the front page, and moving picture technology meant that people could view newsreel footage of races when they went to the cinema. Furthermore, radio broadcasting was taking off, with wireless ownership on the rise. These factors, combined with Phar Lap’s astonishing successes, led to his equine celebrity.

Even eighty years after his death Phar Lap still attracts the paparazzi.

His untimely death also contributed to his memorialisation. The horse died of an arsenic overdose at the age of five, when he would have been at the peak of his physical condition. The mystery surrounding his death has also ascribed him with a larger-than-life quality.

It was with an audible sigh of relief that the team of conservators, registrars, curators and project managers saw the heart placed onto its custom stand and locked into place last week.

Put all these factors together and it’s easy to see how the preserved body parts of Phar Lap – his hide, his heart and his skeleton – have gone from racetrack to reliquary. I wonder what it is that people are looking for when they ask to see Phar Lap’s heart at the Museum. Is the attraction because the heart is unnaturally big? Because it belonged to a celebrity? Because it brings them closer to an Australian legend?

By preserving and displaying his remains we are certainly propagating the myth of Phar Lap. Hopefully our interpretation of the significance of the horse – and the heart – will justify people’s own sense of its importance to them.

Phar Lap’s heart, safely installed into its new home within the Landmarks gallery, where it will stay for the foreseeable future.

One Response to “Home is where the heart is”

  1. Maria Valaris says:

    Informative and thoughtful. It’s the first time I’ve really asked myself why are people, myself included, so attracted by and interested in things like preserved bits of a horse which would normally just elicit a ‘yukk’ response. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your interpretation. It’s a bit like art isn’t it? I think I will go and look at the heart again.