Inside a conventionally lovely old villa in central Dunedin is a quirkily unusual and esoteric collection of art, fossils, skeletons, skulls and shells. Acquired and created over a lifetime by owner and curator Bruce Mahalski, the three rooms of his house that comprise this private museum are crammed with the unexpected.
Displayed on the walls, in cabinets and on tables are skulls ranging from a hippo to a mouse, coiled snake skeletons, a jar of monarch butterflies, a taxidermied rooster, ranks of antlers, preserved animal embryos and much, much more.
Everything is labelled, the facts entertainingly conveyed with humour and opinion; and Mahalski is happy to share the backstories. These natural objects, though, evidence that we are all the same beneath the skin, are only half the story.
Because when have you ever seen a guitar made of bones, skulls and teeth? Many of the displays are imaginative constructions that started with found skeletons of rabbits, possums and similar, which were then used to create something entirely different and memorably original.
Mahalski is a talented artist and the sculptures and paintings on display are bizarrely beautiful, meticulous and unique. He also displays artworks from other cultures, along with items from the notorious Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, plus random other oddities.
Altogether, it’s an absorbing collection that will fascinate adults and children alike.
Allow plenty of time to explore the collection and read, and hear, the stories. Don’t miss the items for sale. Depending on Covid regulations, you may be able to stay at the onsite Airbnb.
Prowl Dunedin’s streets: Mahalski has painted many striking murals of various creatures, both real and imaginary, around town. Look him up on TikTok.
On the way/neaby
Olveston Historic Home is nearby, and is well worth a visit. A stately brick and stone Jacobean-style mansion completed in 1907, it’s full of treasures, including remarkably modern features for its time. It’s lavishly decorated with art, antiques and unexpected objects collected by its owner, and is set in a splendid garden.
You’re close here too to the historic Dunedin Town Belt, which is over 200 hectares of greenery trailing through several suburbs: nature both untouched and titivated, featuring elements that are historical, ecological, recreational and cultural.
Listen to bellbirds and tūī as you gaze out over the city and harbour. Shyer creatures live here too, including the rare velvet worm/ngaokeoke, a living fossil unchanged over 500 million years.
You’ll pass historic buildings and several cemeteries, including one containing the grave of Thomas Bracken, who wrote the words of our national anthem.
$5 for everyone over 6. Children must be supervised.
Best time to go
It’s an ideal rainy day activity – but don’t miss out if it’s sunny. Opening hours are noon to 5pm on Fridays, 10am to 5pm weekends, but public holidays may differ (check the website). Mahalski will try to open for you specially if you can’t manage those hours. See: royaldunedinmuseum.com; olveston.co.nz
Staying safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Face coverings are mandatory on all flights and public transport. Proof of vaccination and vaccine exemption may be required in some venues under the traffic light system. Follow the instructions at covid19.govt.nz.