Robot Brings Racehorse Phar Lap's Body Together Digitally

Robot Brings Racehorse Phar Lap's Body Together Digitally

A guide from the National Museum of Australia uses the museum robot to show students Phar Lap’s heart.

Photo: Irene Dowdy/

The body of Phar Lap, one of Australia’s most famous racehorses, will be brought together virtually by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s (CSIRO) Museum Robot at the National Museum of Australia.

Phar Lap, foaled in Timaru, New Zealand, in 1926, was trained in Sydney, Australia, by Harry Telford. During his racing career, 17.1 hand Phar Lap started as the favorite in three successive Melbourne Cups, and in 1930, he won a race on each of the four days of the 1930 Flemington spring carnival, including the Melbourne Cup.

Phar Lap's heart weighs 6.51 kilograms and is 50% larger than a normal horse's heart.

Photo Courtesy The National Museum of Australia

Criminals in Melbourne tried unsuccessfully to shoot Phar Lap on the Saturday morning before his 1930 Melbourne Cup win. But on April 5, 1932, Phar Lap suddenly died, in agonizing pain, from a mysterious illness while stabled in California. An examination of his internal organs showed they were highly inflamed and that he might have been poisoned. In 2008, scientists used a synchrotron to analyze hairs from Phar Lap's mane. Their results found that 35 to 40 hours before his death, Phar Lap ingested a large dose of arsenic.

For many years Phar Lap's body has been housed in pieces at three museums in two countries: His heart—currently preserved in a jar of formaldehyde—is at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra Australia; his hide is in the Melbourne Museum, also in Australia; and his skeleton is at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Phar Lap's skeleton is currently on display at the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington.

Photo Courtesy Te Papa Tongarewa

Today (Nov. 4), however, students from three schools in Willunga, South Australia; Mornington Peninsula, Victoria; and Townsville, Queensland, will have the chance to see the legendary horse’s heart, hide, and skeleton at the same time while speaking to museum experts about the three exhibits. And they won’t even have to leave the classroom.

The students will be led by an expert guide from the NMA via the CSIRO’s museum robot. Logging in through their classroom smart board or local library computers, students will control their own unique view using the 360° panoramic camera on the robot’s head and can click on items in the exhibit to bring up images and more information.

“While the classroom sweep can be a bit of fun on Melbourne Cup day, we are giving students a much richer cultural and educational experience that they’ll hopefully remember for a long time,” said Robert Bunzli, manager of the National Museum's robot program. “The students absolutely love hearing about animals and the part they have played in Australian history. Horses are a particular favorite of course, and most of them have heard of Phar Lap but don’t know anything about him.

Phar Lap's hide is currently on display at the Melbourne Museum. He stands 17.1 hands high.

Photo Courtesy Museum Victoria

“The feedback from teachers and students has been overwhelmingly positive," Bunzli continued. To date we’ve done 70 virtual tours for nearly 1,000 participants at schools and libraries across Australia and we plan to reach many more.”

Jonathan Roberts, PhD, robotics expert at CSIRO, said the successful trial of the museum robot has shown that the combination of immersive learning technology and fast broadband can deliver educational experiences at culturally significant sites to students no matter where they live in Australia.

“We are now looking to extend the application of our mobile telepresence system into other areas including remote training, retail, mining, and manufacturing industries," Roberts said. "At the moment we are investigating how this system could be used to remotely deliver health services such as providing specialist services to regional and remote communities, conducting medical training, or facilitating remote ward rounds.”

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