Victorian

Snakes and Ladders

It is highly likely that at some point in our young lives, most of us have played some version of the humble game of Snakes and Ladders. There is evidence that Snakes and Ladders goes back thousands of years, and the relatively simple design of the game has ensured its survival. But its origins involve much more than mere child’s play. It has been a potent teaching tool that has been used for centuries, arguably even millennia, as a way to embody and reinforce religious teachings and cultural values.

1. Pixie snakes & ladders 1930s

 Snakes and Ladders game, 1930s. Ref: 1984.13.11

Surviving forms of this board game suggest that the game originated in ancient India, invented by Hindu spiritual teachers. The moral of the original game reflected Hinduism consciousness around everyday life, in that a person can attain salvation through performing righteous good deeds, whereas the evil ones, which are the snakes, take rebirth in lower forms of life.

Centuries ago the game had titles which, roughly translated, mean the “Game of Self Knowledge”, the “Ladder to Salvation” or “Steps to the Highest Place”, which indicate the weight of the morality it was originally designed to convey.

The original boards were adorned with elaborate illustrations of religious phrases, figures or architecture, flora, fauna, and symbols of spiritual planes. Rows of squares are sometimes arranged by levels of enlightenment, simultaneously reflecting concepts like karmic paths, chakras, or other conceptions about ascending levels of the spiritual realm. Children in ancient India were taught the game as part of their spiritual education in order to know the effects of good versus bad. The ladders represented values such as kindness, faith and humility. The snakes represented bad omens, bad luck, anger and other negative traits.

3. Snakes & ladders instructions 1950s

Snakes & ladders instructions, 1950s. Ref: 2010.6.8

Over centuries the game travelled and evolved and its basic design concept served as a durable framework for many cultures to adapt it to their own moral and spiritual beliefs.

When the game made its way to Victorian England in the late nineteenth century, the Indian symbolism was replaced by English virtues and vices which better reflected Victorian doctrines of morality. Squares of grace and success were accessible by ladders of thrift, generosity, penitence, obedience and industry. They were offset by snakes of indulgence, pride, disobedience and indolence causing one to end up in illness, disgrace and poverty.

While the Indian version of the game had snakes outnumbering ladders, the English counterpart contained each in the same amount, assuring players of the ideal that for every sin one commits, there exists another chance at redemption.  The phrase “back to square one” either originates in the game of Snakes and Ladders, or, at least, was influenced by it.

Scanned Image

 Noddy Snakes and Ladders game, 1950s. Ref: 2010.6.6

Modern adaptations of the game are much less overt in the messages they try to impart, and have comic drawings and simple moral lessons, if any. But even today in playing, we always get a tiny taste of experiencing the course of fate, because implicit in the game is an unchanging duality of up against down, good against evil and the consequences attached to virtues and vices. The game of Snakes and Ladders captures the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake a ladder will compensate.

Rachael Garland worked as the events coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Marvellous Miniatures

In the Victorian period an obsession with all things miniature became a form of entertainment. Men would generally collect natural history items such as fossils and taxidermied or preserved specimens, and display them in a cabinet of curiosities. Women’s tastes seemed to be domestic, or at least that’s what was available to them. Dolls’ houses were crafted and there was no shortage of furniture, books and dolls to fill them. Craftsmen would often produce miniature versions of their own products to demonstrate their skills; these were exquisitely made and very costly.

1. Library in Queen Mary's Dolls' House

 The library with leather bound books in Queen Mary’s dolls’ house.  The Royal Collection Trust.

The ultimate example of domestic miniature collecting is Queen Mary’s dolls’ house at Winsor Castle. Built in 1924, it was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, the most eminent English architect of the time, who commissioned renowned artists and craftsmen to contribute examples of their works. Electric lifts, lights, running water and a flushable toilet, complete with miniature toilet paper, are included. The wine cellar contains tiny glass bottles filled with wines and spirits. The library is filled with leather-bound miniature books by 170 famous authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A A Milne, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. The walls are adorned throughout with paintings by notable artists.

Dolls’ houses became all the rage with the rich, and there was an immense demand for furniture and dolls with which to fill them. After World War II, doll’s houses and their contents started being massed produced, and consequently, much more affordable for more people.

There is an assortment of miniature objects in the collection of the Whanganui Regional Museum. We can find miniature teapots, pots and pans, furniture, miniature sewing machines and even a miniature suit of armour.

3. Dolls and eggs

 Four half egg shells and two baby dolls. Ref: TH.3706

Amongst the tiniest is a pair of Lilliputian wooden dolls, each nesting inside a tiny wooden egg. One is painted green and the other yellow, both with the inscription, “the smallest doll in the world’’, barely discernible on the outside in gold. They were produced in Germany and Austria for the British market in the early 1900s and were often given to children as an Easter gift. They were known as “penny dolls’’, as this is what they were reportedly sold for in Britain at the time.

The eggs are 3.2 centimetres high. The dolls are just 1.3 centimetres tall and have moveable, jointed arms and legs. They are joined to the body by small wooden pegs which are locked together, so that if one arm or leg is moved, the other does likewise. Both are painted with rather stern looks on their faces.

2. Baby doll from an egg

 One of the baby dolls that nestles in a miniature egg. Ref: TH.3076a

Because of their fragility and the fact that they were cheap, once broken they were often discarded, so we are fortunate to have an intact pair in the collection.

It seems the appetite for miniatures never disappears. A quick look on the Internet reveals a renewed interest in miniature dolls. Dolls, with names such as Lalaloopsy, Cupcake and Polly Pockets, are very popular and come with small houses and accessories. Even boys are accommodated with Lego and transformers. Will these be filling the shelves of museums a hundred years from now?

 

Kathy Greensides is the Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Taxidermy

The word taxidermy is derived from the ancient Greek roots táksis (arrangement) and derma (skin), and loosely translates to “arrangement of skin”. It refers to the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of dead animals for exhibition in a lifelike state. Taxidermy takes on a number of forms and purposes, including hunting trophies and natural history museum displays, and sometimes to memorialise loved pets. It is used as a method of preserving specimens for research and recording, and for display, including those that are extinct and threatened, in the form of study skins and life-size mounts. It is practiced primarily on vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish and reptiles) but can also be applied to larger insects and arachnids (spiders).

The earliest known taxidermists were the ancient Egyptians who developed a form of animal preservation through the use of injections, spices, oils, and other embalming tools and methods. The modern form of taxidermy greatly differs from the taxidermy of antiquity, as taxidermists now produce lifelike mounts by accurately modelling the anatomy of animal specimens as they might appear in their natural habitat.

2. Drew's museum

 Drew’s taxidermied specimens in the Wanganui Public Museum that opened in 1895 and was situated in Drews Avenue.  Photograph by AD Willis. Ref: 1802.3375

In the Victorian era, taxidermy became very popular and fashionable, with many seeking curiosities for their cabinets in an exciting age of discovery. With the surge of international exploration, there was a growing community of natural history observers, or naturalists, who became intent on discovering fascinating new species abroad.

When new species of mammals, fowl and fish were still being discovered, naturalists looked for ways of preserving them for classification. Famed British explorer Captain James Cook was one of the early supporters of taxidermy for his newly discovered species. Charles Darwin was another early practitioner of taxidermy. He had some specimens from the Galapagos Islands taxidermied in situ; they later helped support his scientific theory of evolution.

In the early 20th century taxidermy came into its own and became a respected art form. Wealthy aristocrats would fill their homes with mounted animals from all over the world. As big game hunting became more popular, so did the practice of displaying wild animals. Early taxidermy mounts were stuffed with sawdust and rags without regard for actual anatomy, so the models were often disfigured. In fact, some mounts from those days skewed how people imagined such creatures for years. The long-extinct dodo is a prime example of creative taxidermy misleading actuality. Over time, taxidermists developed techniques to more accurately represent anatomy.

The Whanganui Regional Museum collection houses many taxidermied specimens, including rare and now extinct species such as huia, koreke (New Zealand quail) and whēkau (laughing owl). There are many trophy heads and even an extinct Tasmanian tiger.

1. Tasmanian tiger

Taxidermied and mounted specimen of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, Thylacinus cynocephalus, first acquired by Samuel Drew for a private museum at his home. Ref: 1805.61

The taxidermy collection started with an avid local naturalist and collector, Samuel Drew. He collected and classified many natural history specimens, certainly enough to establish a small museum at his home in 1880. He was a significant collector of molluscs, birds, and beetles, and maintained contacts with world-renowned naturalists. He exchanged specimens with Julius von Haast, a German geologist, later director of the Canterbury Museum. He met with and corresponded with taxidermist Andreas Reischek, who helped him classify some of his specimens. Reischek also trained Drew’s son, Henry, in taxidermy. Drew’s private collection eventually became too large for his family home and became the foundation of the Whanganui Regional Museum collection that we all enjoy today.

 

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.