Month: March 2018

Stick Insects

Stick insects are often overlooked, and that’s the way they like it.

New Zealand is home to a wide variety of stick insects, from the horrid stick insect (Argosarchus horridus) with a body as long as your hand, to spiky creatures smaller than your little finger. Most species of stick insects are found in the tropics, so it’s peculiar for a cool-temperate country like us to have so many, even a mountain stick insect (Mimarchus tarsatus) that lives in South Island tussock that’s covered by snow all winter.

1. prickly stick insect

Prickly stick insect (Acanthoxyla prasina).  Photograph: Alan Gilchrist.

Although they’re relatively common, stick insects excel in hiding. Our New Zealand species are flightless and defenceless. If discovered, they will sway gently like a twig in the breeze, or drop comatose to the ground, where can lay immobile for up to half an hour before reviving and climbing a tree again. The best way to find them is by beating. Hold a white sheet or umbrella under a tree or shrub and hit the branches sharply with a stick and down they’ll drop. Over the last few months the Whanganui Regional Museum has been doing that on field trips around Whanganui and the Manawatū, and we now have a half dozen stick insects of different species, sizes and colours in captivity.

Stick insects are easy to keep. They only need a regular supply of green leaves (pohutukawa seems to be a favourite) and an occasional spray with a plant mister. They’re happy to be handled, and are a great “gateway insect” for children who might be nervous about handling a creepy-crawly, as they’re completely harmless. They spend most of their time slowly munching on leaves and laying eggs.

2. stick insect cage

Stick insects live happily in a cage as long as it’s not too hot and dry, and there’s a constant supply of fresh leaves. Photograph: Whanganui Regional Museum.

It’s possible to breed stick insects even if you only have one, because some of the most common species, the spiky stick insects (Acanthoxyla), are parthenogenetic. This means that no males are needed, with mothers laying eggs from which hatch only daughters. In fact, until this year, no males had ever been seen. Then one was found, in England of all places. The species had been introduced to England in the 1920s and is doing well. Males seem to be very rare mutants, not required for reproduction.

Because some stick insect species have just one sex and others have both, their genetics are very interesting to entomologists. Studying their DNA has also revealed unknown species hiding in plain sight. One of the new species was recently given the scientific name rakauwhakanekeneke, te reo Māori for “the stick that walks”.

3. stick insect eggs

If kept in a damp dish, but not allowed to go mouldy, stick insect eggs will hatch after a few months into tiny versions of the adults. Photograph: Whanganui Reigonal Museum.

The stick insects in captivity in the Museum have been growing steadily, and we’ve collected dozens of eggs, which are currently incubating. The hatchlings will be released back into the bush. Unfortunately, stick insects have a short life expectancy. They hatch in spring, reach full size in a few months, and usually don’t survive the winter. When ours die, we’ll preserve the bodies and put them on display in a new insect exhibition ready for when the Museum re-opens in October. Visitors will be confronted by a case full of sticks and invited to work out how many of them are insects.

 

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

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Whanganui – forgotten capital of the Arts and Crafts Movement

With a number of cultural festivals and events unfolding over summer, this time of year is especially busy for Whanganui. The town has long stood out as a magnet for arts and culture, drawing creative people in from far and wide. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a major centre of New Zealand’s Arts and Crafts Movement.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts Movement was overturning the cluttered look we associate with the Victorian era. A response to urbanisation and mass-production in Britain, it was a design approach which recalled the pre-industrial world. It embraced hand crafting, simplicity, and nature-inspired patterns.

In 1892 Whanganui became the fourth city in the country to establish a formal arts school. This was the Wanganui Technical School (which eventually merged into the Wanganui Technical College). At this point, design training was an important part of most trades. The Wanganui Technical School taught both boys and girls – woodwork and metalwork were popular for girls and allowed for a career in the design world. Staff had Government funding to travel to all surrounding settlements in the Whanganui region and teach regular classes – art and design was equally accessible in rural areas.

3. Art class at Wanganui Technical School

 Art class at Wanganui Technical School. Auckland Weekly News, 15 August 1901.

While work was sent back to England for marking under a British syllabus, students were encouraged to incorporate native plants into art nouveau designs, and Māori carving and weaving was brought in for exhibition, appreciation and study. New Zealand materials like pāua shell and pounamu were inlaid into finely crafted domestic objects, such as picture frames and mantelpieces. The Movement evolved into a unique New Zealand form.

Edith Collier is the most well-known ex-student of the Wanganui Technical School, but her sister Dorothy was also an accomplished artist. A hammered pewter clock made by her is in the Museum collection, and it is a fine example of the art nouveau look that was emerging in the 1900s.

1. Dorothy Collier clock

Clock with pewter body made by Dorothy Collier. Ref: 2007.52

The Wanganui Art Society was founded in 1898, and a local Arts and Crafts Society appeared in 1901. These groups provided plenty of opportunity for locals to hone their artistic talents, holding regular competitions and exhibitions. For those Arts and Crafts enthusiasts with money to spend, Whanganui also had New Zealand’s first Liberty of London outlet store – one of the most luxurious department stores ever.

2. Liberty Shop

 The Victoria Avenue Liberty shop. From Wanganui Coronation Souvenir 1911.

Opened in 1905 by Mrs Martin, customers could buy “art furniture”, “art needlework”, William Morris fabric, and Tudric pewter ware. Some artists frowned upon Liberty’s as it was suspected that items on sale were mass-produced. The shop was eventually taken over by the Alcorn family; Margaret and Mary Alcorn had one Liberty outlet in Wellington, and a cousin ran another in Christchurch.

4. Liberty Advertisement

 Liberty Advertisement from the Wanganui Chronicle 3 July 1907, page 3.

The Arts and Crafts Movement remained popular in New Zealand right into the 1950s, long after it had faded from popularity elsewhere. A number of local houses were built which carry a distinct cottage look typical of the style. Durie Hill was planned by prominent architect Samuel Hurst Seager according to Arts and Crafts ideals. The state houses of the 1930s-1950s are a further legacy of the Movement. All in all, Whanganui is a forgotten capital of the home-grown Arts and Crafts Movement and deserving of greater appreciation.

 

Scott Flutey is a student of Museum and Heritage Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He is working as a summer intern at Whanganui Regional Museum.

 

Hidden in the Seams

The Whanganui Regional Museum houses a textiles collection with about 3,600 items ranging from early pieces of clothing, including dresses, skirts and shirts, jackets, hats, gloves and lingerie, as well as samples of needlework, lacework and embroidery. There are also domestic items such as tablecloths, quilts, tea-cosies and household linens. Add tapa cloth and mats and rugs, and the range is significant. The items provide important information about their role in different eras, and in the skill required to create them.

1. Silk dress

 Silk taffeta dress from around 1860. Ref: 1968.13.1

The way a garment is constructed can tell a lot. The choice of fabric, the quality of materials used, style, silhouette and colour combinations can offer hints about the era when it was made and about the person who wore it. Even something as simple as the stitching can tell a story.

The craft of sewing by hand was a necessary skill for women settlers in colonial New Zealand. Sewing materials like thread, fabric and needles arrived in Church Missionary settlements as early as 1820, and the ability to create, mend and repair textiles was essential. Dressmakers and tailors started to arrive by around 1840 and offer their services, but many people were in isolated areas or simply could not afford to have clothing made by professionals; therefore, sewing from home remained an essential part of life for women and girls.

As a seamstress, a woman was required to know a myriad of stitches for different purposes: hem stitch, top stitch, straight stitch, blanket stitch, tack, chain stitch, darning stitch, slip stitch, pad stitch, buttonhole stitch, to name but a few.

For many years clothing was either prohibitively expensive or fabrics were hard to source. Sewing was important in making clothing last longer, let alone creating something from scratch. Mending was an art. When clothing was faded, it was taken apart and sewn back together wrong-side-out, or the fabric used as trim or lining for new clothes. When the fabric wore out it was reused to make quilts or other functional items. These settler people understood Reduce, Reuse, Recycle out of pure necessity.

2. Inner of silk dress

 Lining of the same dress showing its hand-sewn construction.

In time, the arrival of retailers who sold ready-to-wear men’s and young children’s clothing made clothing the family easier. For many years, however, the intricate design, shape and fit of women’s clothing meant mass production was not viable. Even with the availability of more widely used domestic sewing machines in the mid-1880s, the skill and ability to sew by hand was still required. Many New Zealand women were involved in the handcrafted construction of clothing until well into the 1950s and 1960s. Thereafter the practice of home sewing started to decline, due to the availability of factory-produced and relatively cheap clothing.

In comparison to today’s world, sewing an item of clothing was a hands-on, intimate, lengthy and skilled process. Today as a society we do not have much of a connection to what it takes to make a garment, because much of the manufacturing involved is offshore and very much an industrialised process. It might even be fair to say many people today would struggle to be able to thread a needle.

 

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Celebrating Boys in Japan

After the Nagaizumi-Whanganui Sister City Friendship Centre closed in 2015, the Whanganui Regional Museum received a donation of many of the objects it had housed. Cataloguing these objects required some research into Japanese culture and traditions.

1. Lacquered box

The lacquered box. Ref: 2015.32.51g

One of the most intriguing is a beautiful black lacquered box which has a fitted removable lid and six legs with five sides. Each leg has a brass cap engraved with leaves on four outer edges. All corners have etched brass corner protectors. The inside of the box is lined with patterned white paper. It contains a Gogatsu Ningyo, a samurai warrior doll complete with an elaborately decorated tachi (sword), a yumi (bow and arrow) and two folding lacquered screens, also with decorative corners. There was also a wooden plaque with Japanese characters and a length of green cotton felt with a flowered silk brocade border.

2. Samurai doll

The Gogatsu Ningyo, Samurai doll. Ref: 2015.32.51a

Putting the doll together was a little complicated as he came in many pieces. A head is covered by an ornamented helmet, shoulder plates, shin guards, upper leg plates and fur boots. He sits on a lacquered pedestal.

In Japan, Gogatsu Ningyo are used on 5 May every year at the Tango-no-Sekku festival, to wish for the healthy growth of boys. The armour, helmet, sword and bow and arrows were once worn by brave warriors and hence the desire for strength and good health. This tradition originated in a ritual using sweet calamus (a plant used both medicinally and to make fragrances), held at the Japanese Imperial Court more than 1,200 years ago to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that sweet calamus had strong power because it was among the first plants to sprout in early spring. Later in the feudal era, this ritual evolved into a ceremony to pray for good fortune for boys and success in wars, and then gradually spread among the common people as a festival for children.

Families with sons also celebrate this day by flying carp-shaped streamers called koinobori. In Japan, carp are known to be strong fish that can leap up waterfalls. The koinobori symbolise parents’ wishes for their sons to be as strong as carp. The Museum also received two windsocks as part of the donation. They are each three metres long and painted in shades of blue and pink. In Japan today, koinobori are commonly flown above the roofs of houses where children live, along with the biggest black koinobori, coloured black, for the father, the next biggest, in red or pink for the mother and an additional smaller carp of a different colour for each child in decreasing order by age.

 

Kathy Greensides is a Collection Assistant at the Whanganui Regional Museum.