Month: August 2014

Mystery Sidesaddle


Sandi Black, archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum, has always been intrigued by a sidesaddle in the collection. “It’s one of our mystery objects.” This is an especially large example of a sidesaddle, others in the museum’s collection being much smaller.
The design of this saddle dates from at least the 1830s when the second pommel, the leaping head or leaping horn, was added to sidesaddles to give further support and allow the rider to travel at greater speed. “The leaping horn is adjustable,” says Sandi, and demonstrates how it could turn on its base. On the right side of the saddle is a small pocket – a ladies’ handbag, as Sandi describes it. The saddle is well padded and looks comfortable.
In Britain, at least, some women still ride sidesaddle on the hunt, using saddles much the same as this old example. Although they no longer wear the long gowns of yesteryear, their modesty is protected by an “apron” worn over riding breeches.
The leather on the museum’s saddle is tooled, patterned and stitched, a sign of superior status. Someone of means owned and used the saddle.
“I love it,” says Sandi, “I think it’s beautiful. The amount of work that’s gone into it is amazing. It’s another everyday item of the past that we look at now and say, ‘Wow, that’s strange.’ And I was a lover of horses in my youth. I’ve never ridden sidesaddle but always thought it would be interesting.”
Sidesaddles are generally custom made for the rider and horse combination, where exact measurements are crucial for comfort and stability.
“This one has seen better days,” says Sandi, and it’s obvious the padding – horsehair, oddly enough – is seeking to escape through the worn leather. The stirrups are also missing and rust has got a firm grip on anything metal.
The sidesaddle fell out of fashion early in the 20th century as it became socially acceptable for women to ride astride in split skirts. The 1970s saw it revived in certain traditional and ceremonial settings, the British fox hunt being one.
Some women of note, regardless of social convention, refused to ride sidesaddle; Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great being celebrated examples.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 5th June 2013. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.

The Lion Monument


If you look up the hill from Victoria Avenue towards toward the Sarjeant Gallery, you will see a lion sleeping on top of a stone platform.

MEM-022The lion’s origins begin in 1865 at Nukumaru where a skirmish saw the loss of 18 soldiers.  The custom at the time was to bury the men on the field where they fell, but after their temporary headstone and simple fence had rotted away, and sheep and cattle were found feeding over the graves, a movement began to have the men buried and honoured properly. In 1892 it was decided that the graves should be relocated to a more central area, a place more convenient to maintain, and the fallen were moved to a new plot on Queens Park. A Veteran’s Committee decided to erect a monument to remember the men, and to commemorate all those who served and died during the tumultuous land wars and on other battlefields.

The Government at the time agreed to assist funding the project pound-for-pound up to £100, and locals were appealed to for subscriptions to the cause. The Council also contributed a significant portion; the total amount of £300-400 was amassed.

War Veterans at the unveiling of the monument, 1893

War Veterans at the unveiling of the monument, 1893

A sleeping lion was chosen as an appropriate monument; the lion was a symbol of the British Empire, and the pose reflected the slumber of the fallen men. Whanganui artist George Sherriff designed and sculpted the creature from marble.  Although Sherriff was an accomplished painter, sculpting was a new form of art for him and the lion project was his learning experience. The base was carved from Waikawa bluestone by monumental mason W. McGill.

MEM-024The monument was initially erected at the top of Queens Park, near where the Sarjeant Gallery stands today. It was surrounded by a low fence and had a small pile of cannonballs from the HMS Calliope at each corner, and two cannon from the vessel stood guard beside the lion.

When the Sarjeant was built and opened in 1919, the lion was relocated toward the bottom of the hill. It is the focal point of the Veteran Steps, the stairway leading up to the gallery, and now lists the names of the original 18 soldiers as well as 138 imperial and colonial troops who died in and around Whanganui during the New Zealand Wars. Another 18 distinguished veteran names were added after 1908.

The monument after relocation, 1919

The monument after relocation, 1919


Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Musuem.

Free Post

Every now and then we uncover a  hidden gem in the collection.  A bit of philatelic sleuthing has recently lead us to incover a fascinating story behind a rather ordinary envelope.

The official On Her Majesty’s Service envelope is addressed to Major Durie of the Wanganui Militia.  It bears the stamp “FREE WANGANUI” and is the only one of its kind found to date.


The British Post Office initially provided the town with the date stamp bearing the name PETRE, and even after it was officially changed to WANGANUI in 1854, due to budgetary constraints it took another eight years for the new stamps to be issued and used. This envelope is dated 1862, the year the new stamps came into effect, and is a unique example of a free-post stamp being issued to a second class post office.

There we have it – one of a kind, in Whanganui!

Pressing Business

Proofing press

Some of the items we feature in From the Vaults are stored somewhere in the giant labyrinth beneath the museum, catalogued and carefully kept in temperature-controlled conditions until needed for display or research. Others are presented proudly behind glass, under lights or on models as part of a current or ongoing museum exhibition. Seldom do we find something that is in use, still doing the same job it was designed to do more than a century ago.
The museum is in possession of an ancient proofing press, once part of the Wanganui Chronicle plant and equipment, and now a working exhibit in the Whanganui Regional Museum tactile collection. When it was in daily use as a newspaper tool, printing staff would use it to print each page for proofing purposes, enabling a practised eye to be cast over the newsprint before going to press.
Museum educator, Margie Beautrais uses the machine as an educational tool at the museum. “We have the wooden poster type,” she says, “which is very old and very precious, and we feel really lucky to be allowed to use these with kids.”
The wooden type comes in many sizes and is stored in their original type drawers, also sourced from the Chronicle. Unfortunately, the museum does not possess a full complement of any particular font.
Included among the carved wooden letters is an array of logos and graphic art, once used in newspaper advertising. Margie has arranged all the letters in sizes so posters can be created with differing font styles of the same size. It works well and the posters look great.
“It’s all good learning for kids,” she says. “They find out that this stuff is called ‘furniture’ (wooden blocks used for line spacing) and these things are called ‘quoins’ (metal wedges) and they have to learn the writing goes backwards.”
Margie showed me some of the old Chronicle art she has used to create themed posters. There are ads and logos for long gone Wanganui companies, pictures of riverboats, Christmas art, the Wanganui District Council crest – all stamped in metal and glued to wooden blocks.
“Every child gets a tray, they get to choose a picture and they have to think of a word to go with it. It’s really good for supporting literacy,” she says. “I do a demo for them and they help me find the letters, working in pairs or by themselves.”
Margie holds up a mirror for the children to check their work before they move over to the press to ink it up and print a copy. The posters are then hung to dry and given to the school the following day.
When the proof press was given to the museum it went straight to the education programme, where it has been retained. “The value of it as an educational tool is high,” says Margie. “It’s not getting damaged. It’s fairly robust.”
To see it used as it was intended in a museum context is refreshing. “It’s old and it’s cool and it’s still being used,” she says. “I would love more schools to come and do this programme. It doesn’t get used as often as I would like. I’d like to run this programme every week.”
Teachers interested in any of the educational programmes on offer are urged to contact the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 2nd May 2 2012. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.

Time Travel…

Tooth of the Carcharodon megolodon, a giant shark, over 1 million years. Found near Pipiriki

Tooth of the Carcharodon megolodon, a giant shark, over 1 million years. Found near Pipiriki

An assignment with the geology collection in the Whanganui Regional Museum has given local teacher Keith Beautrais a walk through time that goes back even beyond the formation of our planet.

The Mokoia Meteorite, dated at over 4.5 billion years

The Mokoia Meteorite, dated at over 4.5 billion years

Ichthyosaur teeth from the Mesozoic period 252-66 million years

Ichthyosaur teeth from the Mesozoic period 252-66 million years

“This has already been a mind-expanding experience; to work with an amazing collection, and with scientists engaged in cutting-edge research”, Keith commented.



As part of a science-teacher fellowship run by the Royal Society of New Zealand the Wanganui Intermediate specialist has been sorting through the Museum’s collection of rocks and fossils, discovering just how much material there is.

Three lumbar vertebrae of a Dolphin, likely over 3.5 million years

Three lumbar vertebrae of a Dolphin, likely over 3.5 million years

Ammonite, relative of the Nautilus

Ammonite, relative of the Nautilus

Some of the specimens are 100-year-old rock samples acquired as teaching tools. Others are local fossils collected by palaeontologists or amateur rock hounds. Some have data on where and when they were collected, and most importantly, which rock stratum they came from; others have no label at all and will take some detective work to identify. Keith will be helping to register, photograph and rehouse the very best of our specimens in archival boxes while he is at the Musuem and will, no doubt, uncover some overlooked treasures too.

Phialopecten triphooki, ancestor of the scallop, 3 million years

Phialopecten triphooki, ancestor of the scallop, 3 million years

Because the Museum was without a curator of natural history for many decades, it has relied on sharp-eyed members of the public for specimens. If someone finds an interesting fossil, it is important to note down not just the time and place, but its exact location, even getting the latitude and longitude from Google Maps, including where exactly on the cliff face or stream bed it was found. A photo or sketch can also help. In 50 years’ time, after all, someone might want to find the exact spot and look for more. The all-important label needs to go in a plastic bag with the fossil; if they become separated, the specimen loses all its data and most of its value to researchers.

Teeth of a Pilot Whale, from Kakatahi

Teeth of a Pilot Whale, from Kakatahi

Well over a century of collection and donation has amassed a geology collection that can help young and old appreciate the deep time in evidence around us. Geologists call most of our local fossils “young” because three million years is only 5% of the time since dinosaurs died out. One thing these silent witnesses to our turbulent past remind us of is that, from the perspective of a million years ago, our daily priorities seem very short-term.

Dolphin skull from the Pliocene 5-2.5 million years, collected near Hawera

Dolphin skull from the Pliocene 5-2.5 million years, collected near Hawera

Mike Dickison, Curator of Natural History

With help from Keith Beautrais

New Zealand’s best kept secret

The Whanganui Regional Museum is just one feature of this amazing town with a great history.  A vibrant main street with quaint shops and little gems waiting to be discovered.  A great rural surrounding area with hidden attractions and new adventures waiting to be enjoyed.  A lively cultural sector with a lot to offer the mind.  Check out the video below and make a list of things to see the next time you pass through:

Whanganui – a great place o live, work, and play!

Seaworthy – Ships as Art

St Kilda

‘St Kilda’ by JC Ferry

Why have so many artists painted so many ships? The art galleries and museums of the world are filled with maritime paintings of billowing sails and storm-crested waves and wind-blown smoke stacks.
Life on board ship in the nineteenth century was not easy. Poor food, short commons, harsh enforcement of sea law, wet, cold, back-breaking work, poor pay, no social security, chronic health problems, danger, loneliness, pain … The romanticism of maritime art was not a feature of the sailor’s life but the ships and the seas where they lived and worked epitomised the yen for adventure. Maritime artists captured form and movement in paint, glorifying the vessels and shrugging off the hardships.

'Catherine Johnstone' by JA Gilfillan

‘Catherine Johnstone’ by JA Gilfillan

This selection of watercolour paintings is of ships that sailed to and from Whanganui and focuses on the days of sail and early steam, the 1840s to the 1900s. They capture the essence of shipping at that time. These maritime paintings are not just lovely images; they also give us an historical perspective. Paintings can exist for many hundreds of years. Think of the Michelangelos of Italy or the Rembrandts of the Netherlands. They are still available for the world to see and they still illustrate historical experience wherever they are shown; likewise these shipping paintings from Whanganui.

'Governor Gray' by Charles Heaphy

‘Governor Gray’ by Charles Heaphy

The Port of Wanganui
Shipping activity supported the development of the town of Whanganui. Its importance was appreciated by its population and idealised by the artists who left us this visual record.
The development of the town of Whanganui was due largely to the Port. The wharves were situated seven kilometres up the Whanganui River by the growing town. In 1855 Whanganui was created a Port of Entry with powers of custom and excise.

'Alexa' by unknown artist

‘Alexa’ by unknown artist

The waters were awash with ships. Whanganui surveyor G F Allen once recalled that in the 1860s, 65 ships were counted between Market Place and Castlecliff.
Plans were drawn up in the 1860s for Port improvements. In the next two decades a Harbour Board was set up. Significant work was done to deepen entry into the town wharves and two moles and a wharf were built at Castlecliff to open up shipping near the mouth of the river. Railways to and from the wharf sites were built, facilitating hugely improved internal transportation. The installation of a railroad linking with Wellington in 1886 did not suppress Wanganui shipping trade as it was still much cheaper to transport cargo and passengers by ship.
By the 1890s refrigeration had added value to the Port. Between 1908 and 1929, trade through the Port more than doubled and other industries such as woollen mills and phosphate works were established because of good port facilities.

'SS Wanganui' by William Goodwin

‘SS Wanganui’ by William Goodwin

Conserving our maritime art
Paintings need to be cared for. Sunlight, dirt, mould, insects, human carelessness and sheer wear and tear all take their toll. Museums and galleries reduce potential damage by providing optimal storage, handling, exhibition and security conditions for their paintings. Sometimes, however, paints, papers and mounts used may cause chemical or physical changes that result in damage.

Watercolour of 'Stormbird' by W Forster

‘Stormbird’ by W Forster

The painting of the Stormbird was in trouble. It had been glued onto a thick pine board that had dried out over the decades and almost split in two. The glue had discoloured the paper and was affecting the image. Painting Conservator Louise Newdick of Wellington carefully, millimeter by millimeter, removed the painting from the board with the help of a mild chemical solution, cleaned off the glue, repaired some small tears and stabilised it to prevent further deterioration. It was then remounted and framed for exhibition, and later, storage.

Miss Polly had a Dolly

Creepy, cool, or curious, dolls have been around for thousands of years. The Whanganui Regional Museum has over 300 dolls in the collection and here are a few samples.
StruwwelpeterOne doll represents a 19th century moral lesson for children. The handmade fabric Struwwelpeter is dressed in a green tunic with a pointed hat and resembles a mischievous imp. “Shaggy Peter” originated in 1845 as the main character in a book by Dr Heinrich Hoffman, a German psychiatrist. Struwwelpeter’s main aim in life is to scare small children into good behaviour through a series of violent moral tales, vividly illustrated. The original book illustrations show Struwwelpeter as a much more solid and rounded figure than the elf-like creature here, but the family who donated him to the Museum certainly remember him by his Shaggy Peter name.
Simon and Halbig dollAnother doll was given to the donor in 1908 when she was eight years old, living in Whanganui. The doll is dressed in a pale blue voile frock and leather shoes with white socks. She was made by Simon and Halbig of Grafenhain, Thuringia, in Germany, who made dolls from the 1870s until the 1920s and specialised in doll heads. These character heads can be found on top of the bodies of many other large German, French and American-made dolls.
German dollA doll made in Germany features the original clothing and a heart-warming back story. She was made in 1909 and has large brunette ringlets with a lace ribbon around the band of her head, a painted porcelain face with rolling eyes, and a body with jointed hips, knees, elbows and shoulders. The doll was won in a raffle in 1912 by a Mr Livingstone, a recent immigrant from Scotland. He bought the ticket from a Kimbolton School fundraiser while waiting on his family to join him. When his wife and daughter arrived, three year old Mary became the new owner of the doll. The doll came complete with clothes hand-made by senior students of the school, including undergarments, petticoats and a dress of broderie anglaise.
Celluloid baby dollCelluloid was a very popular material for dolls. In production from 1869 the pre-plastic material was celebrated, as it did not peel or flake and was cheaper to manufacture than the more traditional china. It could, however, fade in sunlight or crack if the celluloid was too thick. Never-the-less, it was still hardy. One celluloid doll in the collection takes the form of a large baby and is dressed in layers of wool and cotton clothing. It was made during the 1920s or 1930s, towards the end of the popularity of celluloid.
Christopher RobinA more contemporary doll looks a little different to the character we may be more familiar with today, but is a figure of Christopher Robin holding a teddy bear depicting Winnie the Pooh. The doll was made in the 1960s and has moveable joints. He is a “sleeping doll”, meaning the eyes close when he is laid down. He wears a brown velvet hat, light cream shirt, brown velvet pants, socks and brown plastic shoes. Christopher Robin was based upon the son of A A Milne who wrote the children’s classics, Winnie the Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

Sandi Black is the Archivist at the Whanganui Regional Museum. She has a background in anthropology and history.