In this Victorian-style ‘museum within the Museum’ nearly 3,000 historical specimens showcase the diversity of the animal kingdom.

This gallery reflects the architecture, display techniques and scientific thinking of the Victorian period (1837 to 1901). The Otago Museum opened on this site in 1877 and the Animal Attic is on the top floor of the original Museum building.

Many of the animals in the gallery are historical specimens displayed in a layout close to that of the original gallery. Their ordering is based on taxonomy, representing the evolutionary relationships within the animal kingdom. 

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The first Otago Museum curator, Frederick Wollaston Hutton, oversaw the structure and internal design of the original Museum building. New Zealand’s foremost naturalist at the time, Hutton brought together the Museum’s early natural science collection. Many of these specimens are still on display today.

Hutton’s successor was Thomas Jeffrey Parker, a world-renowned comparative anatomist. Parker continued to add to the display, arranging the specimens according to Darwinian principles of evolution.

In the Victorian era, evolution was viewed as a process of primitive animals gradually evolving into more complex and advanced ones, with humans at the pinnacle as the most ‘highly evolved’.

The gallery is laid out to reflect this, starting with the animals that were perceived to be the ‘lowest’, such as sponges and molluscs, and progressing in a linear fashion through the animal groups until reaching primates, and finally humans.

The ceiling and walls of the gallery are shiplap rimu, supported by kauri and rimu beams. The original skylights in the ceiling have been replaced with artificial lighting that will prolong the life of the historical specimens in the gallery.

In 1996, the Animal Attic underwent extensive restoration, ensuring that the layout and ambiance would closely resemble the original gallery. In 2012, the Attic was refreshed. Gentle improvements were made, including up-to-date interpretation and two new feature cases on the mezzanine floor. A third mezzanine feature case has since been added, but the Attic still strongly retains the traditional layout and ambiance. 

The entire space is designed to be walked around twice. The inner table cases are filled with invertebrates – creatures without backbones, while the wall cases contain vertebrates such as birds, reptiles and mammals.

In a gallery with thousands of animal specimens, it’s hard to pick favourites! Some of the most iconic and curious exhibits include a large whale eye, a ‘rat king’ and a massive Japanese spider crab.

The magnificent Lawrence Lions take pride of place at the heart of the Animal Attic. Sultan and Sonia escaped from a circus in Central Otago in 1978.