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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.