Month: June 2015

Hug a Museum Worker Day is coming!


Get ready, the first international Hug a Museum Worker Day is set to take place this coming Monday 29th June 2015.  This is a new initiative and you can read all about it here.  It started in the United States but will no doubt spread across the globe – the South Canterbury Museum are already getting into it!

So stretch your arms, practice your reach, and remember to hug a museum worker on Monday.

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Dr Eric Dorfman’s professional credentials would be a separate – and very long – story. The books he’s written and studies he has made, in themselves, would make a fascinating Midweek article (note to self: write fascinating Midweek article about Dr Eric Dorfman’s books and published studies).

In this issue, however, we treat him as the recently appointed director of the Whanganui Regional Museum and hear about his interest in the long extinct Tasmanian Wolf, Thylacinus cynocephalus.

To do that I had to follow the tall, one-time Californian (but I think New Zealand has claimed him now) down into the bowels of the museum, shuffling between shelves until finding dozens of specimens of the taxidermists’ art. There we encountered our Tasmanian Wolf.

The museum has a stuffed specimen, collected by the museum’s founder, Samuel Drew, sometime around 1891, well before the species met its total demise. It looks its age, poor thing, but the astounding fact is that we have one.

Eric lived in Australia for some years and knows a bit about these creatures. So why did he choose it to present to Midweek?  “It’s immensely cool from the fact that we have an extinct Australian species of which there are only a few in the world and exemplifies the importance of the collection internationally, as well as nationally. It’s cool on a personal level because I’m a conservationist by profession and there is still an effort afoot to see if maybe there are some left in Tasmania … and evolutionarily it’s very cool because although it looks like a dog it’s actually more closely related to a kangaroo, koala or wombat.”

The Thylacine is a marsupial and has a pouch like a kangaroo … well, the female does. The museum’s specimen is an adult male. Eric says they are more closely related to the quoll, another Australian animal, which is “more like a marsupial weasel”.  “From an evolutionary standpoint, this is convergent evolution with a dog,” says Eric. “Also biologically that’s very interesting.  One of my research thrusts is about humans’ relationship with nature,” he says. Eric has a book coming out later this year – Intangible Natural Heritage – of which he is author/editor in league with a team of distinguished authors.

Looking at this sad, stuffed specimen, Eric sees past the obvious and finds a symbol of “our coming of age as a society when we realise that doing this [making animals extinct] is a really bad thing.” He stresses that while this new-found consciousness is too late for some species, it’s not too late for many others.

He praises the work of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and its work here and overseas. “DOC is supporting other countries, including the United States, in methodology of setting up island sanctuaries … and it’s fantastic to be in New Zealand – even though this is an Australian species – from the point of view of this is a place where we have come of age in terms of the environment, and I hope we stay there. You can see why this launches into a lot of really interesting philosophical issues … and also thinking about where museums have been and where they’re going.”

It’s incredible, almost, to realise that Samuel Drew, Whanganui Regional Museum founder, actually helped, in his way, send species such as the huia extinct. He did that by trading stuffed huia (probably) to get an example of another species that, itself, would be extinct in another 50 years. At the time he traded for the Tasmanian Wolf, it was reasonably common but he needed it for his marsupial collection.

“No museum curator has ever intentionally sent a species extinct,” says Eric, “but back in the 19th century when species looked like they were going extinct, often, museum curators would run out to make sure they had them in their collection before anyone else got them … the huia was a victim of that kind of thing.”

The Thylacine was once a pan-Australian species, says Eric, with cave paintings to prove it was once even in the very north of Australia in Kakadu National Park. “By the time Drew was around it was restricted to Tasmania,” he says, although it was being hunted until its final (probable) extinction in the 1930s.

Eric says there is enough genetic material in existence so that, one day, techniques of cloning may be able to reintroduce the species. And so we looked at Samuel Drew’s legacy, part of his vision of a great museum that was all-encompassing.  “We now ‘get’ why he did it,” says Eric, “and we now have this incredible treasure. This is an amazing thing to have.”

There are lemurs from Madagascar and animals from all around the world, some exhibited upstairs, others hiding from the light below decks in the vaults. The Thylacine stands with them, an example of old ethics and philosophies and yet a symbol of what we are today. And if we do manage to clone them back into existence, will we look after them this time? The last word goes to Dr Eric Dorfman.

“If the Thylacine is never going to be reinvented and really is extinct, and the same with the huia, don’t we owe it to the species and owe it to ourselves to allow it to awaken us to the realities of what we’re doing to the planet?”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek newspaper in June 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the author.

Sampler a right old age

Sampler a right old age

I did not know that a beginner’s exercise in embroidery is called a sampler. So when Kathy Greensides says she’s got a 1787 sampler for her turn in our From the Vault series, I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.  The only samplers I knew were manufactured by Griffins and came in a large box or tin.

I guessed that wasn’t what Kathy meant, unless the museum kept 223-year-old mouldy biscuits in the basement.  My enlightenment was audible – like a clunky old bakelite switch – when I saw this embroidered treasure. Of course, it’s not strictly a sampler because whoever made it is hardly a beginner.

The sad thing is we know almost nothing about the needle wielder, the person who sewed the design into the fabric and created what is now a relic of history. Her name was A Rouse and Kathy is fairly sure she was an adult at the time of the sampler’s creation.

It is a map of England and Wales, depicting each shire in different coloured outlines and naming each one. Some grab your attention immediately. Liverpool – spelled Leverpool on the sampler – caught Kathy’s eye because that’s where she’s from. That’s one reason why she chose it.

“I actually sew,” she says. “I do embroidery and cross-stitch, so when I found it …”

The map also shows the coasts of Ireland and France as well as some of southern Scotland. The North Sea bears its original name of the German Ocean, a name that changed after early 20th century hostilities deemed anything German unacceptable in England.

Kathy tells me it is on linen, has a linen backing and looks like it was once framed. The colours are still quite vivid and the thread is silk.

Other places named on the sampler have a connection with Kathy and her family, like the Isle of Man where she used to holiday, although she says she never went there during the Isle of Man TT (motorbike races).  “We used to avoid it then because it was so busy and expensive.”

However, her uncle would have gone. He was actually the Viking King of Man for a long time, says Kathy.  “He used to wear the helmet and everything,” and I don’t think she means a motorbike helmet.

It’s an old Norse tradition, she says.  “Every year they’d get out the longboats and they’d all dress up. They’d have feasts and longboat races. As he was the king he’d preside over it all.” She says he was a large man with a big, full beard and he’d tell stories about the fairies. She says that an island demands that the fairies are chased away in a particularly strenuous ritual, during which her uncle fell into a rabbit hole and broke his leg. Thereafter this Viking king would take great delight in telling people how he had to explain to his doctor how he injured himself chasing fairies.

The Isle of Man is obviously a lot more than just a tax haven.

Kathy works with collections, which is how she discovered this embroidered treasure.  “I put stuff away. I accession it, photograph it and when that’s done I find a place for it. So I was putting some things away and had to pull this out [the sampler] to get to one of the boxes and I saw the label on it,” she says.

That we know so little about this artifact – and many others – is of some concern. It was gifted to the museum by Mr Morrie Randall in 1974, but we have no idea who made it and why. We can only assume it was made in the UK and the date stitched into linen is 1787. That expensive silk thread was used says something about the fortunes of the maker’s family … perhaps. The thread could have been a gift, for all we know.

Kathy has made the odd sampler. “It makes you think you should write a little about yourself and stitch it on to the back for future generations,” she says. Good idea, that way the work arrives at the museum with a ready-made provenance.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek June 2010.  Reproduced with permission of the author.

Eruption of Mt Tarawera left its mark

The Haszard House at Te Wairoa, before and after the eruption.  Photograph by C. Spencer (NZ-NI-TL-029-030)

The Haszard House at Te Wairoa, before and after the eruption. Photograph by C. Spencer (NZ-NI-TL-029-030)

Mt Tarawera was thought to be extinct by Māori and Pākehā, but 129 years ago it proved itself alive and active with the onset of the deadliest volcanic eruption in New Zealand’s known history.

The Pink Terrace.  Lithographer: A D Willis (1964.186.1)

The Pink Terrace. Lithographer: A D Willis (1964.186.1)

Mt Tarawera had an unusual shape for a volcano with a plateau at the top and multiple vents which were formed by eruptions around 1314 AD. The region was a very popular tourist destination and was visited for its scenic beauty, thermal activity, and of course the Pink and White Terraces which were often written about and featured on many postcards and lithograph prints. The Terraces covered more than three hectares and were formed over hundreds of years as water from a geyser above Lake Rotomahana ran down the mountainside leaving deposits of silica.


Lake Tarawera, three and a half months before the eruption.  Water colour painting by John Tiffin Stewart, 17 February 1886 (1805.83.33)

Lake Tarawera, three and a half months before the eruption. Water colour painting by John Tiffin Stewart, 17 February 1886 (1805.83.33)

After centuries of quiet there were signs that something was brewing beneath the ground. There was a reported increase in thermal activity in the area and a surge in lake levels. Then renowned guide Sophia Hinerangi was leading a tourist party of both Māori and Pakeha on Lake Tarawera when they witnessed a phantom waka rowed by warriors gliding silently toward them across the water, before it vanished in front their eyes.


Sophia reported this vision to a tōhunga (priest), Tūhoto Ariki, who interpreted it as an omen of impending disaster and believed that Māori were about to be punished for using tourism to exploit the area without proper acknowledgement to the ancestors. Ten days later his prophecy of disaster came to fruition.

Shortly after midnight on 10 June 1886 a series of increasingly powerful earthquakes shook the region and an unusual display of lightening was visible around the peak of the mountain.  At around 2.00am a very strong earthquake was felt, accompanied by a loud explosion, and half an hour later the three peaks – Wāhanga, Ruawāhia, and Tarawera – were in full eruption with three distinct columns of lava and smoke being thrown up to 10 kilometres into the night sky.

At around 3.30am the mountain entered the largest phase of the eruption when the vents on Rotomahana created a pyroclastic surge so large it destroyed the Pink and White Terraces and several villages located within a 6 kilometre radius.

The Village of Te Wairoa before and after the eruption.  Photograph by C. Spencer.  (NZ-NI-TL-025)

The Village of Te Wairoa before and after the eruption. Photograph by C. Spencer. (NZ-NI-TL-025)

The eruption was over by dawn, but the air was so thick with ash that it was as dark as night from Rotoiti to Maketū. Rescue parties ventured out to search for survivors and bring them back to the Te Arawa people who gave them food, shelter, and clothing.


A group of survivors taken three days after the eruption, including Guide Sophia in the centre.  Photograph by Burton Brothers (NZ-NI-TL-039)

A group of survivors taken three days after the eruption, including Guide Sophia in the centre. Photograph by Burton Brothers (NZ-NI-TL-039)

They discovered that the eruption had completely buried several villages including Te Tapahoro, Moura, Te Ariki, Tōtarariki and Waingongongo. Te Wairoa was also hit severely, but because it had stronger buildings, more survivors were found at this settlement, including more than sixty people who had taken refuge in Guide Sophia’s hut. Te Wairoa is now commonly known as The Buried Village and is still a popular tourist destination.

Tūhoto Ariki also survived the eruption and was found in his hut four days after it had been buried beneath ash and mud; the tōhunga passed away a few weeks later. The death toll varies from document to document, but officially sits at 153.

The eruption affected most of the country. The noise was heard as far south as Blenheim and the effects of the ash in the sky were seen as far away as Christchurch. Earthquakes were felt throughout the North Island, and in Auckland the sound of the eruption and flashes of lightning were misinterpreted by some as an attack by the Russian warship which had recently visited Wellington.

The remains of the church at Te Wairoa after the eruption.   Photograp by Burton Brothers (NZ-NI-TL-032)

The remains of the church at Te Wairoa after the eruption.
Photograp by Burton Brothers (NZ-NI-TL-032)

It is estimated that two cubic kilometres of tephra (volcanic material, as scoria and dust) was ejected from the volcano over the six hour-long eruption, more than was recorded in the eruption of Mt St Helens, Washington, USA, in 1980. Land up to 10 kilometres away was buried under mud and ash one metre deep and ash was spread over thousands of square kilometres. It was even reported that some volcanic ash had landed on the steamer Southern Cross which was sailing off the East Cape, over 150 kilometres away.


The force of the eruption changed the landscape and left a 17 kilometre rift across the top of the mountain. Lake Rotomahana, which had previously been around 30 feet deep and covered an area of 284 acres, was now 250 feet deep and covered an area 20 times the size. The heat had forced the water to dry up and a series of craters, geysers and mud holes were left in its place. It took seven years for the water to return and fill the lake.

The Healing Power of Nature

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

By Dr Eric Dorfman, Director

People who live close to nature know first-hand the benefits of integrating a positive relationship with the natural world into their lives. In many cultures, however, people spend far less time in nature than even 25 or 50 years ago. In fact, many aspects of western culture actively discourage people from spending time there and pervasive urbanisation is beginning to change our fundamental relationship with nature.

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

Parents have become fearful about their children playing outdoors and children who grow up mainly in built environments often fear nature, largely because it is unfamiliar. In movies, newspapers, and in exaggerated personal stories, nature is often portrayed as the villain or evil and these stories contribute to a social outlook that is increasingly “biophobic” (afraid of nature). In a very short period of time, humanity has moved from the industrial revolution to a technical one in which people are able to live their entire lifetimes rarely having to encounter nature at all. Exceptions to this isolation often occur only in the midst of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes and tidal waves. Lack of contact leads to lack of understanding, which leads to fear.

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

And yet, research has shown that spending time in natural spaces strengthens neighbourhood ties, reduces crime, stimulates social interactions among children, strengthens family connections and decreases domestic violence, assists new immigrants cope with transition and is cost effective for health benefits. Despite a global reaction in coalitions such as “Leave No Child Inside” or “Children and Nature Network” that have formed in the US and “Natural England” in the UK, western society is increasingly losing the potential benefits of this lifestyle.

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

New Zealanders are, in many ways, exceptions to this trend. We have always celebrated activities such as canoeing, tramping, kayaking and mountaineering – all outside. For many of us here it is important that we encourage others to be outdoors, often teaching our kids outdoor travelling and life skills, all helpful in being more at home outdoors. Probably every one of us believes that being outdoors creates health and wellness benefit. It’s not surprising, then, that in Whanganui much of our most quintessentially local imagery is based outdoors and, of course, much of that associated with our magnificent river.

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

When going through the Museum’s collection of objects and imagery, that connection to nature is palpable. We can see furniture and implements made from local woods, herbarium specimens carefully pressed into exacting symmetry, photos of families enjoying picnics or working on the river to partake of its bounty. Many of our taxidermy specimens come from the bush and wetlands that, while substantially reduced, still exist here.

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This opportunity to engage with our natural environment is also the reason many tourists come here, to watch the excitement of the Jet Sprints or to enjoy the solitude of paddling downriver on a canoe. All around us, the reminders of nature are everywhere in Whanganui, in front of our eyes.

Weekend Entertainments

Well it’s official, Winter is here.  And it has arrived with a vengeance!  New Zealand has been hit by storms with flooding, snow, and school closures in parts of the country.

The weekend doesn’t look like it’s going to be another nasty weekend so why not stay inside and keep entertained with some fun games?

You can download the Women of Science kit and learn all about the invaluable contributions women have made to the science sphere.

Or visit the British Museum or Getty Museum game sites and learn about their collections while completing the fun challenges.

Or why not visit your local museum?!?  We’ve got a selection of games in our exhibition spaces at the moment and more are coming soon.  We’ll see you there!

Tragic tale of huia’s extinction

Tragic tale of huia's extinction

Wallis Barnicoat talks about the extinct native bird, the huia as she has a connection with a book and the man who wrote it.  “As small children we used to visit WJ Phillips (whom my father called Bill) and his wife Esther, with our parents. He was once the registrar and ethnologist at the old Dominion Museum and my father probably met him through family friends and due to their mutual love of New Zealand history, especially early settler/Maori history.”

WJ Phillips was the author of The Book of the Huia, a reference work Wallis used when preparing for this story. “Phillips’ work was published in 1963, and when he started researching it in 1953 he was able to interview elderly people who, when younger, had shot huia or seen them in the bush. Their anecdotes, which are peppered throughout the book, are all very fascinating.”

Wallis says the chapter that interests her most is that of the bird’s decline into extinction.  It’s a tragic tale and Phillips equates it to the destruction of the dodo in Madagascar: “Thoughtless and careless destruction brought about by the advance of a new people into a new land.”

Although the bird was finally considered extinct in 1907 (there were some unconfirmed sightings after that), Sir Walter Buller, a famous ornithologist, in 1870 was saying, “Erelong it [the huia] will exist only in our museums and other collections”.

The huia was sacred to Maori and the tail feather was considered particularly valuable. Unfortunately European fashion also considered the feathers essential as accessories and hat adornments, leading to a flourishing export trade until the bird was no more.  A tipping point was in 1902 when the visiting Duke of York was presented with a feather for his hat. Of course Europe and the UK had to copy.  Additional factors such as settlers clearing bush for farming as well as the introduction of predators such as weasels, ferrets and stoats, meant the huia was not long for this land.

Buller was dead right. The Whanganui Regional Museum has a small number of the birds, provenance unknown. Interestingly enough, even the specimens in our museum are lacking a few tail feathers. Perhaps the five quid bounty per tail feather was too appealing to the early collector.

Article originally appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in February 2010.  Reproduced with publishers’ permission.

Native falcons and people

4. head close-up

The New Zealand falcon is one of our rarest native birds, but it’s still socially-acceptable, at least in some circles, to shoot them. How can this be?

12003036122805125_28d51e8651_bNative falcons, or kārearea, are found throughout the country, but in low numbers; there are just a few thousand left, about the same population size as kea, rarer than brown kiwi. Falcons were much more common before extensive forest clearance, but they are adaptable birds and can survive in farmland and pine plantations. What they can’t survive is human persecution. Despite being a protected native species under the Wildlife Act, molestation of which will get you a hefty fine, they are routinely and illegally shot by farmers and pigeon-fanciers for killing domestic birds. One estimate is that 200 falcons are shot each year. Imagine if people were shooting 200 kiwi a year – there’d be a huge uproar.

12003036196756171_1c1ae07293_oThe NZ falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae) should be familiar to every New Zealander; it’s on the $20 note. But few people have ever seen one in the wild. The bird of prey everyone knows is the harrier hawk (Circus approximans) which arrived just a few hundred years ago from Australia. Before then New Zealand had a giant eagle, a giant hawk and a falcon, of which only the falcon has survived, just.

3. Soaring harrierHarrier hawks are very familiar because they eat roadkill and like open farmland so we spot them everywhere as we drive. They’re often seen soaring high, scanning the ground for prey. Falcons, on the other hand, are incredibly fast fliers and hunt on the wing, snatching birds out of the air. Their wings are narrow and pointed, which makes them poor gliders but as manoeuvrable as a fighter jet. Most sightings of a falcon are of a bird flashing past, giving its distinctive “kek-kek-kek” cry.

Because falcons are bird-hunters they sometimes come into conflict with humans. One recent case in New Plymouth is typical. A flock of 20 white fantail pigeons was picked off, one by one, over three years. One pigeon can keep a falcon fed for a week so when they find a ready supply they’ll settle down for a while. A friend of mine, from out past Fordell, has had the same problem. First his pigeons disappeared, then half his flock of chickens. He surprised the culprit in the act, a juvenile falcon that was probably wandering in search of a territory of its own. In both these cases nobody reached for a rifle, but falcons are not always so lucky. Perhaps in the case of real troublemakers, we could do what’s done with kea, and trap and translocate the bird to a remote area where it wouldn’t cause a problem.

5. eating on postFalcons living amongst humans can, however, have a positive effect. Sara Kross, a researcher at the University of Canterbury, studied the effect of falcons nesting in Marlborough vineyards. Bird damage to grapes is a multi-million-dollar problem for growers, and they employ bird-scarers full-time to drive round and round on quad bikes, trying to frighten off flocks of starlings and silvereyes. Sara found that a falcon in the vineyard terrified pest birds, in some cases reducing damage by 90% and saving growers hundreds of dollars per hectare.

1. WingspanWingspan Bird of Prey Centre near Rotorua is a rehabilitation facility and education centre for native birds of prey, and they were recently involved in a project with the Rotorua Museum, where young falcons were introduced to the downtown Government Gardens via a shelter or “hack box” on the Museum’s roof. There was a ready pool of volunteer falcon watchers to keep an eye on them and help them adjust to adulthood and learning to hunt for themselves. The project seems to have been a success, and has paved the way for more introductions of this rare species to urban centres.

Could a similar exercise work in Whanganui? Are we ready for urban falcons? Queens Park would be an ideal environment for them, and they would certainly take care of the feral pigeons that hang out on the roof of the Sarjeant Gallery and the starlings and mynas that roost in the trees by the Library. Perhaps this trend will catch on, and every town in New Zealand will have its own native falcons, a natural form of avian pest control. But the crew of the Waimarie might need to watch out for their carrier pigeons.

Nesting falcons are very territorial, and will swoop down and attack anyone getting too close to their chicks. Researchers have to wear helmets or stout leather hats.

Nesting falcons are very territorial, and will swoop down and attack anyone getting too close to their chicks. Researchers have to wear helmets or stout leather hats.

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