Month: December 2018

Upstairs, Downstairs

The Watt St buildings of the Whanganui Regional Museum have been largely closed to the public for two years now and the building site hoardings came down in January. While the temporary site on Ridgway St has been busy throughout, there is mounting interest and speculation about the reopening of the principal exhibition spaces to the public. How can it take so long to get the place open again?

Opening day is scheduled for 2019, but behind the closed doors there has been a lot going on and there’s still plenty to do.

1. Museum 1928

 The Wanganui Public Museum shortly after opening in 1928. Photograph by Tesla Studios.  Reef: MM-009

The process started in 2016 with the removal of all exhibits and furniture from the main buildings (with a few honourable exceptions on the grounds of sheer size) in preparation for the major earthquake engineering. That work, financed by the Whanganui District Council, involved installing steel supports and new walls around the whole interior of the 1928 building and similar, smaller scale alterations to the 1968 extension. Along with a new roof and a major overhaul of lighting and electrical systems, the first part of the project was finished in January this year and has created a completely revamped vessel for the Museum’s programmes and exhibitions.

Meanwhile, with the support of funding from the Lottery Grants Board, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Te Puni Kokiri and a number of philanthropic trusts, the vital collection storage areas beneath the public buildings have undergone a transformation. New vaults, shelves and storage cabinets, along with specialised climate control systems, have dramatically improved conditions for over 300,000 collection items. Dedicated store rooms have been built for photographic negatives, taonga Māori and the huge collection of natural history specimens. A building initially designed and built as an underground carpark is now a store house suitable for a collection of national significance.

Upstairs, the Museum has taken advantage of the clear-out and refurbishment to rethink all of its exhibits. With over 3,000 square metres of public space to refurbish and reinstall, Museum staff and contractors have been fully engaged since 2017 on exhibition development, conservation and preparation of thousands of objects and artefacts for display.

2. Under construction

 Galleries closed for installation, with a hint of what’s to come. Photograph by Frank Stark.

Ninety years of additions and alterations have been stripped out to reveal and highlight the contrasting architectural styles of the 1928 and 1968 buildings. A lot of the Museum’s heritage display furniture has been refurbished or supplemented with new joinery. New facilities including an air-conditioned gallery, an audio-visual lounge and a bigger, better souvenir and book shop have been built. The result is a completely refreshed and rethought museum, combining long-standing Whanganui icons with many items from the collections never shown before.

Regular questions about the reopening have included the fate of the sunfish, the Street, the collection of Lindauer portraits and the waka. The Museum staff are not revealing details about the exhibition contents until closer to the opening date, but promise plenty of surprises when we open.

 

Frank Stark is the Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Advertisements

A Wedding in 1861

The earliest dated wedding dress in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection was donated in 1968. As with many past donations to the Museum, the information provided at the time was very limited. Apart from the donor’s name and address, the only other information provided on the receipt was a very rudimentary description of the dress: “One wedding frock (blue checked) worn in 1861”. No information was given as to where the dress had come from, who had made or worn it, or what journey it had gone through to make it into the Museum’s collection.

Although little of the dress’s history or provenance was communicated, there is no doubt that it was a treasured and well cared for item of clothing. The dress is in very good condition, considering it is over 150 years old and would have gone through several generations. It shows very little wear and only a little fading.

1968.13.1

The 1861 wedding dress. Ref: 1968.13.1

From looking at the style of the dress the date given on the receipt seemed very plausible. The high neckline, dropped shoulders, narrow boned waist, very full bell-shaped skirt, under which numerous petticoats or a crinoline would have been worn, and the pagoda sleeves all fit the style of the early 1860s. The construction, a mix of machine and hand-sewing, fit in with the technology that was available. The fabric, a silk taffeta lined with a brown Holland cloth, also supported the theory that the date given could well be correct.

So who was the woman that had worn this dress to her wedding in 1861? Finding the answer to this question involved many hours of trekking through ancestry sites, reviewing birth, death and marriage certificates, looking through electoral rolls and passenger lists to find the one branch of the donor’s family that had a wedding in 1861.

Where did the dress start its journey? The answer was in Gibraltar where, in 1861, 26 year old Olivia Costa married a 30 year old Scottish-born, British soldier named William Wallace. Olivia was born in Gibraltar, the daughter of Thomas Costa, a Master Mariner, and a woman whose name is unfortunately not recorded. As a Master Mariner Costa could easily have purchased the fabric for the dress at any of the trading ports through Europe.

William and Olivia had two children, William Thomas in 1862 and Annie Theresa in 1864. By the time their daughter was born (Annie is the grandmother of the donor of the dress) they are recorded as living in Canada West, America. At an unknown time they must have shifted to Tyrone in Northern Ireland because when they migrated to New Zealand in 1876, their nationality is recorded as Tyrone. They left for New Zealand on 26 June 1876 from the port of Glasgow and arrived in New Zealand on 23 September 1876 at the port of Otago. The family lived at Blueskin Bay, Waitati, north of Dunedin, where they settled into a life of farming. A relative of the Wallace’s who was a contemporary of Olivia, recorded in their family history that she was a “dark fascinating woman who was a good cook”. Olivia, William and William Thomas are all buried in the Waitati Cemetery.

Annie married James Sutherland, a farmer from Canterbury and they had two sons. The elder, Robert Alexander Wallace Sutherland, married Dorothy Agnes Ashwell of Whanganui whose family was associated with the setting up of Virginia Lake. Robert and Dorothy had a daughter who, while living in Whanganui in 1968, came into the Museum and donated the wedding dress of which we now know so much more.

 

Trish Nugent-Lyne is the Collection Manager at Whanganui Regional Museum

Thomas William Downes

Thomas William Downes was a Whanganui historian, ethnologist and writer with an immense love and respect for the Whanganui River, the people and wildlife, past and present, who lived within its valley. As a writer, he attempted to record as much as he could about the history of the Whanganui River, believing it would otherwise be lost.

2. Downes

T.W. Downes, circa 1910.  Unknown photographer. Ref: P/J/37

Born in Wellington, Downes moved to Bulls with his family in about 1874. He showed early interest in history and never lost his enthusiasm, although he made his living by other means. In 1910 he published a paper, “Early history of the Rangitikei and notes on the Ngati Apa” in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. This article reflected his work and interests while he was growing up in Bulls.

Downes had moved to Whanganui in 1898 with his wife Margaret. In 1921 he was appointed Supervisor of River Works and Ranger for Domain Lands for the Wanganui River Trust. His annual salary was £100. It is said that Downes knew the full length of the river better than any other European. He travelled up and down the river repeatedly, made friends and paid attention to the oral histories of tangata whenua. He documented a version of the early history of the Whanganui district in his book, Old Whanganui, published in 1915. He used the “h” in the Whanganui of the title, believing it to be the correct spelling of Whanganui dialect.

1. Expedition

 Thomas Downes on an expedition to inspect Wanganui River Trust works. Photographer: F J Denton, 1908
T W Downes is in the centre of the photograph with his feet dangling in the water.  Standing behind him is George Marriner, the Curator of the Wanganui Museum. On the far right is photographer Frank Denton, who took this image using a remote cable fitting so he could be in the photograph. The men were voyaging in a motorised canoe, the Stewart, owned by the Wanganui River Trust. Ref: UWR/S/219

This major work was followed in 1921 by his History and Guide to the Wanganui River. This publication, surprisingly, did not employ the “h”. A final book, River Ripplets, was published much later on in 1993.

Downes was also a busy and gifted artist. He painted many scenes from history, using his knowledge and imagination. One that survives is in the Museum collection, a large oil painting titled Retaruke Reach, Wanganui River, a work of large proportions and undisguised romanticism. He created illustrations for his own and other’s books and was in great demand for painting and lettering illuminated addresses, often presented to people of civic importance as a token of respect and thanks.

3. Illuminated address

 Illuminated Address to James Crichton Esq. In 1904 this illuminated address was created by T W Downes as a tribute to James Crichton “In appreciation of your sterling worth as a Citizen …” Ref: 2017.26

Downes was elected to the Wanganui Museum Board of Trustees in 1910. He served for two periods, from 1910 to 1918 and from 1923 until his death in 1938. While on the Board he facilitated the purchase of a number of taonga Māori and was responsible for negotiations involved in the lending or gifting of many treasures from the region. He also made personal gifts to the Museum of Pacific Island artefacts that he had purchased at auction, photographs and archives.

A modest, quiet and unassuming man, Downes dedicated forty years of his life to the recording and preservation of Whanganui heritage. He was still employed as the supervisor of the Whanganui River Trust when he died in Whanganui on 6 August 1938.

Libby Sharpe is the Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.