Expert Breakfast Report for 14 Sept 2022: Dr Ian Griffin, Otago Museum

An outstanding talk, made even more outstanding by Dr Griffin’s clear enthusiasm and unassuming approach to the remarkable things he has achieved.


After the usual introductions, Dr. Griffin noted that he had a number of connections with the people around the table, having himself studied Physics at the University of London. Also, his middle daughter, Merope, - named after one of the stars in the Pleiades (aka Matariki aka Seven Sisters) star cluster - studied Medicine at the Hull York Medical School. Co-incidentally, Hull York Medical School opened in 2003, and the first Dean was Prof William Gillespie who had been Dean of Medicine at Otago until that point. Merope has recently completed a stint in the ICU unit at Kensington Chelsea Hospital, and will soon begin working in New Zealand. Another of his three children studied Law and Zoology, and is shortly to begin practise in Environmental Law in Dunedin, and the other one is a teacher in Auckland.

The Museum

Established in 1863, the Museum had latterly concentrated on being commercially successful, to the detriment, among other things, of research while having a very substantial collection of items with research potential. Director of the Otago Museum for the last 10 years, Dr Griffin is unusual in having a background in Science when most Museum Directors have more of an Arts background, and was employed with the directive of taking the Museum in a new direction. Under his guidance the only 3D Planetarium in Australasia was established in 2015, the Tūhura Science Centre in 2017, and the Science Outreach programme takes science shows around the country. In addition, the team working on research of the roughly 1.5 million objects in the Museum has been expanded from 4 to around 20.

Climate Change and the 13 Times Table

The extensive natural science collection is one example of the 1.5 million objects, and includes 3 of the 4 intact Moa eggs in the world, plus a huge range of preserved insects of various types collected over the years which presents ‘a fantastic laboratory to study climate change’ in which one can study how these have changed with time, even showing evolutionary changes. They have the best collection of cuneiform tablets in the Southern hemisphere. These are tablets of mud predating paper, used for such things as accounting by marking in the mud, which subsequently dried to form the storable tablets. A professor from Jerusalem who was able to read cuneiform ‘like I can read words on paper’ was astonished to come across one tablet which was clearly the result of someone practising their 13 times table. “Oh!” said the prof, ”he made a mistake!”

Career Choices - and Be Ready to Take Unexpected Opportunities

At one time wanting to be an astronomer, still doing some as a hobby, his main activity is running a Museum employing 150 people. One’s career can go in unexpected directions. Whether you study Arts or Sciences, and particularly if you undertake a higher degree, University equips you with a set of skills that can have wide application. When he graduated there was a big recession in Thatcher’s Britain, and he was told there were no jobs in Astronomy. About to get married, he certainly needed a job, and an opportunity came up in Armagh in Northern Ireland. This was in the time of the Irish ‘troubles’, and Armagh was in the thick of it. With no management experience at all, he applied. “Probably because it was Northern Ireland and the troubles were raging, I think I was the only person who applied.” And so he found himself in charge of a planetarium with a staff of twelve, two of whom were crying in his office on the first morning as a result of a disagreement between them.

He has always been prepared to take opportunities as they arose, moving from Armagh to running a Science Centre in the US, then a spell in New Zealand, and back to the States to work on the Hubble Telescope programme. “Don’t ever be shy of going for something . . . because even if you don’t get a job, you will learn things from the interview process.” He feels that women in particular may be reticent about applying because they feel they may not be good enough, and encouraged everyone to try.

Research at the Museum

Examples of research projects include Archeologist Dr Gerard O’Regan, Curator Maori at the Museum, has spent the last week in Dusky Sound on a boat investigating sites of very early Maori habitation. In 2019 a farmer took his dog for a swim in a watering hole near Kye Burn, and saw something had been uncovered by a recent storm. He sent a Facebook message and pictures to the Museum describing it. “It turned out that there were seven Moa footprints.

The Moa Footprints — Image by: John Cross

 “So our Museum sent a team to basically divert the river, dig up the footprints, and bring them back to the Museum.” Dating them is quite difficult, but research on such things as pollen and stones associated with the prints indicates they are around a million years old. Museum researchers have also been able to discover the gait, species and weight of the Moa.

A Way of Obtaining Funds for Students

Another item in the Museum in the Pitcairn section of the Pacific Gallery is the pintle and gudgeon2 of HMS Bounty, famous for Fletcher Christian’s mutiny against Captain Bligh, after which the mutineers stayed on Pitcairn Island and the Bounty was burnt and sank. This artefact was first noted by Ian when he was being interviewed at the Museum, and when appointed, he wanted to find out the story of how it came to be here. “It turned out that, in 1930, there was a big storm in Pitcairn, and the wreck of the Bounty was uncovered at the bottom of the ocean. The then Mayor of Pitcairn brought the rudder up, and put it in his garden. A few years later a succeeding Mayor’s son was at Seventh Day Adventist’s College in Auckland - and ran out of money. “ When he wrote to his father seeking more money, his father wrote to all the museums in New Zealand saying he had bits of the Bounty, offering to sell them. Only the Director of Otago Museum of the time was interested, and bought them for £20 (about NZ$40).


Along with the Bounty bits, the Mayor also offered a Moai (a stone effigy), and this selling of cultural items to museums is not now condoned, in fact some museums have been returning such artefacts to where they came from. An example is the return of a taiaha to Ngati Maniapoto3 by OtagoMuseum, after having held it for 137 years. (A taiaha is a kind of spear). Some museums are resisting these repatriation requests, and New Zealand is leading the world in the area, partly because of the Treaty of Waitangi and the bicultural nature of the country.

-And A More General Way of Obtaining Funds for Students

Otago Museum employs quite a few students in part-time and casual positions, working in venues, in science communication teams and ‘front of house’, and the policy is to pay the ‘living wage’ ($23.36 per hour) rather than the minimum wage of $21.20 for an adult.

Giving Back to the Community

Dr Griffin is also a Justice of the Peace, which is a voluntary position, one of the main activities being certification of copies of formal documents, another taking affidavits - helping people to fill in various forms. “Being a Justice of the Peace enables me to give something back to a country which has been very kind to me.” He has now become become a Judicial Justice of the Peace, and so can sit in Court “at a very low level. I can’t send anyone to prison, but I can sit on remands and do Traffic Court. Dr Griffin encouraged anyone ‘particularly if you have a diverse background’ to think about becoming a JP, as the JP demographics need to reflect the diversity of society as a whole. Although he did point out that, despite the way he looks and speaks, Ian knows well what it is like to be poor, his Father having been a bus driver in London, while his mother worked in a supermarket. As an example, he described how lack of money had an effect on the first computer he managed to buy from his own Saturday morning earnings, but still needed electricity to run it - at a cost.

University Years - And World Travel

In answer to a question from one of our members regarding his reasons for studying Astronomy, Dr. Griffin described as a side note his collection of signed photographs of astronauts who had walked on the moon, kept on the walls in their spare bedroom at home, “our Apollo Room”, where you can sleep surrounded by these pictures, collected when he met the astronauts on his various jobs in the USA. “When I was 5 or 6 years old, I wanted to be an astronaut - people were walking on the moon!”. His undergraduate course was in Astronomy, “I’ve always been more interested in observing rather than theory, and UCL [University College London] back then had the best observatory in the country.” They had a 24 inch refractor telescope and used 150 mm square hypersensitised photographic plates as detectors, relatively complex to handle in contrast to the electronic methods using CCD and CMOS cameras used today. His Ph.D. was entitled “Circumstellar Environments of Late Type Stars”4, a topic chosen purely because he wanted to travel, and was aware that Ph.D. student travel was government sponsored. He visited every continent except Antarctica to use telescopes during his studies. “The observatories are in some of the most beautiful parts of the planet. . The sunrise from the observatory at Mauna Kea [Hawaii] is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.” When he first looked at the sky there, Ian was astonished that he could not see any stars. This turned out to be a result of the low oxygen tension at the high altitude (14,500 feet) inhibiting pupil dilation, solved by breathing from an oxygen bottle.

Why Do a PhD?

Dr Griffin found that undertaking a PhD was, for him, a significant life experience, allowing him to experience different cultures at ground level - for example, travelling on a bus in Chile.

Whatever area you are studying, he encouraged everyone to undertake a PhD. “It really does give you a set of skills . . . . and you never know where you are going to end up. Most of the people who studied PhDs with me are no longer in academia” He gave as an example one who studied astrophysics and developed a code which turned out to be really good at predicting how the Stock Market is going to behave.” She picked him up at there last get-together in her Porsche. . . . Another developed a code to detect faint galaxies, and the same code is now also used to detect breast cancer in medical imagery.

His careers officer at school advised him not to do Astronomy, because he would never get a job doing it. No matter what others tell you “Follow your own dreams, follow your own passions.” A PhD is a long, demanding process, and if you are doing something only because someone else told you to, you are unlikely to complete it. “And the other thing I would encourage is to have a hobby on the side.” For example, his own daughter, clearly very gifted in the medical field, has wreck diving as a hobby. Hobbies provide a way of unwinding from what can be very demanding situations.

“If you take away anything away from this, do what you enjoy, do what you love.”

The Aurora Australis Adventure - Making Relationships and Taking Opportunities

A few years ago the Dutch High Commissioner to New Zealand contacted Ian through his Twitter account asking if he would stake the Commissioner and his partner out to look for auroras. Ian took a picture of the Commissioner’s wife at Hooper’s Inlet, with the stars reflected on the water, which they had on their mantlepiece at the High Commission. At their Christmas party, the American Ambassador saw it, asked about it, and ended up coming to Dunedin for a similar experience. At the end of the evening the Ambassador said, “Ian, if there is ever anything I can do for you . . .” - and indeed there was. NASA has a jumbo jet which flies at high altitude with a telescope aboard SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), and it came down to Christchurch once a year. The upshot was that Ian was able to join a flight with a view to seeing the Aurora - with the Ambassador along, too. Although there was a full moon, they had great views of the Aurora.

Aurora (and moon!) from SOFIA — Image by: John Cross

After talking to some friends about the possibility, and floating it on Facebook to the Aurora Australis group, Dr Griffin went into the Orbit Travel on George Street, and told them he had 600 people interested in a flight from Dunedin to see the Aurora. After some research, they said it could be done for $2,000 a seat rather than the $1,000 the group had in mind. They needed to charter a Boeing 767 from Air New Zealand. The tickets went on sale and sold out in 4 days.

“If you assume the best in people, most of the time you will be OK.”

Working in the Hubble Telescope Programme

Asked about his involvement with the Hubble telescope, Dr. Griffin explained. For around 4 years, he headed a group of around 40 people, including Astronomers, Educators, Graphic Artists, etc whose job was to present Hubble science to the public. The group was called ‘The Office of Public Outreach’, and “One of the cool things about it was that we got to see the latest Hubble images before anyone else. And the coolest thing I got to do [when the camera system was being changed] was to help choose the first targets for the new camera - with certain limitations, meaning they had to choose relatively dull topics so as not to interfere with research that was going on. Nevertheless, this resulted in some “iconic photos.”

Environmental law is the collection of laws, regulations, agreements and common law that governs how humans interact with their environment. The purpose of environmental law is to protect the environment and create rules for how people can use natural resources. []

Pintles and Gudgeons comprise the hinging mechanism on outboard-mounted rudders.


4 The Acknowledgements section of his PhD alone is worth a look, just for the sense of fun and empathy it conveys:

Photo Gallery

Posted: Tuesday September 20, 2022