Prior to Plastic

A growing number of people in New Zealand and around the world are trying to reduce the amount of plastic in their lives. For many it is prompted by the horror of the huge mountains of plastic accumulating on the planet. Plastic is turning up in the stomachs of dead whales and other sea creatures. Scientists have found evidence of plastic in the deepest parts of the ocean. Researchers have discovered microscopic plastics in the fish we eat in our food, in our drinking water and in the soil. It’s everywhere around us.

Plastic is ubiquitous. We use it for a multitude of different purposes because it is so versatile: containers, bags, clothes, accessories, furniture, phones, computers, car parts, appliances, toys, playgrounds. Everywhere we look, there is plastic. Even your bed with its cosy quilt and comfy pillow is made soft and comfortable with plastic foam and fluffy plastic fibre.

For young people, it may be hard to imagine a life without plastic, but a trip to your local museum or a conversation with an older person will provide many instances of a plastic-less world. The Whanganui Regional Museum has a quilt made of empty salt bags stuffed with sheep wool. It was made back in the days when material was expensive, but salt, flour and sugar were sold in cloth bags and raw wool was readily available in rural areas. It was probably heavier than a plastic fibre quilt but every part of it is biodegradable. Moreover, it would have been warm.

1. Salt bag quilt
A plastic-free quilt, made from salt bags and foraged wool scraps. Warm and waste-free. WRM Ref: 2007.73.1

Go further back in time and take a walk around Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, the Māori Court in the Museum where you can see some great alternatives to plastic containers. On display is a range of containers of different sizes: tahā wai for water and tahā huruhuru for meat. The hue (gourds) used to make these containers were grown in gardens over summer and dried out during the winter, leaving a hard-shelled, hollow container. They are more breakable than plastic containers and plastic drink bottles but once cracked, these organic containers would rot back into the soil. Around each tahā is a carefully woven kete (basket), made from harakeke (New Zealand flax). The kete encloses the container to keep it stable and enable it to be carried. Like the tahā itself, the kete, when worn out, will rot naturally back into the soil. These beautiful and useful containers weren’t produced in a factory using fossil fuels. They were hand-made using totally renewable, sustainable, biodegradable natural resources. How clever!

There are hundreds of other examples throughout the Museum of how people managed without plastic. As more and more of us seek alternatives to plastic, some of these examples from the past could point the way to a more sustainable and less polluted future. We can go back to using more glass, wood, metal, natural fibres and maybe some of us can even have a go at growing our own gourd containers.

 Margie Beautrais is the educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Whanganui River Mouth – Te Kai Hau ā Kupe

Where a river meets the sea is a place of great fascination to people all over the world. It’s usually a place of great abundance for fishing as well as gathering whatever interesting wrack gets washed down the river and cast up onto the shore. If the river is large enough it becomes an entrance for shipping or boating, with all the consequent dangers associated with channels, rips and sand-bars.

The Whanganui River entrance has been shaped and changed by major human intervention from its original form. When we at look at old photographs or paintings of the river-mouth, what we see is very different from what is there today.

The building of channel-protecting moles on either side of the river entrance completely transformed, not only the river mouth, but also the coastal area to the west. Interrupting the longshore current that flows from west to south east causes the suspended sand to gradually accumulate against the obstruction. This has created expansive sand-dunes at Castlecliff and has moved the shoreline steadily seawards.


1. Castlecliff photo

 Whanganui River Mouth, Castlecliff Beach; Frank Denton, 20th century.  Ref: 1802.1016

One early image of the river mouth is a photograph of Castlecliff Beach by well-known Whanganui photographer Frank Denton. You can see beach visitors enjoying a stroll on the sand. The beach stretches around a natural curve at the river mouth and the sea-swell washes into the river. Ladies lift the hems of their long dresses over the wet sand while children play and paddle in the shallows at the edge of the river. In the far distance a line of surf marks the edge of the sea.

A set of three small watercolour paintings by itinerant artist Christopher Aubrey show the river mouth prior to the construction of the moles. Although the paintings are faded and damaged by long exposure to light and damp, all the details are still visible. Each painting depicts the curve of the river towards the entrance at different times of day. Looking closely, we can see that in 1894 there was a significant sandbar, indicated by a thick line of surf across the across the river entrance. The line of surf across the river-mouth ends at a sand-spit that stretches out from a large cliff on the Castlecliff bank of the river.

Along the river margin stretched a beach with a gentle sloping edge, forming a useful pathway for riding horses or for herding a flock of sheep to the freezing works in the background. The Wanganui Freezing Works were established in 1891 to process the farm animals produced in the surrounding rural areas and freeze them for transport out of the region by ship. The paintings also show ships berthed in the river adjacent to the freezing works, a large ship anchored just offshore and a small vessel crossing the sandbar.

Despite the better shipping channel created by the construction of the moles, the difficulty of negotiating the sand-bar and surf have resulted in a number of shipwrecks over the years, including the Port Bowen which, in 1939, ran aground on a sand-bank, fully laden with a cargo of mutton and lamb from Whanganui destined for export to England.

With the proposed development of Whanganui Port it will be interesting to notice and record further changes to the landscape of the Whanganui River mouth and see how future sea-going vessels manage the difficulties of “crossing the bar”.


Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum

The selfie stick strikes again

Here’s another article about damage to museum collections, this time from Te Papa Tongarewa.

It is an unfortunate reality that at times, things get damaged.  We do the absolute best we can, of course we do, but sometimes unpreventable events occur.  Visitors with selfie sticks or a slippery shoe; guests with bad intentions and a secreted craft knife or pen; clumsy staff and the forces of nature.  Behind the scenes the same rules apply but occasionally things get bumped, damaged, or accidentally dripped on.

All the Museum sector can do is reassure you all that we take the best care we can of our collection.  When a leak is found, we remove the artifacts under threat and fix the leak before replacing the items into storage.  We try to place things on display where they are out of harms way and are not likely to be hit, bumped, tripped over or on, or otherwise put in danger.  And when something is involved in an incident we remove it, stabilise it, and have a professional asses and repair it.  And, in all, there are very few instances when items are damaged, and even fewer when they are damaged irreparably.

If you are interested in more information on security and care of collections the Canadian Conservation Institute has some excellent information and guidelines.  And if you have something in your own collections that has suffered some damage, check out your local museum or the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials for professional help.