Phar Lap: bridge to a PhD

Did you know that a search for the phrase “Phar Lap” on the digitised newspaper collection of the National Library of Australia brings up 49,279 results? As a comparison, a search for “Don Bradman” brings up only 31,727 results.

Why am I telling you this? Because Phar Lap is what got me into this in the first place!

ImagePhar Lap’s mounted hide at Museum Victoria, 2010. Image: Isa Menzies

The inspiration for my PhD came after two years working as the curator of Phar Lap’s heart at the National Museum of Australia,  where I witnessed first-hand the particular reverence that visitors have for this object. The heart is currently displayed in the context of an exhibit on the Melbourne Cup, and while working on this exhibit and learning about the horseracing industry, I became fascinated with what I saw as a very one-sided story being told by the Museum, with the more recent and less palatable history of the race neglected in favour of an historicised and highly celebratory narrative. It became apparent that exhibits such as this were active in propagating what I would call the myth of the Melbourne Cup.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but discussion of the Melbourne Cup usually includes some mention of Phar Lap. The horse and his historical significance give the Melbourne Cup leverage as an important ‘tradition’ (as do other ideologies of national identity, like the Aussie battler and egalitarianism). Little thought is given to what the contemporary race looks like, and this works to the advantage of the racing industry.

Museums are a major site of cultural production; rather than focusing specifically on the Melbourne Cup, I decided to see how other horse remains were being used in the museum context, and if horses were carrying a greater burdern of nationalist rhetoric than other objects. 

So, that’s my story, though I should probably add that my interest in horses is not merely professional. I started riding at the age of 7, and during my teenage years I worked at a riding school taking out trail rides. At that time I also had my own pony, a flea-bitten grey (that’s a description of his colour, not a pejorative term!) called Peppin. After about a decade of not riding, I started dressage lessons in my late twenties for a couple of years. I don’t currently ride or own a horse, as it’s not the sort of activity that is financially suitable for an unemployed full-time student, but at some point in the future I hope to take it up again, with the hope that – one day – I will once again have a horse of my own.

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2 thoughts on “Phar Lap: bridge to a PhD

  1. How well known is Phar Lap outside Australia, I wonder? For a legend of such magnitude nationally, how does he fare beyond our borders?
    And are you finding that horses carry more of our national rhetoric than other objects?
    Once again, I’ve enjoyed your post.

  2. Hi Camille,

    I am yet to come across a mascot animal that is significant beyond its own borders. The fame of these animals seems to be spawned by the unique local conditions, and doesn’t often extend beyond them – for example Balto the dog (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balto), who became famous after transporting a vaccine to a snowed-in town in Alaska, or Phar Lap, because of the hope he gave people during the Depression.

    For these reasons, I believe Phar Lap is a local legend only, though I have encountered hard-core racing fans in the US who know of him, as he raced there (not to mention the lingering resentment of generations of Aussies who harboured the belief that the Yanks killed him!). I wonder if he hadn’t been a gelding, and had been able to sire a line, if he would have become a global phenomenon?

    These days of course many people choose to harvest and freeze sperm from their horses prior to gelding – you never know who might turn out to be a champion!

    Thanks for reading, and for commenting!

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