How Bruce Mahalski Brought Dunedin's Museum of Natural Mystery to Life

Bruce Mahalski wearing a skull on his head.

Bruce Mahalski

A museum unlike any other, Dunedin's Museum of Natural Mystery is local artist Bruce Mahalski’s greatest work.

Words by: Olivia Sisson
Photos by: Nancy Zhou

The Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery (DMNM) is a one of a kind collection and museum situated in an old villa on Royal Terrace just above the CBD. Owner, artist, and lifelong collector, Bruce Mahalski, refers to it fondly as his ‘greatest work of art’. The collection includes tribal art, mammal skeletons and skulls, marine fossils, books, artifacts, masks, butterflies, etchings and so much more.

Each display has been designed and constructed by Bruce right down to the placards that add another layer of information and intrigue to the overall collection. The museum is hard to describe in its entirety, not only because of its breadth, but because it is always evolving and changing. We caught up with the collector himself to learn more about how his creation came to life and where it’s headed.

You’ve always been a collector but when and why did you actually open the museum?

I opened DMNM in March 2018. It took me a year to set it all up. I had done work in museums at various times and had pieces of work in them but I never placed my employment in a traditional museum. I don't think I could've handled all the red tape. I once actually hung an unsolicited piece of my own art at Te Papa in Wellington. There’s a video of me doing that online. Eventually Te Papa took it down and it took me a few years to get the piece back. I always wanted to work in a museum and now I do. Part of what inspired me to set up in Dunedin is that it’s my hometown. Both of my parents were collectors and I collected what they collected. My son collected for a while but I don’t think the younger generation is collecting as much.

The collection is vast, what are some notable items for you?

Big skulls like the hippo and giraffe, and the steer skull with the horn coming out of its head too. I have a plate reputed to have belonged to the last man in England hung for sheep stealing. There are also some amazing African carvings called Nkisi in my collection which are believed to keep magical things at bay. I like to say that I’m someone who wants to collect African and Pacific art but can seldom afford it. I’m also very interested in paranormal research and moas. There are a lot of themes running through my collection. At the moment I have a Haast eagle skull on loan as well.

What reactions does the DMNM garner?

I get some great reactions. People say I make them feel un-weird or normal. Kids, especially boys, seem to go through a dinosaur phase and it’s good to nurture young scientists - I think the museum helps with that. In traditional museums everything, even the labels, are handled by committees and need consensus. Here I can write whatever damn thing I want to and that is part of the charm. Visitors can just play here and explore science without taking it too seriously. People get excited about it.

What items are you currently adding?

Someone brought me the skin of a sun fish the other day. They are massive fish and this one had been dissected by someone doing research out at Aramoana for the Otago Museum. It washed up on the mudflats and now I’ve got to clean it and display it. I don’t believe in taxidermy though.

Why’s that?

I think it’s very hard to make a realistic facsimile of an animal and most taxidermy doesn't do the living thing justice. I hate the idea of a mount or standing over something you’ve killed. I try to honour the animals by displaying just the bones. I don’t cover them in glitter or anything like that. I just keep my hands off of them and let the lichens or whatever else grow on them.

Will the DMNM ever be complete?

It’s a work of art in and of itself. I add things and take things away. I hope people never see it the same way twice. I’ve never counted the items in here but there are thousands. I’d say the museum is only about two thirds full. I may need somewhere else to start displaying things eventually. I don’t know though, I’m eternally optimistic and pessimistic. The whole thing could burn down tomorrow but I hope it doesn't.