Month: December 2014

Merry Christmas!

Christmaswith the Sarjeant staff

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!  From all the staff at the Whanganui Regional Museum and the Sarjeant Art Gallery, we hope you enjoy the festive season and we look forward to a great 2015!

And to help get you in the mood, check out these letters to Santa Claus from 100 year ago.  There might be a few more gadgets on the list these days but a lot of things don’t change.

The fat man cometh


Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Père Noël, Father Christmas, Santa Claus… whatever you call him, he’s on the way. If your house is home to the young (or young at heart) he will be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and his presence in the shops reminds us all we need to prepare the reindeer food.


Celluloid Santa, early 20th century

When we think of Santa we think of the kind, portly, older gentleman with a bushy beard and red suit, driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer and delivering gifts to well-behaved children. This image is older than we might think and is not entirely the work of The Coca-Cola Company, but is an amalgamation of several cultures’ beliefs and legends dating back hundreds of years.

The legend originates with Saint Nicholas in the 4th century. Even as a young boy in Greece, Nicholas was very religious and he grew up to enter the Church and eventually become a Bishop. He is usually depicted with a white beard, and was well known for his generosity and his gifts to the poor. After his canonisation he became known as Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors, archers, and pawnbrokers.


15407In the Middle Ages children were given gifts in honour of Saint Nicholas on the eve of his name day, 6 December. During the Reformation this date was transferred to the date of veneration for the saints on 24–25 December. Martin Luther encouraged the custom of giving gifts to children on this day and tried to the divert attention to Christ rather than the saints, even attempting to introduce the Christ Child as the giver of the gifts, but Saint Nicholas remained the preferred gift-giver of the people.


Sketch on the reverse of a 1917 painting

Pre-Christian Germanic peoples celebrated Yule in midwinter and many aspects of this celebration have carried through to modern times. Yule was thought to be a time of year when supernatural activity increased, the highlight of which was the ‘Wild Hunt’ where Odin led a ghostly group through the sky. Odin was a major god who was often depicted with a long white beard and a robe, usually blue, and rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipner when he visited his people with gifts. Although the hunt has changed to a dedicated delivery trip, the flight through the sky and long beard have remained, and reindeer have replaced the horse’s legs.

Yule involved other observations as well: the burning of the Yule Log; eating the Yule Boar; wassailing; and celebrating the Yule Goat. These days a few changes have evolved: we eat the Christmas chocolate log; the traditional Christmas ham remains; carolling is still carried out; but for many the celebration of the goat has been reduced to a figure in a nativity scene or a tree decoration.

Mechanical toy of Santa Claus playing the organ, originally from the Londontown Department Store then given to the Wanganui Hospital Children’s Ward before being donated to the Museum

Mechanical toy of Santa Claus playing the organ, originally from the Londontown Department Store then given to the Wanganui Hospital Children’s Ward before being donated to the Museum

Sinterklaas is a Dutch figure based on Saint Nicholas who dates back to the Middle Ages. He is portrayed as an older man with a long white beard who wears a red robe, ring, and mitre, and carries a large book which lists the behaviour of every child. Sinterklaas is celebrated by giving gifts to children on the eve or morning of 6 December, often including chocolate letters and spiced biscuits. He is still celebrated by many people today, and some children are lucky enough to receive gifts from both Sinterklaas on 6 December and Santa Claus on 25 December.

17516Father Christmas made his appearance in 16th century England during Henry VIII’s reign. He was a large, jolly man who wore green or red robes with fur lining and was the epitome of good cheer bringing peace, joy, food, wine, and festivity. He was celebrated on 25 December when England dropped the Feast of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, and the Victorian era saw a surge in his popularity.

15402Eventually, Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas merged into one being. The name ‘Santa Claus’ first appeared in an American publication in 1773, depicting a large man wearing a green winter coat. Admittedly this initial figure was a satirical dig at Dutch culture in New York but it started a new craze.


In 1821 a book titled A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published and included a poem called ‘Old Santeclaus’, illustrating an old man on a sleigh pulled by reindeer who gave presents to children. Then the well-known A Visit from St. Nicholas (commonly referred to as The Night Before Christmas) came out in 1823 and described the man we know and love: the fat, jolly, bearded man who drove a sleigh pulled by reindeer, landed on the roof, magically shimmied down the chimney with a bag of gifts and left some of them for children to discover in the morning. This biggest change from this image is that Santa has grown from a miniature elf to a full-sized man.

Pictorial Christmas Card from Aunt May to her niece Hilda, dated 1892

Pictorial Christmas Card from Aunt May to her niece Hilda, dated 1892

Many people believe that Santa wears red due to a highly successful advertising campaign by The Coca-Cola Company during the 1930s, but he has been wearing red since before the drink was invented. The Middle Ages Sinterklaas and 16th century Father Christmas both wore red, and he wore red and white robes in advertisements for White Rock Beverages in 1915. And prior to that Santa also appeared in his signature colour on the cover of Punch magazine several times, well before Coca-Cola used it.

So be good, listen out for sleigh bells on Wednesday night, and have a very Merry Christmas from everyone at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Fashionable art

Fashionable art I

This week, museum Visitor Experience Creator, Mandy Brooke, talks about a garment made especially for the 2008 Wearable Art Awards.  But the garment, a gown, was not accepted as it did not stand out enough on stage.  Made by Daniella Sasvari Markovits, a Hungarian immigrant to New Zealand, it has since won the Taranaki Arts Award, the Wearable Advertising competition for the House of Art and Framing and was worn by the NZ contestant in the Miss Teen World Beauty Pageant.

It was gifted to the museum in 2010 and was on display on a mannequin in the green room during the museum’s Colours exhibition.  So why did Mandy choose this gown to show us? “It was made in 2008 but it’s the idea that we make history all the time,” she says.

Fashionable art IIThe gown is called New Zealand in My Eyes and represents the landscape around Wanganui. Using applique technique and layers of fabric, the front of the gown features earth colours with a jewelled tree on the bodice. There’s a transition to a more realistic landscape on the back where we see paddocks, fences and sheep, a predominance of green and, again, a jewelled tree on the upper back.  The beadwork is detailed and intricate, using reflected light to add dimension to the work. It is art, of that there is no doubt. It is also wearable and has been worn where the world could see it. What better gallery for such a work of art?

“I love the colours; I love the landscapes,” says Mandy, “I love that it’s fabric turned into art.”  Mandy makes things herself and at the moment is setting up programmes in the museum so children can also ‘make things’.

Even though the gown is relatively new, it has enough history to have earned itself a place in the museum.  Daniella is still creating for wearable art, and gifting this gem to the museum has ensured its preservation and occasional display. It’s the best place for such a fragile work of art. “Fabric clothing needs special care,” says Mandy, and the museum is equipped to provide it.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in June 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

Mandy is no longer working at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Native Fishes of the Whanganui

A native grayling recently rediscovered in the collection, caught in the 19th century.

A native grayling recently rediscovered in the collection

New Zealand is famous for its extinct birds, but not many people know we have an extinct fish. The native grayling or upokororo (Prototroctes oxyrhynchus) was found in many rivers and streams, including the Whanganui basin. The size of a small trout, it was good eating and extensively fished by Māori and pākehā. By 1900 it was rare, and it disappeared in the 1920s.

Remarkably, we recently came across a native grayling in our collection. Some time in the 19th century it was skinned, stuffed with cotton wool, and mounted on a board (originally painted blue, from the traces of blue paint on the fish’s back). At nearly 30 cm long, it’s one of the largest specimens known.

It’s hard to imagine what the Whanganui River was like at the time that grayling was stuffed and mounted. The first pākehā settlers described the banks as steep and lined with piles of sunken logs. When this wood was dug out for building, the banks eroded back a chain (about 20 m) on both sides. A century ago, a newspaper accounts tells us, the Whanganui was clear enough for someone to find a wedding ring on the river bed that had been dropped from the town bridge; imagine trying to find anything dropped into the river today! There were numerous side streams, even in the middle of town, that have since been covered over and culverted.

The Giant kokopu (Galaxias argenteus)

The Giant kokopu (Galaxias argenteus)

The river and side streams would have teemed with native fishes. Not just eels, but īnanga (the main whitebait species) and many different kinds of kokopu. The largest was the giant kokopu, growing over 40 cm long and weighing up to 2 kg. We only know that giant kokopu lived here because the museum has one, preserved in alcohol, caught at Kaitoke in 1948. Who knows how much longer they hung on in the area before being wiped out by agriculture and overfishing?

The kokopu pool near Karaka Street

The kokopu pool near Karaka Street

Even today, you can still find native fishes in some of the remaining urban streams in Whanganui. Īnanga and eels live in the creek running behind Aramoho School, and rare freshwater mussels are still surviving in the Matarawa Stream that flows through Kowhai Park. The swampy wetland behind the houses in Karaka St drains into a small stream, which was originally created as a drainage ditch but turns out to have the largest population of banded kokopu (Galaxias fasciatus) we’ve yet found in the Whanganui area.

The banded kokopu (Galaxias fasciatus)

The banded kokopu (Galaxias fasciatus)

As part of River Week, local fish expert Stella McQueen and I ran a night-time fish-spotting expedition to Karaka Wetland. Most native fishes are nocturnal, so can only be caught with headlamps and nets. We caught, measured and photographed banded kokopu (some up to 24 cm) long and released them into the stream again, except for two, which are on display in our aquarium in the Museum atrium.

Raising awareness of native fishes is part of our job; these are taonga, some of them threatened or endangered, literally living in our backyards. They’re incredibly vulnerable: vandals, eel fishers, or someone thoughtlessly dumping a drum of paint thinner could wipe out a streamful of fishes that have hung on right through Māori and European settlement, from a time when the Whanganui and its streams only flowed through swamp and forest.

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Boning up on specialist matter

Boning up on specialist matter

Dr Eric Dorfman, director of the Whanganui Regional Museum, has a predilection for skeletons – and makes no bones about it. The museum is mausoleum, I mean home, to a remarkable number of bony structures, including a complete skeleton of a long extinct great auk. As well as a fascination for extinct species, among Eric’s many accomplishments was a time spent teaching zoology at the University of Sydney, so the anatomy of animals is of particular interest.

The object of this article is to make morphological comparisons between skeletons of different species, showing, mostly, the similarities.  We looked at the skeleton of a penguin, then that of a lizard, a lace monitor or goanna, seeing the bones of a ‘hand’ – similar components, scaled differently – in each and every bony framework, and not a lot different from a human hand. And look! A flamingo skeleton!

Using the skeletons of a hawk, the lizard, the flamingo and the penguin, as well as a large animal skull, probably from a cow, Eric made comparisons of particular bony parts. “What’s interesting about this is that it is a real lesson in evolution when you start looking at how these things are the same basic morphology [structure],” says Eric. “If you look at the hawk, as on most birds, the upper bill is thicker and bigger than the lower bill. But if you look at the flamingo, the reverse is true. It’s because to feed, they hold their heads upside down. They lower their head into the water and filter out brine shrimp.”

So how did that beak structure happen? “Undoubtedly the behaviour precedes the morphology,” says Eric, “in that over time the birds that had a subtle difference in their beaks had more offspring because they fed at a more efficient rate, they were healthier and they had more eggs survive.”

Interesting fact: the colour of the flamingo is determined by its diet. “The pink comes from sequestering the pigment from the shrimp in their feathers. If you stop feeding flamingos their native food they turn white or very light pink.” You are what you eat.

“The beak of the hawk is for tearing, the penguin bill is for grabbing … but they are modified from the exact same origin.”  We carefully arranged the skeletons of the hawk, lizard and penguin on a table, together with the cow skull – kind of a mini-representation of House of Bones, a museum exhibition currently showing.

“Aside from the fact it’ll be a lot of fun, the most exciting thing for me is to show a rich skeletal collection and, what I’m hoping people will get from the exhibition will be an intimate look at skeletal structure and what different bones are used for. I hope also for an understanding about the connection between different biological groups that are actually similar and closely related.”

The hawk and penguin are obviously closely related, Eric pointed out, but those similarities extend to other species. “If you compare the goanna to the hawk, the spine is extremely similar and so much more is the same. To me, evolution is obvious when you look at these things together.”

The good doctor’s knowledge of ancient species is encyclopaedic but the evolution of birds and lizards comprised much of Eric’s discussion as we looked at the skeletons. “If you were to investigate an emu you can see a little ‘thumb’ in its wing,” says Eric, “and this is one of things to remember – not everything has a purpose. One of the mistakes we make is to think that everything we see on an animal has to have meaning and we look for that meaning.”

He compared the skull of the goanna with that of the hawk and the similarities were unmistakable. Cover them with flesh and life and you would never know how much the same they are.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in September 2013.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

Whanganui First Contingent – Off to War


1802.3731On 5 August 1914 the Governor, Lord Liverpool, announced from the steps of Parliament to a crowd of more than 12,000 people that New Zealand was at war. Most New Zealanders then regarded themselves as British and Britain as home, so there was little hesitation in supporting the Mother Country in its moment of crisis.

The first request for support from “home” came sooner than many thought. On 7 August the New Zealand Government received a coded message from the British Government requesting that they capture the German wireless station in Samoa.

On 10 August 1914 twenty-five members of the New Zealand Railway Corps left Whanganui by train at noon for Wellington. Comparatively few Whanganui citizens were aware of their departure and consequently not many people were at the station to see them off.

The first draft for the Wellington Regt NZEF to leave Wanganui, 12th August 1914.

The first draft for the Wellington Regt NZEF to leave Wanganui, 12th August 1914.

The following day, however, the grim realities of war were brought home to these Whanganui men. When the Auckland troop train arrived in Wellington several of the carriages contained German prisoners who had been arrested in the north. There were guards with fixed bayonets to see that no attempt was made by the thirty-two captives to regain their liberty. Double lines from the ranks of the Railway Corps were drawn up on the platform, with fixed bayonets, and under a strong escort, the Germans were taken to the Alexandra Barracks. The scene as they were marched through the streets of Wellington was an impressive one, and the spectators realised that it was no superficial formality, but the stern custom of war that was being complied with.

The flag of German Samoa, taken by New Zealand Armed Forces in Samoa in August 1914.

The flag of German Samoa, taken by New Zealand Armed Forces in Samoa in August 1914.

Within a month of the declaration of war a New Zealand force had captured Western Samoa from Germany. The Union Jack was raised at Apia by New Zealand soldiers at 8.00am on 30 August 1914, the morning after the occupation. The capture was strategically important because there was a radio transmitter in the hills behind Apia capable of sending signals to Berlin and to the German fleet in the Pacific. The New Zealanders’ conquest was a peaceful affair, but it was marred by some disorder when New Zealand soldiers ransacked the liquor store at Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Apia.

A letter from home

A letter from home

Charlotte Fox of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, UK, wrote this letter in 1837 to her sister, Caroline Taylor, wife of Rev Richard Taylor. The Taylors were resident in Liverpool, NSW, at the time, having arrived in Australia a year before. It would be another two years before they would come to New Zealand.  It’s an ordinary, newsy letter, with no mention of anything of ‘serious’ historic interest, but fascinating in that it is written in a style known as ‘cross-hatching’.

Lines are written in the traditional horizontal fashion across the page until the page is full. Then, the page is used again with lines written at right angles to the first lines, creating a cross pattern. In this letter, both sides of the page are covered this way, save for a small rectangle for the recipient’s address and the 1837 original postmark.

So why did Sandi, Museum Archivist, choose this exhibit?  “It’s a real, personal story, a personal history; part of the reason why I got into the job. It’s a glimpse into somebody’s life back then,” she says.

The contents of the letter are fascinating and, apart from the archaic language, very much like the contents of a modern letter. There’s the usual fussing over the recipient’s health, plenty of gossip, mention of the ‘dear little nameless boy’ recently born to the Taylors and much more. A lot more, in fact, because they were able to use cross-hatching to fill the page with news.

The letter has been transcribed but so much remains illegible due to paper folds, age and the one-time use of sticky tape to repair the paper.  The writing is in ink and quite fine, allowing for very close penmanship and economic use of the paper. We assume it was easier to read 173 years ago.

Sandi comes to Wanganui after gaining a BA in English and Anthropology from Massey in Palmerston North. She went on to earn a Diploma in Archaeology from Otago and then took museum studies at Massey, earning another diploma.  Her first job was in the collection department at Te Papa under a nine-month contract. Sandi later covered for Trish Nugent at Whanganui Regional Museum and applied for the archivist’s job when it came up.

She says she’s loving the role and right now they’re in the middle of the huge digitisation project. Photos and film negatives are all being turned into digital files, eventually to be made available in low resolution on the museum website.

“It’s for our records as well as to monitor them and keep a record of what they look like now, as opposed to what they may look like in 50 years’ time,” says Sandi.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in April 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

Phone books ring changes

Phone Books ring changes

Every year, telephone subscribers throughout the country receive an up-to-date directory, handily divided into ‘white’ and ‘yellow’ pages but old copies can be hard to come by.  The Whanganui Regional Museum has a only few in the collection and needs more, says staff member Pat Goldfinch. They are looking for Wanganui telephone directories published before 1980.
As an historical document, they are invaluable, says Pat. “They tell you such a lot about the city, who lived there, what businesses were operating … and we throw them away.”
Recycling may account for a lack of modern copies, but when the directory was first printed, the phone would have been a rarity, and one’s name on the list would have implied some sort of social, if not economic, status. So why are there so few early copies?
The earliest directory in the museum is dated 1907, and a colour photocopy of the tattered and torn original is available for viewing. One of the entries is for Calver, John, with his occupation as Butcher and address as Riverbank. The area is still known as Calver’s Corner, although his butcher’s shop has long since gone. The directory is by no means a register of Wanganui citizens of the time. “You had to have been of substance to own a telephone,” says Pat, so the book is more like a Who’s Who. A WA Prowse advertised his dentist’s surgery, guaranteeing ‘absolutely no danger, pain or after effects’, proving advertising was no more truthful in 1907. The builder of the Opera House, Collegiate School and much more of Wanganui, Nicholas Meuli, has two listings – private and business. The Opera House and Opera House Stables are listed separately with St Hill St addresses. “This is a slice of life from 1907,” says Pat. Perambulator tyres could be purchased from Turner and Co, phone 319, and Whitlock’s is listed as sauce and pickle manufacturers, although Fred Whitlock had no domestic phone number.
Telephone subscribers were also listed in numerical order near the back of the book, followed by subscribers from around the region and the number of each exchange, sub-exchange and bureau, with hours of operation. The bureau office at Peep-o-Day was particularly intriguing.
Charges for making a phone call started at 3d for three minutes over the shortest distance by subscribers. Non-subscribers started at 6d for the same distance. Charges rose steeply from there, making talking long-distance an expensive exercise.  Service was evidently important with the following message included in the directory: ‘You are respectfully requested to report at once, in writing, by the first telegraph message boy, or otherwise, any want of attention at the exchange, giving us full particulars as possible.’
The next directory is dated 1934 and contains a list of ‘courtesies’ for callers to observe, explaining how to answer and end a call. ‘The essence of telephone service is brevity,’ it concludes. It also contains step-by-step directions for operating ‘automatic’ telephones. There are even advertisements promoting the telephone (‘what a convenience, what a comfort’) for the princely subscription of 13s 2d a month, not including toll calls.  “No wonder there were not many people on the phone,” Pat says.
The 1934 directory contained, for the first time, a separate ‘classified’ section for businesses only. A notice near the front of the book directed the reader to the ‘lemon-coloured pages at the back’.  “My dad used to work for Maypole,” says Pat, finding the number for the Victoria Ave grocery shop.
In the 1961 directory, the Post Office classified business telephone directory is called ‘The Yellow Pages’ and the layout – and many of the names and businesses – is more familiar. By then the bureau of Peep-o-Day had disappeared but party lines were still the norm in country areas.
If you have old phone books you would like to donate to Whanganui Regional Museum phone archivist Sandi Black, 349 1110.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 3 July 2013.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.