Month: June 2014

Museum preserves the written word

 

ManuscriptsAs a calligrapher, among other things artistic and clever, Yoka van Dyk chose some Elizabethan manuscripts for her Vaults story, manuscripts that were displayed as part of the Glass of Fashion Act 2 exhibition. Real ones and copies, the manuscripts exemplify the writing styles of the 16th century and, although in “English”, prove difficult for the layperson to decipher.
Among the real ones is a manuscript of the awarding of letters patent to the town of Totnes in Devon, England, by Queen Elizabeth. It is dated 1596 and is an unsigned copy of the original. “It was possibly a back-up copy,’ says Yoka.
There is also a 1577 commercial contract on heavy parchment with three red wax seals attached. And in another cabinet is a facsimile of William Shakespeare’s will.
The genuine articles are beautiful in their execution and design and it proves once again that our museum has a vast variety of treasures, atypical of your usual provincial institution.
The Totnes manuscript came from the collection of Charles Babbage, grandfather of an early Wanganui identity of the same name and the man credited with the invention of the first “computer” in the 1830s. This and other manuscripts passed into the possession of his Wanganui grandson and, eventually, via Mr Herbert Babbage, to the museum in 1923.
“A lot of people do genealogy,” says Yoka, “and will come across wills or deeds from their ancestors, written in this kind of secretary hand.” She says there are websites set up to teach people how to read that type of script, and others from days gone by. One such site is run by the University of Leicester – http://paleo.anglo-norman.org
“This handwriting, the secretary hand, was used through the 16th century into the 17th century,” she says, and pointed out that a word could be spelled a variety of ways in the same manuscript, spelling standards being completely unknown until a much later date. “There could be 20 different ways to spell a word which makes it complicated reading.” Even letters could change shape a number of times throughout the length of a document. Yoka says there was the secretary hand and the chancery hand, an Italian style cursive script developed from the Roman hand. “It was fast, legible and beautiful,” says Yoka, “but italic had one drawback; it was easy to forge.”
The museum has many such documents containing a range of writing styles, all of which interest the knowledgeable Yoka.
“I used to teach calligraphy and I’m a book person [book binder, writer, engraver] so that’s why I have a great interest in ancient manuscripts. I studied them a lot in Holland, going to the museums to see manuscripts.”
There’s a box of manuscripts that were presented to the museum in 1959, having been bought by the collector in the 1920s in London when they were still relatively easy to obtain. Hundreds of years old, some still bear their wax seals and are, with the right training, still quite readable. Yoka demonstrated the changing nature of writing over the years, and named each style of script. Words like Gothic and bastarda were added to the calligraphy lexicon as we studied well-preserved paper and expensive vellum.
“It’s something I’m interested in and I use it in my own books. The very act of writing is a personal thing and it’s something we do less and less. The very act, the flow of writing, is a special thing but how often do we sit down to write a letter?” asks Yoka. She says she finds calligraphy a meditative thing, slowing the thought process to “get to deeper layers”.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 8th May 2013.  Reproduced with permission from the publishers.

The Passenger Pigeon

In the 1870s, passenger pigeons were still forming a “feathered river across the sky”, but by the end of the decade their numbers had crashed.  Smith Bennett, Wood engraving from original sketch

In the 1870s, passenger pigeons were still forming a “feathered river across the sky”, but by the end of the decade their numbers had crashed.
Smith Bennett, Wood engraving from original sketch

The passenger pigeon (Extopistes migratorius) was once the most abundant bird on Earth. Flocks of millions of birds darkened the skies of North America, and took days to pass overhead. When they descended on a forest they would strip it bare of nuts and acorns, break branches with their sheer numbers, and carpet the ground with droppings, which eyewitnesses said “fell like snow”. People firing randomly with shotguns or waving sticks would knock down dozens, to be packed and shipped east as cheap food. Yet, incredibly, by the end of the 19th century, the birds had almost disappeared.

Martha died on 1 September 1914, aged probably 29, in Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last survivor of a small flock that the zoo had been unsuccessfully trying to breed in captivity.

Martha was the last survivor of a small flock that the zoo had been unsuccessfully trying to breed in captivity.

This specimen was given to Samuel Drew, the founder of the Museum, by the German naturalist Otto Finsch in the late 19th century.

This specimen was given to Samuel Drew, the founder of the Museum, by the German naturalist Otto Finsch in the late 19th century.

The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Her body was immediately frozen in a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institute. Other museums had been collecting specimens as the pigeons approached extinction; there are about 1500 in museum collections around the world, including three in the Whanganui Regional Museum. But it wasn’t collectors or even hunters that ultimately wiped out the passenger pigeon, although they were hunted in staggering quantities, but forest clearance. The birds relied on huge forests of nuts to maintain their enormous flocks, and they needed to breed in enormous communal colonies. Once enough forest had been cleared for agriculture, flocks dropped below a critical threshold for breeding, and during the 1870s the population crashed. Past this point, they were doomed as a species, though a few persisted into the 20th century.

 

 

These mounted male and female passenger pigeons show off the male’s pale cinnamon breast feathers. Whoever mounted these birds gave them yellow eyes, but those were red in life.

These mounted male and female passenger pigeons show off the male’s pale cinnamon breast feathers. Whoever mounted these birds gave them yellow eyes, but those were red in life.

John James Audubon, the French-American naturalist and artist, included this pair of passenger pigeons in his masterpiece Birds of America, published in a series between 1827 and 1838. He recalled seeing an enormous flock of several billion birds in 1813 that took three days to pass overhead.

John James Audubon, the French-American naturalist and artist, included this pair of passenger pigeons in his masterpiece Birds of America, published in a series between 1827 and 1838. He recalled seeing an enormous flock of several billion birds in 1813 that took three days to pass overhead.

Recently, researchers examining passenger pigeon DNA were surprised to find that despite their abundance the birds had quite low genetic diversity, suggesting that their population had only recently exploded when European settlers encountered them. The best explanation is that pigeon numbers went through periodic booms and busts, in response to regular fluctuations in the availability of nuts and acorns, which occasionally have super-abundant “mast” years. Pigeons had evolved to seek out heavy nut crops and rapidly increase their numbers to exploit them. When Native Americans were devastated by disease following colonisation, they stopped hunting pigeons and collecting nuts, and passenger pigeons quickly increased to enormous numbers. Their population was going through a natural downturn at exactly the time European forest clearance and hunting began to increase, and those combined forces were enough to push them into a death spiral.

To estimate pigeon genetic diversity for this study, the researchers needed DNA, which is hard to get from a species extinct for 100 years. They turned to museum specimens, and were able to take tissue scraped from the toe pads of passenger pigeon skins and use recently-developed technology to extract fragments of DNA and reconstruct long sequences of the bird’s genome. This ability to recover ancient DNA has made museum collections valuable in a new and unexpected way: from them we’ve learned that female moa were twice the size of males, that the kiwi and the Madagascar elephant bird are close relatives, and, now, why the passenger pigeon went extinct so rapidly. Even if they died over a century ago, museum specimens can, in a small way, live again.

The Good Book

Cover of an English Bible belonging to the Collins Family, dated 1873

Cover of an English Bible belonging to the Collins Family, dated 1873

According to many polls and studies, the Bible is the most translated book in the world. As of 2012 it had been translated into 518 languages, and over 2,700 languages have had at least a portion of the Good Book translated.

The Whanganui Regional Museum holds 60 bibles in its collection, in seven languages: English, Te Reo Māori, Gaelic, Welsh, German, Swedish, and Tahitian.

Front page from a Bible printed in Welsh, dated 1864

Front page from a Bible printed in Welsh, dated 1864

Contents page from a Bible in Tahitian, dated 1847

Contents page from a Bible in Tahitian, dated 1847

The earliest versions of the Bible were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. It was translated into Gothic in the 4th century, and the 5th century saw a growth of translation into Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, Old Nubian, Ethiopic, and Georgian. Old English and Old High German fragments began to appear in the 8th century, but translation was discouraged and the Church banned all unauthorised versions of the Bible, some synods making ownership of such copies illegal. A translation into Old French in the 13th century seems to have been accepted, but the Middle English translation in the 14th century was not embraced by all synods.

Title and inscription of a Gaelic Bible owned by the McGregor Family, dated 1827

Title and inscription of a Gaelic Bible owned by the McGregor Family, dated 1827

There were various versions of an English translation published throughout the following centuries, but each were questioned by the Church and not entirely accepted. That is, until King James VI of Scotland attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1601, two years before he sat on the throne of England, and discussed the need for a new translation, one suitable both for the people and the Church. This version took 10 years and 54 translators to complete, but the mission was finally accomplished in 1611.

As Christianity and the Empire expanded, so did the Church, and the Bible was translated into more and more languages, including Te Reo Māori.

While serving as a chaplain in Australia, the Reverend Samuel Marsden had learned about New Zealand and its inhabitants and decided to convince the Christian Missionary Society to start a mission here. He had been learning about Māori language and culture so when the mission was finally approved, he was ready. Marsden and his team established a successful mission and their skill in Te Reo increased, resulting the first book on Maori grammar and vocabulary, published in 1820. The first Te Reo tracts were published in 1827, but as popular as these were the need for the complete translated Bible was apparent.

Nga Whakatauki – Proverbs, from a Te Reo Bible, late-1800s

Nga Whakatauki – Proverbs, from a Te Reo Bible, late-1800s

Different chapters of the Bible were translated and published individually throughout the 1830s using a small printing press and paper donated by the missionaries’ wives. The first full translation of the New Testament into Te Reo was completed in 1836, and in March of that year the small press, operated by one printer, was put to work printing 5000 copies of the 356-page volume. Binding issues meant that most of the copies had to be bound using curtains from local houses, but the printing was finally completed in December 1837.

Whanganui 75 Years Ago

W T Stewart Motor Co Ltd, now the Bike Shed, on the corner of St Hill and Ridgway Streets

W T Stewart Motor Co Ltd, now the Bike Shed, on the corner of St Hill and Ridgway Streets

In 1939 local business man Francis Haddow Bethwaite went out into the central business sector of Whanganui and took a series of black and white photographs of buildings, businesses and street scenes.

Bethwaite was closely involved with the local Chamber of Commerce and it is probable that this photography project was connected to its activities. The Chamber was a driving force in the Whanganui contribution to the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington in 1940 and Bethwaite was the Chamber’s primary planner.

Wakefield Chambers on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Ridgway Street.

Wakefield Chambers on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Ridgway Street.

Bethwaite was a keen amateur photographer who recorded family occasions and outings, business events and local developments. He was also a painter in oils, a sportsman and an expert in horticulture, being one of the initiators of the New Zealand Camellia Society.

The photographs were taken with a Kodak, probably a folding bellows camera that packed down into a neat flat leather-covered packet, convenient to carry and very reliable. The images were printed in black and white 8 x 10s, a standard photographic printing size of the time.

In 1939 New Zealand was preparing to mark the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Whanganui was in full swing, planning and producing an exhibit for the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington that demonstrated its material progress as a leading provincial centre.

The Alexander Museum now the Whanganui Regional Museum, Queens Park.

The Alexander Museum now the Whanganui Regional Museum, Queens Park.

The large public amenities, the Sarjeant Gallery and the Alexander Museum, had already been built. The new Alexander Library was designed to complement the Sarjeant and opened in 1934. They contributed to a grand civic centre but the town now had to maintain and pay for them.

The new Post Office was under construction to a contemporary grand design. New buildings had not been a primary feature of the town, the Depression of the 1930s limiting changes to repairing or altering building facades that suffered damage during the 1931 Napier earthquake.

The Majestic Theatre in what is now Majestic Square.

The Majestic Theatre in what is now Majestic Square.

By the late 1930’s Whanganui was an increasingly prosperous town, recovering from the effects of the Depression and the Great War, soon to be known as the First World War.