The Architect and the Artisan

With the refurbishment of the Whanganui Regional Museum now approaching half-way, considerable attention has been paid to the design and construction of its buildings. The 1928 building’s stripped classical architecture and pre-Napier construction have caused the bigger challenges to seismic performance, with a lot of steel and timber bracing now installed.

The Māori Court building, designed by Don Wilson, has also received earthquake upgrades, but mainly it is undergoing repair and restoration of many of its original features. Wilson’s Whanganui work, including the Museum, was celebrated in a well-received talk by architectural historian Mark Southcombe at the Davis Theatre on Tuesday 19 September. Investigation of the building’s origins has also revealed fascinating stories about the people who worked on it.

1. Basil Benseman

Basil Benseman

An important collaborator with Don Wilson, and a key contributor to the structure and appearance of the 1968 building, was master brick and block layer Basil Benseman. Bas arrived in Whanganui as a child and after leaving school, worked as a truck driver. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner and truck driver during WWII in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Italy before returning to an apprentice training scheme in Wellington. Before long, he had established B E Benseman Bricklayer, which from 1946 to 1985, built a significant portion of Whanganui. Bas worked on many landmark buildings around the city including the Embassy Cinema, St Marcellin School, Whanganui Intermediate, the Government Life and State Insurance buildings, the War Memorial Hall, Power Board Building, Queens Park steps and the Whanganui Regional Museum, among hundreds of others. He didn’t spend much of that time in the office; he was too busy on site, laying hundreds of thousands of bricks and blocks himself.

Don Wilson’s modernist architecture made frequent, often innovative, use of brick and concrete, and Bas often provided the craft needed to realise his designs. The Museum project used conventional blockwork in many parts of the structure, as well as stone facing around the Davis Theatre, an unusual, vertical application of decorative brick on the exterior walls and a lattice of stacked breeze blocks on the end wall, echoing a similar pattern on the War Memorial Hall across the square. Don Wilson, though, had an even more challenging role in mind for his long-time collaborator.

2. Mural

The Whanganui Regional Museum mural, made of Italian glass tiles.

The south side of the building presented a new face to the city and Wilson wanted to make the most of it. He designed a mural, based on rock drawings, to be rendered in Italian glass tiles. The biggest problem was the lack of anybody in 1968 Whanganui with the technical know-how to realise it. With complete confidence he turned to Bas who, despite his protests that he had never attempted such a thing before, was eventually persuaded to set to work in yet another medium. Over 10 months of painstaking work he invented his own mosaic technique which has weathered 50 years of Whanganui rain and sun and remains a shimmering tribute to a great partnership – the architect and the artisan.

 

Frank Stark is Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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A sampling of samplers

The term “sampler” comes from the Latin word exemplum, meaning an example to be followed, a pattern or a model. Pictorial samplers began life as plain samples of different stitches worked onto a single piece of fabric. A girl would add to it as she learned different needle work techniques, a standard part of her education.

By the mid 17th century, decorative samplers with borders were considered to be a mark of refinement. They were worked with horizontal bands of stitching, featuring letters, numbers and traditional motifs, such as the dove of peace. Later, poetry or religious quotations were added, and ornate borders became common.

The stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue, achievement and industry, and girls were taught the art from a young age. Samplers are still stitched today and are often worked to celebrate a joyous occasion, such as a birth or baptism.

1. Hanner Passell

In 1806 Hanner Passell stitched a sampler of fine coloured wool threads on linen.  This sampler is very fragile and damaged, but you can still see her mistakes – she has not allowed enough room for the word “away” in the third line of the verse. The verse has a dire warning about wasting time:

Exonerate your mind of worldly cares

Spend each Lords Day in Spiritual Affairs

Such wretched souls as squander that aw[ay]

Repent it sorely at their dying Day

And in very faded thread at the bottom we can read: “Hanner Passell Made this in the 11th year of her age”. Hanner is an unusual spelling for the name Hannah. It could be a family name, but it might be that Hanner was a poor speller. Genealogy records show that a Hannah Passell was born in Sussex in 1795 – that might fit.

2. Grace Combe

 

 

While Grace Combe’s sampler is faded, you can still see the skill and charm of her work. Silk threads on fine linen demonstrate cross, feather, herringbone and satin stitches. Sample sewing of the alphabet, homilies and designs of flowers, crowns and geometric motifs all feature. And only just visible under a strong magnifying glass at the lower edge is “Grace Combe March 24 1724.”

 

3. E Gregory

 

E Gregory’s sampler was made in England in 1820 and comprises images of grand buildings and floral motifs, all delicately hand stitched in cotton thread. While we don’t know who E Gregory was, or if and when she came to New Zealand, it is an excellent example of the sampler craft. For new arrivals to New Zealand, samplers were a reminder of family left behind and a way of making a new house more comfortable. A few home comforts transported across the world helped mitigate the hardships of settling in.

 

4. Caroline Hopwood

 

Young Caroline Octavia Hopwood made a simple sampler of wool thread on fine canvas in cross stitch. Lines of the alphabet are repeated in different colours; there is also a line of numbers and small motifs comprising a bunch of grapes, two dragons, a flowering plant in a basket and a deer. The whole is surrounded by a vine with geometric leaves attached. Caroline has stitched her name and age, a mere eight years, at the bottom of the sampler. You can see why it is simple – she is just learning.

 

5. Hannah Hopwood

The very old sampler on fine, natural-coloured linen was completed by Hannah Hopkins in 1729. The deep flower and leaf border is stitched with two strands of twisted silk thread in satin stitch, French knots and cross stitch. The centre panel spells out the great Psalm XXVII, proclaiming absolute faith. It is easy to recognise what sort of beliefs Hannah’s family had:

The Lord is my Light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear, the Lord is the strength of my life of Whom shall I be afraid.

The eccentric punctuation of the lettering is matched by the eccentric switch from rose red to yellow thread, which is very faded and hard to read. Perhaps Hannah ran out of the red and only had yellow left to match the rest of the sampler.

Fashion in the Sixties and Seventies

Fashion is influenced by many factors but often reflects what is happening in society at the time. The textile collection at the Museum includes garments that reflect these changes.  An exciting time of change was the 1960s and 1970s when the way people dressed was an obvious sign of shifting attitudes.

1. Merle Higgie dress

 Mrs Merle Higgie wore this evening dress of orange chiffon with stitched orange flowers on the sleeves in the 1970s. It was created by Camette, a New Zealand design company based in Auckland.
Ref: 1995.60.2

In the early 1960s, Western economies and populations were booming. Young peoples’ income was the highest it had been since the end of World War II. This increased economic independence for youth, fuelled a new sense of identity and the need to express it. The dramatic changes started largely in the USA and Europe with styles influenced by the youth sub-cultures of the Beatniks (who rejected the mainstream in favour of artistic self-expression) and the Mods (because they listened to modern jazz music). The Mods in particular helped focus the tastes of young people everywhere, and inspired the look of bands like The Who and The Beatles. The fashion industry quickly responded by replicating their styles, creating designs for the young fans to imitate their heroes. This decade was the first era when young peoples’ clothes were different from those worn by their parents.

New Zealand was usually several years behind the world in terms of fashion, but with the advent of television, young Kiwis were immediately able to copy what was happening overseas. In 1962 there were only 23,000 television licence holders nationwide, but this increased to more than half a million by 1968. Television shrank the world, and by the mid-1960s, New Zealand young folk were wearing the same styles as their contemporaries overseas.

This decade saw traditional dress codes broken with women wearing trousers and showing more and more leg. The mini-skirt, popularised by English designer, Mary Quant, quickly earned its place as the decade’s most iconic look. Others chose to bare very little by choosing the maxi skirt. By the 1970s skirt length had become the midi; mid length, around the knee.

It was not just the hem line that changed. Colour in clothing also went to extremes. What had been a muted or pastel colour pallet until the late 1950s became bright and bold, and many people were wearing combinations of colours and patterns that intensified their startling effects.

The late 1960s saw the beginnings of the hippie movement when bellbottom pants first came into fashion, becoming even more popular during the 1970s. The styles from the later 1960s tended to be more androgynous and quite free flowing. They mimicked the social mind-sets of the era and were inspired by eastern cultures and political activities, such as the Vietnam War.

The 1960s also saw a move to incorporate the new man-made materials developed during World War II and for the space programme. Perspex, PVC, polyester, acrylic, nylon, rayon, Spandex, vinyl and others were fabrics of choice for new young designers wanting to create easy-care outfits that were eye-catching and fun.

Whanganui produced some of its own designers who became influential, on the world stage, as well as nationally. Whanganui-born Philip Shortt entered the Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards, New Zealand’s major competitive fashion event that ran for 34 years between 1964-1998, three times, from 1969 to 1971, all with success; he received merit awards in 1969 and 1970 and won the Supreme Award in 1971. Shortt studied at the Fashion School, Royal College of Arts in London. As he established his career he went on to dress Margaret Thatcher and designed the women’s uniform for the British Constabulary.

Rosalie Gwilliam, also from Whanganui, entered the Benson and Hedges Award competitions throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with considerable success. She is well represented, with 26 examples of her work, in the Eden Hoar collection of New Zealand fashion; this was developed by a farmer from Nasby and was the largest private collection of New Zealand fashion in existence.

2. Annette Main dress

 This black crepe and gold thread cocktail gown was created by Michael Mattar of Taumarunui, and was purchased and worn by former Mayor of Whanganui, Annette Main, in the 1960s.
Ref: 2013.9.2

The fashion industry of the 1960s not only changed what was worn, but how clothing was purchased. Old-style department stores were abandoned for boutique experiences. At the same time, there was more mass production, which made keeping fashionable more affordable. Whanganui businesses catered specifically for the new youth market with two new shops called Teen Scene and La Boutique, both in Victoria Avenue. Taumarunui could also boast a top-class fashion store, that of Michael Mattar’s Haut Couture boutique. At the height of his fame in the 1960s, women would travel from Auckland and Wellington to purchase his exquisite cocktail gowns.

 

By Trish Nugent-Lyne, Collection Manager at Whanganui Regional Museum.

The Wilson Pill Company

In the early 20th century, Mr Samuel Wilson held a secret. His ancestors lived in a small village in England where a local doctor was not available at short notice so it was up to the residents to keep themselves and others healthy. They developed a medicine which proved to be useful in preventing a number of ailments.

Mr Wilson inherited the recipe and brought it with him when his family came to New Zealand. He made it for his family, and their health and strength generated interest amongst friends and associates, so he started making it for them as well. Several locals were so impressed with the panacea that they implored Mr Wilson to sell it, but he refused, insisting on making it himself and providing it free of charge.

After living for about two years in the Whanganui district, Mr Wilson finally agreed to put his pills on the market. A syndicate was put together, and James Alfred Young began the process of sourcing quotes to have the pills manufactured and packaged ready for the market.

While in town on 10 July 1907, Mr Wilson was thrown into a lamppost on Victoria Avenue when his horse shied. He died the next day, but his wife Lavinia took on the project and worked with Mr Young to continue marketing the pills.

Mr Young was sure the pills would bring great riches. His sales pitch was so effective that he raised too many investors, and the syndicate was legally required to become a registered company.

1 Benoni White ad

The advertisement designed by Benoni White, as appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle on 16 January 1908, p7

While waiting for official registration, Mr Young ordered the first batch of pills from the Dunedin branch of Kempthorne Prosser and developed a marketing plan. He commissioned artist Benoni White to design an advertisement and was in contact with 40 newspapers about advertising.

Another tactic offered a more personal approach, outlined in a letter dated 16 July 1907. “It has occurred to me that a good idea to work Wilson’s Pills would be to get a really smart girl, who could talk, to interview each store, chemist etc … It seems to me that a ‘taking’ young woman could do this work better than a man and what is of very great importance she would not cost so much.”

The Wilson Pill Company finally began business on 18 November 1907 with 70 shareholders, £5,000 of investments and no debt. The pills were distributed to shops and pharmacies throughout the North Island, accompanied by an intense advertising campaign.

The pills claimed a myriad of cures: biliousness, constipation, boils, carbuncles, eczema, backache, indigestion, liver troubles, headache, dyspepsia, lumbago, rheumatism, as well as curing blood and stomach disorders and stimulating the liver and kidneys. The original recipe no longer exists, so testing these claims is not possible.

2 Medicine ad

An advertisement for Wilson’s Pills ‘backed by high modern medical testimony’, Wanganui Chronicle 6 January 1908, p2

In January 1908 Mrs Ramsay became the Company’s Lady Canvasser and distributed the pills to throughout the North Island, earning £2 per week (around $330 today).

By the end of 1908 the Company was chasing debts. Mrs Lavinia Wilson had moved to Perth to live with family there, and received a letter from the Company stating there was little demand on the market for her family’s pills and they had not sold enough to cover marketing expenses.

Things went from bad to worse. In June 1910 the Wilson Pill Company was summonsed to a legal hearing over incomplete registration of their annual list and summary with the Joint Stock Companies. The matter was eventually resolved but some expenses were incurred.

The Company encountered problems with employees claiming for advertising work they had not completed, and then had to write off over £19 ($3,000) of bad debt for goods dispatched to their canvasser who then disappeared. Shareholder meetings were not meeting quorum and the Company was only gaining 6p per box of pills sold, with their total income at the end of 1913 sitting at a little over £17.

The Directors were loath to spend any more shareholders investments. The Wilson Pill Company was formally wound up on 26 May 1914 with £214 in the account which, after paying legal fees, was returned to shareholders at around 10s per £1 invested. The remaining stock and the rights to the formula were sold to the Manager of the Wanganui Chronicle for £17/2-.

 

Written by Sandi Black, Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Cycling Ladies

The development of new technology often brings about the greatest changes in fashion. In the 1890s, the introduction of the bicycle led to significant changes in women’s fashion. Prior to this decade, women had always worn skirts or dresses whose design followed strict rules regarding appropriateness and modesty, and which were often very heavy and restricting.

Many women wanted to ride bicycles but this was considered unsuitable. While it was acceptable for women to ride side-saddle on a horse, riding a bicycle was deemed almost indecent, certainly shocking!

3. Lady on bike

Illustration of a woman cyclist wearing a tailored jacket and split skirt, 1894.  Ladies Standard Magazine, April 1894.

The first women to ride bicycles in New Zealand were twins Bertha and Blanche Thompson who in 1892, along with several other young adventurous women, formed the Atlanta Cycling Club, especially for women, in Christchurch. Suffrage leader Kate Sheppard, then in her forties, became a member and she and Bertha also served on the ACC committee. Christchurch did not view the ACC with approval; at times, the twins’ older brothers had to accompany the women cyclists to ward off stone-throwing spectators.

Women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wore very long skirts, which were not only difficult, but dangerous to wear while cycling. Many early lady cyclists had bad accidents when the hems of their skirts caught in the bicycle chain. A solution had to be found. Since decency, at that time, dictated that a woman’s legs had to be covered, many cyclists adopted a split-skirt. This was an adaptation of a garment designed by Mrs Amelia Bloomer, one of the pioneers of the Dress Reform Movement, in the mid nineteenth century. Mrs Bloomer was ridiculed when she and other women attempted to introduce healthier and more practical styles of clothing for women such as knickerbockers, or bloomers, for women engaged in active pastimes.

2. Split skirt

Split skirt from the cycling costume.  Ref: 1973.88b

The split skirt gradually became acceptable as a cycling garment because it was designed to look like a regular skirt. The split skirt was further adapted over time. Later versions began to resemble trousers, never worn by European women before.

1. Cycling costume

Lady’s cycling costume, 1890s. Ref: 1973.88

The Museum has in its collection a wonderful woman’s cycling costume, made in the 1890s. It is a smart and practical outfit for the new activity of cycling. The costume comprises a tailored jacket and divided cycling skirt, both made of dark charcoal wool twill, fully lined with heavy black silk. The costume was professionally fitted and sewn; there is no maker’s mark in either the jacket or the skirt. It’s in excellent condition; perhaps it wasn’t used very much.

 

By Libby Sharpe, Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Dandelion Coffee

Dandelion coffee is actually an infused tea, but it is used as a coffee substitute, having the appearance and, to a degree, the taste of coffee. It is made from the dried, roasted and ground root of the dandelion plant. It is important that the right dandelion roots are used, from the Taraxacum species, distinguishing it from other weed plants that look like yellow daisies. The roots of large healthy dandelions plants are harvested and processed into coffee. It has become a popular health or tonic drink, sometimes as an alternative to true coffee, especially in the USA.

Dried dandelion root coffee was being produced commercially at Ūpokongaro in the nineteenth century by farmer William Caines. In 1853 Caines had acquired 105 acres of land on what is now the Kaiwhaiki Road. He cleared the heavy bush gradually and ran sheep and cattle. He used a punt and waka for transportation between his farm and Whanganui.

1. Dandelion Coffee Tin

A tin of Taraxacum, Dandelion Coffee, made by William Caines of Upokongaro 1880-1890 (ref: 1951.41.3)

Finding ways of ensuring a cash flow was important for settler farmers in the district. Brick-making was another source of income for Caines. His bricks were made of clay from his property and rammed by hand into wooden moulds. He also made white-pine roofing shingles, and later tōtara shingles, sold for 12/- per thousand, delivered.

And the coffee seemed very promising. Caines grew the dandelions in rows in his garden, just like any other crop. After the plants had flowered they were dug and the roots dried. They were then ground in a hand-operated wheat mill, said to have been brought to New Zealand by one of the British Army regiments stationed in the district. A large iron flywheel was attached to give momentum to the actual grinder on the main shaft, the raw material being fed through the funnel as the grounds dropped from the mill chute. The machine could be operated by one person at the crank-handle.

The mill is in the Museum collection, as are two one pound tins of the coffee, which is a deep brown colour and has still has a distinct “coffee” aroma. Tins of “Pure Dandelion Coffee” were produced from 1880 to about 1890, sold for the most part in the Ūpokongaro area. Although there is no record of the amount produced, it appears that there was a reasonable demand for it.

2. Dandelion Coffee Label

An unused Taraxacum label (ref: 1802.1110.2)

The coffee product was named “Taraxacum”, Taraxacum officinale being the botanical name of the dandelion. The label, printed locally by A D Willis Printers of Wanganui, states that the product was grown and prepared by “William Caines, Pikopiko, Upokongaro, Wanganui.” The label also declares that the dandelion coffee as prepared by Mr. William Caines, “Contains all the medicinal virtues pertaining to the plant, which are of an opening and cleansing quality and therefore very effectual for obstructions of the Liver, Gall and Spleen, and Diseases that arise therefrom. It is also beneficial in cases of the Urinary Organs, being powerful in cleansing imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passage and, by its drying and temperate quality, heals them. In Progressing Consumption, the use of the Pure Dandelion Coffee will give the sufferer great relief.”

 

Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Giraffe Weevils

In January this year the Museum helped run a night-spotting Whanganui Summer Programme field trip to Bushy Park. The participants were lucky enough to see, up-close, two long skinny insects that had been found by DOC’s Scotty Moore under a rotten log. They were giraffe weevils, New Zealand’s longest beetle.

1

A male giraffe weevil (Lasiorhynchus barbicornis) found by Scotty Moore at Bushy Park
Photo: Whanganui Regional Museum

The giraffe weevil’s Latin name, Lasiorhynchus barbicornis, means “hairy-nose with a bearded horn”. Its Māori name is pepeke nguturoa, or long-beaked beetle. (By the way, nguturoa is another Māori name for kiwi). They’re also called tūwhaipapa, after the god of newly-made waka, because their nose resembles a canoe prow. All these names refer to the male, who has a snout as long as the rest of his body with a fringe of hairs underneath.

Male and female giraffe weevils look very different, and were named as two different species when the specimens collected by Sir Joseph Banks on Captain James Cook’s first voyage were studied back in Europe. Female giraffe weevils are tiny compared to males, and have a shorter snout which they use to drill an egg-laying hole into dead trees. Their eggs hatch into grubs which eat fungus inside rotting wood for two years, finally pupating and digging their way out of the tree as adult weevils in summer. Peak emergence time is February, so right now is your best opportunity to see adult giraffe weevils in the wild, as they only live for a few weeks before mating and dying.

2

 Male giraffe weevil guarding a small female, who is busy digging a hole for her egg
Photo: Christina Painting / CC-BY-SA

An adult male giraffe weevil’s primary concern is finding a female, and they use their enormously long noses to fight other males by biting and wrestling, trying to dislodge their opponents from the tree trunk. When they find a mate they literally stand over her while she lays an egg, driving off all challengers. Some much smaller males employ a different reproductive strategy: while the big macho males are distracted by fighting and posturing, these little males will sneak in and mate with the female under their rival’s enormous nose. Research by biologist Chrissie Painting at Auckland University revealed that both these tactics were roughly equally successful at fathering offspring, which is why we see such a range of body sizes in male giraffe weevils. It’s like a field experiment in evolution: if one strategy were more successful, natural selection would favour it, and eventually male giraffe weevils would have all evolved a similar body size.

Chrissie was able to find several dying karaka trees in Matuku Reserve near Auckland where she could watch males battle and sneak, and observe their life cycle. She used tiny dots of coloured nail polish to mark the different males so she could tell them apart, and filmed them tossing each other off trees. Giraffe weevils are a useful study animal for observing evolution in action, because they’re active in the daytime (unlike many beetles) and easy to observe. After having to work long nights studying native harvestmen, she describes the weevils as “little angels”.

3

Female giraffe weevil, showing her much smaller snout, with antennae halfway along it, allowing her to chew nest holes; male antennae are near the tip of the snout
Photo: Christina Painting / CC-BY-SA

If you want to see real-life giraffe weevils for yourself, you could venture into lowland native bush between October and March, look on the trunks of rotten trees, and, if you’re lucky, see two long-nosed insects jousting.

 

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

The Williams Barrel Organ

The Williams Organ was manufactured in 1829 by a church and organ-builder, Mr A Buckingham, of London. The organ was sent from England by Reverend E G Marsh in November 1829 as a gift to his nephews, the Reverends Henry and William Williams who were stationed at the Church Missionary Society Māori Mission at Paihia. Arriving in New Zealand in August 1830, it was the first barrel organ brought into the country. Apparently it caused some powerful reactions in listeners, with Reverend Henry Williams’ wife Marianne writing in September 1830, “All the females as well as the males met in the chapel to hear the new organ the first week it arrived, and I was glad the overpowering sensations which its full and melodious sounds produce and all the recollections it aroused were a little moderated before the Sabbath”.

1. Williams Barrel Organ

The Williams Barrel Organ (Whanganui Regional Museum collection reference:1898.156)

Barrel organs are mechanical instruments constructed using a system of bellows and one or more layers of pipes, housed in a decorative wooden case. Unlike a traditional pipe organ they are not played by an organist. Instead, the barrel organ is performed by a person turning a crank. The pieces of music are encoded onto wooden barrels, which cause notes to sound as would a keyboard in a regular pipe organ.

In 1898 the organ was given to Edward’s son, the Reverend Alfred O Williams, who was at that time visiting the Bay of Islands with Samuel Drew, the Wanganui Public Museum’s founder. Together they brought the organ back to Whanganui. The Reverend Alfred Williams was later a member of the Museum Board of Trustees.

During this time the organ had become damaged so Drew repaired it, and he was known to crank it regularly at the Museum. Its first playing at the Museum after being repaired was in the dead of the night on Good Friday 1898, with Drew stating “… the tunes seemed ghostlike and weird. It seemed as tho’ the organ had died years ago and yet was speaking its music to me, and me alone…”. Some of the older residents in Whanganui may remember paying an extra penny to hear the organ being played when the Museum was still at what is now the Savage Club building.

In 1937 further renovations were carried out on the organ and for five years after that a recital was held at the Museum each Good Friday.

2. Detail of a barrel organ

Detail of inner workings of a barrel organ in Pisek during town celebration “Dotkni se Písku” in 2011, Czech Republic (Photographer: Petr Brož)

In 1995 after the barrel organ’s condition was assessed it was discovered that necessary repairs to the case and mechanism would cost in the region of $12,000. A fundraising campaign began, which many Museum supporters contributed to. A concert series was held and a grant of $10,000 was obtained from the Turanga Trust (a Williams family trust) in Napier.

The barrel organ was most recently played as part of the Museum’s closing weekend gala on Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 September 2016.

Riah King-Wall is the Programmes Officer at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Seashore Critters

The beach may be a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Windy, hot, dry, barren and occasionally flooded by seawater, it’s a hostile environment for small animals. And yet there are some species that manage to make the beach their home. I spent a day at Mōwhanau recently with children from Brunswick School, turning over driftwood and logs and looking for interesting critters.

1. hopper

A common beach sandhopper (Bellorchestia quoyana), when examined closely, reveals its crustacean nature.

Photo: Crispychipp / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA

Sandhoppers are the most abundant denizen of the beach. Under every piece of driftwood or seaweed is a multitude, which spring away or scurry down burrows when disturbed. These little creatures, properly known as amphipods, are actually crustaceans, not insects. They are cousins to crabs, crayfish and even the slaters in your garden. Like all crustaceans, they breathe through gills which they have to keep moist. Most of the roughly 10,000 species live in the sea, but amphipods can be found in any damp environment. Some Southern Hemisphere hoppers even live far from the coast in forest leaf litter.

2. log

A log, like this one found on Mōwhanau Beach, is like a tiny oasis, providing shelter and food for a whole community of invertebrates
Photo: Whanganui Regional Museum

 

On the beach amphipods burrow down to damp sand during the day and come out at night to feed on anything the tide has washed up. Close up, they resemble tiny humpbacked shrimps, ranging in colour from dark grey to pinkish-orange, and have powerful hind legs for jumping. Sandhoppers are an important part of the beach ecosystem, not just as food for larger animals, but as scavengers that break down seaweed and carry those nutrients as deep as 30 cm into the sand.

Another creature found under beach logs is the native seashore earwig (Anisolabis littorea). These are flightless, and much larger than the introduced European earwigs in your garden. Their Māori name, matā, is also the word for obsidian – black volcanic glass – because they’re similarly shiny and black.

Seashore earwigs are omnivores, feeding on seaweed or catching amphipods with their nippers. Unlike most insects, they take good care of their young; after mating, the female drives off the male and guards her clutch of eggs and helpless babies. Once the baby earwigs get large enough to fend for themselves, all bets are off. They can flee the nest, eat each other, or eat their mum (and she’ll happily snack on them if they try). Female matā have long straight nippers while males have curved asymmetrical ones.

3. earwig

The native seashore earwig or matā (Anisolabis littorea) is a beautiful glossy black creature found under beach debris all around Aotearoa
Photo: Lisa Bennett / NatureWatchNZ CC-BY-NC, with permission

Although they look fearsome, curving their pincers over their back like a scorpion, I’ve handled earwigs for years and never been nipped. The kids from Brunswick School were initially cautious, but when I showed them how you can gently let a big coastal earwig crawl from hand to hand, they all wanted to try.

The “ooh yuck!” response when presented with a creepy-crawly is not innate in children, but learned from their parents, peers and authority figures. There are native invertebrate species going extinct right now. Voters don’t care because bugs are “yucky”. Museums like Te Papa and Puke Ariki are putting on insect exhibitions to help fight this perception. If we adults are frightened of harmless little insects, it’s not the insect’s fault. We need to get over our irrational fears, model good behaviour for kids, and, on our next visit the beach, turn over some logs with them and see what we find.

 

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

International Museum Day!

IMD 2017 banner

International Museum Day (IMD) is celebrated on 18 May every year. The objective of this day is to raise awareness of the fact that, “Museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.” Participation in IMD is growing among museums all over the world. In 2015, more than 35,000 museums participated in the event in some 145 countries.

This year the Whanganui Regional Museum is closed for seismic strengthening and cannot offer an IMD programme. We do urge you, however, to explore the theme for IMD and give some thought to how museums might deliver responsible messages through their exhibitions, education and public programmes and their publications.

The theme for 2017 is:

Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums

We define ourselves through important and fundamental historic events. Contested histories, or historical interpretations of human conflict and war, are not isolated traumatic events. These histories, which are often little known or misunderstood, resonate universally, as they concern and affect us all.

Museum collections offer reflections of memories and representations of history. This day will therefore provide an opportunity to show how museums think about and depict traumatic memories to encourage visitors to think beyond their own individual experiences.

By focusing on the role of museums as hubs for promoting peaceful relationships between people, this theme highlights how the acceptance of a contested history is the first step in envisioning a shared future under the banner of reconciliation.

Acknowledgement and thanks to International Council of Museums for information, text and media support.