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Christmas Cake

Christmas. A time for family, gifts, religious observation, and of course food. And what would be better to complete the feast than a Christmas cake?

The traditional Christmas cake, as we know it today, began life as a plum porridge. Porridge was traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve as a way to line the stomach after a day of fasting in preparation for the Christmas feast. Porridge isn’t the most exciting of foods, unadorned as it is, and certainly not a celebratory meal. Soon it was smartened up with the addition of spices, representing the exotic gifts from the Three Wise Men, honey and plums or dried fruit. This mixture was then wrapped in a cloth and boiled, and hence the Christmas pudding was born.

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Packet of fruit cake mix like this are very popular in the lead-up to Christmas (TH.3669)

This was the base recipe for an Easter dish as well, with a few additions. In the 16th century people would prepare a Christmas pudding mix, but also add wheat flour and eggs to a portion of the base to create a cake for consumption at Easter time. Over time, the oatmeal was removed from the recipe, as was the meat that was often included, and more butter, eggs, and wheat flour were added. This helped the mixture to hold together much better than the sloppy gruel and dense puddings previously experienced. Wealthy families that could afford an oven baked their mixture which produced a different consistency again, resulting in a firmer cake, which over time was dropped from the Easter menu but has remained a Christmas favourite.

The addition of marzipan and royal icing came later when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers, concerned with excess, banned feasting on 5 January, observed as the last day of the Christmas celebrations. Instead, people made a special Twelfth Night Christmas cake which was laden with almonds and covered in marzipan, and feasted on that instead.

Christmas cakes are traditionally made on “stir-up Sunday”, the last Sunday before Advent; this year it was Sunday 20 November. The cake is then kept upside down and “fed” with brandy or whiskey every week before being eaten at Christmas. The alcohol and sugar act as preservatives and give the spices a chance to develop and fully infuse the cake with festive flavours.

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Edmonds encouraged people to make Christmas cakes and provided a recipe, as per this advertisement from the Wanganui Chronicle on 5 December 1952 (2003.39.123)

Christmas cakes come in a wide a variety as presents; large, small, heavy, light, rich, meagre, soft, firm, wrapped or unwrapped. There are regional and local variations all over the world for this festive treat. The Scots make a Christmas Dundee cake which is light and crumbly, full of dried fruit, and of course, whiskey. A Japanese Christmas cake is a sponge with icing, decorated with chocolate and strawberries or other fruit. Philippine people use either a traditional English cake or a yellow pound cake with added nuts, which is then soaked in brandy and palm sugar syrup. Those in Yorkshire often don’t ice their Christmas cake, preferring to eat it with Wensleydale or cheddar cheese.

If you feel like getting back to basics, here is a 1701 recipe for a Christmas pottage:

Take of Beef-soup made of Legs of Beef, 12 Quarts; if you wish it to be particularly good, add a couple of Tongues to be boil’d therein. Put fine Bread, slic’d, soak’d, and crumbled; Raisins of the Sun, Currants and Pruants two Lbs. of each; Lemons, Nutmegs, Mace and Cleaves are to be boil’d with it in a muslin Bag; add a Quart of Red Wine and let this be follow’d, after half an Hour’s boyling, by a Pint of Sack.  Put it into a cool Place and it will keep through.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Delight in the Museum

Check out this blog on the joys and mysteries of working with a Museum’s Natural History Collection.

What's In John's Freezer?

I have an impression that there is a large disparity between how the public views museums and how scientists who use museums view them. Presumably there are survey data on public attitudes, but surely the common impression is that museums mainly exist to exhibit cool stuff and educate/entertain the public. Yet, furthermore, I bet that many members of the public don’t really understand the nature of museum collections (how and why they are curated and studied) or what those collections even look like. As a researcher who tends to do heavily specimen-oriented and often museum-based research, I thought I’d take the opportunity to describe my experience at one museum collection recently. This visit was fairly representative of what it’s like, as a scientist, to visit a museum with the purpose of using its collection for research, rather than mingling with the public to oggle the exhibits — although I did a little…

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The Carnegie Models of Whanganui Regional Museum

Our director, Eric Dorfman, will soon be leaving to take up a position at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Check out his latest thoughts and the links between the two institutions.

Eric Dorfman

Andrew Carnegie Andrew Carnegie

As I prepare to leave New Zealand I am, not surprisingly, thinking about Andrew Carnegie and his contribution to uplifting an understanding and appreciation of culture in the United States and further afield.  In 1911 he established Carnegie Corporation of New York to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” Carnegie Corporation has helped establish or endowed a variety of institutions, including twenty-five hundred Carnegie libraries in the United States and abroad (including a smattering across New Zealand). I’ve heard that discussion was had back in the day for a Carnegie library in Whanganui, but it never went ahead. However, Carnegie Corporation nevertheless had an influence here through Whanganui Regional Museum, by way of a series of display models of Maori life, which the Corporation funded.

In 1995 Michelle Horwood, at that time Curator at the Museum, published the following about these models.

The Carnegie…

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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.

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!

Watch yourselfie

It’s happened again, but without the selfie stick this time.  Two tourists climbed up The Statue of the Two Hercules to take a selfie and accidentally broke off a piece of the crown.  The statue is situated in the Loggia dei Militi palace in Italy and dates to the 1700s.

We don’t mean to be anti-selfie, the pop-snaps can be quite artistic.  All we ask is you be careful and watch yourselfie while taking them!  And pay attention if there is a no photography policy, of course.

To check out some other museum selfies and get some inspiration for your next piece, why not take a look at the Museum Selfies Tumblr page.  And if that’s not enough for you, take a trip to the Art In Island museum in Manila, specifically built to take selfies in, with paintings and scenes you can interact with.

If you do, let us know!  We’d love to see your pics.

Discovering new species

When a new species of plant or animal is discovered it’s a big news story, but the secret amongst biologists is that it’s actually easy to find a new species. It’s hard to convey to people just how many species remain to be discovered, and how few people there are left looking for them.

Undiscovered jumpers: There are over 50 species of cave wētā, or tokoriro, in New Zealand, which, despite their name, live mostly in the forest. So many new species are being discovered that there is a backlog waiting for the few entomologists who study wētā to find the time to describe and name them. Creative Commons BY-NC, Jon Sullivan / Flickr

Undiscovered jumpers: There are over 50 species of cave wētā, or tokoriro, in New Zealand, which, despite their name, live mostly in the forest. So many new species are being discovered that there is a backlog waiting for the few entomologists who study wētā to find the time to describe and name them.
Creative Commons BY-NC, Jon Sullivan / Flickr

There are probably undescribed species living in your backyard. Entomologist Willy Kuschel spent 15 years collecting beetles in the Auckland suburb of Lynfield. He found 982 species of beetle, far more than anyone would have suspected could be living 10 kilometres from the central city. Amazingly, 150 of those beetles were new to science. Nobody had noticed them because nobody had looked.

There are probably species to be discovered in Springvale and Aramoho, but if I wanted to find one I’d start at Bushy Park, one of the last remnants of lowland forest in this part of the country. Bushy Park has never had biologists do a comprehensive survey of its insects, snails, and spiders, so we have no idea what’s there. Collecting a scoop of leaf litter from the forest floor and picking through it might well reveal species surviving there and nowhere else.

The stick that moves: A new species of stick insect found only on the Poor Knights Islands was recently named Clitarchus rakauwhakanekeneke, in conjunction with local iwi Ngāti Kuri. Its Māori name means “the stick that moves”. Thomas Buckley / Landcare Research

The stick that moves: A new species of stick insect found only on the Poor Knights Islands was recently named Clitarchus rakauwhakanekeneke, in conjunction with local iwi Ngāti Kuri. Its Māori name means “the stick that moves”.
Thomas Buckley / Landcare Research

The scientists who do this sort of survey and name new species are called taxonomists and their work is the foundation of all conservation policy and ecological research; you have to be able to list and name the living things in an area before you can measure how they’re doing or develop a management plan. Taxonomic research has always been the mainstay of museums, which have large comparative collections. But museums all over the world have been cutting back, and New Zealand is no exception.

 

When I was a lad I was mad keen on lizards, and conventional wisdom was that we had a dozen or so species in New Zealand. Since we started looking closely at lizards and their DNA, it turns out there are actually about 100 species, but there are only a handful of scientists able to formally describe them and give them names. The most recent field guide to native lizards has to refer to fairly-widespread species with labels like “Genus B species 1”, because we don’t have enough taxonomists.

Thambotricha vates, a Latin name that translates as “wonder-haired prophet”, has been found by entomologists for the first time since 1996. This elusive moth has only been seen 15 times since it was described and named in 1922. Creative Commons BY-NC, XXXXXXXXXXX / Flickr

Thambotricha vates, a Latin name that translates as “wonder-haired prophet”, has been found by entomologists for the first time since 1996. This elusive moth has only been seen 15 times since it was described and named in 1922.
Creative Commons BY-NC, XXXXXXXXXXX / Flickr

Even after a species is described, we don’t know necessarily know anything about it. Recently a small moth, Thambotricha vates, was caught by Landcare entomologist Robert Hoare. It had last been seen in 1996 and only 15 specimens had been collected by scientists since it was first described in 1922. Because it’s found from Nelson to Katikati, it probably isn’t rare; we just don’t know its habitat. Although the media treated this rediscovery as a big story, it isn’t all that exceptional. There are over 1,700 species of moths in New Zealand, and some of our 10,000 insect species have almost certainly been seen just once, by the entomologist who described them.

 

In NZ there are many species of native earthworms, some of them gigantic. In all the gardens, parks, and farmland of NZ the earthworms are just a few introduced European species. Unfortunately we know very little about native earthworms; many have been found from deep in the subsoil, living in a single patch of native bush. Thirty species occur only on a single small island each, but 102 species are listed as “data deficient”. They could be widespread, or on the verge of extinction – we don’t know. And there are surely native earthworms still unknown to scientists, which might go extinct before they’ve even discovered.

A new species washed up on the beach: George Shepherd, Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum in 1933, measuring the skull of the beaked whale that was eventually named Tasmacetus shepherdi in his honour. Whanganui Regional Museum Collection 1805.296.2

A new species washed up on the beach: George Shepherd, Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum in 1933, measuring the skull of the beaked whale that was eventually named Tasmacetus shepherdi in his honour.
Whanganui Regional Museum Collection 1805.296.2

Not all new species are moths and worms. There are still discoveries to be made in the deep sea, even of large marine mammals. The Whanganui Regional Museum still has the skeleton of a beaked whale that washed up on the beach near Hāwera in 1933, and was collected by George Shepherd, the Curator at the time. He recognised it was unusual, and sure enough it turned out to be a new species. Shepherd’s beaked whale (Tasmacetus shepherdi) lives in deep water far from shore, in cold southern seas, so live animals have been seen only a handful of times. Most of what we know about them comes from stranded specimens.

 

New techniques can also help discover species that were hiding in plain sight. When the DNA of kiwi populations all over New Zealand was compared, the birds around Ōkarito on the West Coast turned out to be very different from other brown kiwi. Collectors in the 19th century had noticed this, and used the name rowi to distinguish them from other kiwi. The DNA evidence was enough to establish them as a new species, Apteryx rowi, numbering just a few hundred birds in one patch of forest. They now have their own captive breeding program.

Saving a subspecies: The Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) has North Island and South Island subspecies that can interbreed. The North Island form, or Maui dolphin, is in danger of extinction, but saving it shouldn’t be as high a priority as all the other actual endangered species in New Zealand. Creative Commons BY-NC, Earthrace Conservation / Flickr

Saving a subspecies: The Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) has North Island and South Island subspecies that can interbreed. The North Island form, or Maui dolphin, is in danger of extinction, but saving it shouldn’t be as high a priority as all the other actual endangered species in New Zealand.
Creative Commons BY-NC, Earthrace Conservation / Flickr

Without the attention of taxonomists the rowi might have quietly gone extinct while we were distracted by showier things like Maui dolphins (which are not actually a distinct species, just the Hector’s dolphins that happen to live in the North Island). The worst scenario is discovering much later, from museum specimens, that something collected a century ago is both a distinct species and no longer to be found in the wild. How many species have we already lost, species that we’ll never know about, because we didn’t notice them in time?

 

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

Easter has been and gone…

…and we have survived.  Thankfully the Easter Bunny has changed a lot from these early rabbits!  Hetty the Hen was on full form and treated all the visiting children (and adults) to a delicious egg.  The atrium of the Museum was full of children colouring in and making collage eggs.  And that is just the start of the school holidays here!

Holiday Activities will continue with Children’s movies, making butterflies and bugs, drawing moa and mystery boney beasts, knot tying, harakeke putiputi (flax flowers), and more!  Check out the full programme here, then come on down and join in the fun.  Also, Margie will be restocking the harvest table with kamokamo and parsley so you can take away some delicious fresh vegetables too.