The Same but Different: Musings on Museums

By Paul Thompson, Deputy Director and Head of Content

The modern museum often sees its ancestry as stretching back to mediaeval and renaissance Wunderkammer (cabinet of wonders). At times they actively use them as models or metaphor for how they present things.

Wunderkammer are those wonderfully eclectic collections of art, curiosities and natural history specimens that the wealthy created and used to show off their resources and their knowledge. But while museums have no trouble with the form or derivations from the Wunderkammer they can find the function a bit trickier. Times have changed.

Photo ref: Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand

The Colonial Museum was created when Wellington became the Capital in 1865. After morphing through the Dominion and then the National Museum, it was the precursor to Te Papa. Some things are exactly the same, such as the whale skeleton hanging from the roof, the glass cases, the waka in central place and the labels. The major difference to a modern museum is that now the birds would be in one section, Māori artefacts in another and the Kohorn mortar in a third, and there are probably no stuffed animals.

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The Attic in Wellington Museum. Photo: Mark Tantrum

A new display (a whole floor actually) at Wellington Museum has reverted to, or rather been informed by, the idiosyncratic jumble of the Wunderkammer. We used the idea of an attic as the design metaphor but the individual items and associated stories that we call ‘the dispersed model’ means stuffed animals, paintings, carved portraits, civic history, Māori taonga and colonial and modernist detritus sit happily side by side. The Attic is a giant Wunderkammer and of course the word ‘cabinet’ was traditionally applied to a room as well as a piece of furniture.

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Cabinet at Jack’s Boathouse in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata

In another display called Jack’s Boathouse, this time more like a traditional Wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinet, all the objects sit together in a case with no labels. They are based on the Collections acquired when Wellington Museum’s focus was maritime so they have a more restricted range of objects than a traditional Wunderkammer. But they certainly have variety within the overall theme.

Early Wunderkammer had an effective way of classifying the world that was stunningly straightforward – articifialia or human artefacts including art, musical instruments, exotic clothing and weapons and ‘objects of curious manufacture’.

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Cabinet at Jack’s Boathouse in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata

Or naturalia (natural objects). At times we get lovely combinations such as this painted shell.

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Cabinet at Jack’s Boathouse in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata
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Cabinet at Jack’s Boathouse in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata

But these binoculars, pieces of artificialia, can perhaps show us that while we have installations that look like Wunderkammer we may have the signs but not the spirit. When we look at or through these binoculars how many of us would read brass binoculars as metaphor or muse? This is how we have interpreted them:

‘Binoculars (brass). Binoculars replaced telescopes for long distance viewing because they are easier to hold steady, have a wider field of view and give brighter and sharper images’. Well it’s all true but rather prosaic.

In an earlier time their presence in a Wunderkammer may have turned our thoughts to higher matters. We may have regarded them as being symbolic of the all-seeing eye of God and then developing this up to encompass all the objects in the cabinet as confirmation of his (as God was conceived of then) wonderful works. Or as you looked through the bigger end and saw objects as diminished in size this could be a lesson in morals warning us of the dangers of hubris (pride). Humans may think and act ambitiously but in reality are specks in a material universe. Whether one is a believer or an atheist there is room for speculation. The Wunderkammer acts as a philosophical and speculative prompt.

This type of thinking is recognised by some museums by the phrase ‘visitors make their own meanings’. In this we know that the visitors may see meanings and ideas in objects that are not at all related to the reasons why we (the museum) have decided to put them on display. A good example at Wellington Museum would be the dozens of black and white portraits of Chairmen of the now-defunct Wellington Harbour Board that line the wall of the Boardroom. The other day I saw a couple of visitors slowly examining each one. “Looking for ancestors?” I asked. “No, comparing them to 1930s silent film stars”, was the reply.

Von Kohorn Boardroom in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata

So in modern museums we may have the form and we occasionally have the function of the Wunderkammer. But in a post-Enlightenment world, with its focus on rationality and classification, are we in danger of losing the Wunderkammer’s poetry?

Predicting the future of Wellington’s heritage buildings through ‘Plimmer’s Ark’ at the Old Bank Arcade

By Nik Bullard, Curator Social History

The inaugural Wellington City Heritage Week kicks off this year and runs from 23-29 October. This is brought to us by Historic Places Wellington, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and Wellington City Council. It will be a week of community hosted events that will provide the public with the opportunity to experience the city’s social, built, and cultural heritage close-up.

Museums Wellington has three of its four sites based in heritage buildings – The Carter Observatory (Space Place) which opened in 1941, The Bond Store (now Wellington Museum) built in 1892 by renowned architect Frederick de Jersey Clere and Nairn Street Cottage built circa 1860 by early settlers Catherine and William Wallis. Our fourth site, the Cable Car Museum, contains the heritage-listed Cable Car Winding House.

4 Museums

We also look after another heritage site – the found remains of the Inconstant sailing ship (or ‘Plimmer’s Ark’) at the Old Bank Arcade on Lambton Quay (a Category 1 listed BNZ heritage building). Recently we refurbished this display to modernise it and simplify the interpretation. Here we tell the story of early settler and successful entrepreneur, John Plimmer, and his bonded warehouse ‘Ark’ (built in the wrecked Inconstant).

Plimmer’s Ark. Photo: Museums Wellington

As part of the refurb, we included a timeline of other notable Wellington buildings (the Ark is, after all, the story of an old building within an old building!). It was also a great way of celebrating the ethnic diversity of Wellington as seen through the various cultural sites, churches and halls.

A number of the sites we included are listed with Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (HNZPT) – Te Aro pā, the de Luxe Cinema (now the Embassy Theatre, 1924), the first Labour government’s first state house in Miramar (1937) and Futuna Chapel in Karori (1961).

(1937) First state house in Miramar. Heritage New Zealand
The first Labour Government’s first State House. Photo: Heritage New Zealand


Futuna Chapel. Photo by Wills, Tony

HNZPT doesn’t have a minimum age requirement for buildings to be listed, as this would be “inconsistent with contemporary conservation philosophy and with the perception of the past and present as a continuum, particularly for iwi and hapū”.

(1974) Img 2 Tapu Te Ranga living marae, Museums Wellington
Tapu Te Ranga living marae. Photo: Museums Wellington
(1974) Img 1 Tapu Te Ranga living marae, Museums Wellington
Tapu Te Ranga living marae. Photo: Museums Wellington

With this in mind, it’s interesting to note the sites on our timeline that aren’t yet listed: Pipitea pā (marae), the Chinese Mission Hall on Frederick Street (1907), the Greek Orthodox Church on Hania Street (1950), Tapu Te Ranga living marae in Island Bay (1974) and the Congregational Christian Church in Newtown (1984). Perhaps it’s time for people involved in these organisations (or interested others) to look at protecting these significant buildings?

(1907) Img 1 St Peter's Chinese Mission Hall. Museums Wellington
Chinese Mission Hall Photo: Museums Wellington
(1950) Img 2 Greek Orthodox Church. Museums Wellington
Greek Orthodox Church. Photo: Museums Wellington
(1984) Img 1 Samoan Church. Museums Wellington
Congregational Christian Church. Photo: Museums Wellington

I can see that there may be perceived drawbacks to registering your building or site. However, entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero does not automatically equal protection or create regulatory obligations on the property owner. Nor does it create specific rights or control over the property. But it may lead to the property being protected under local government’s district plan heritage schedules.

So if registered buildings and sites aren’t assessed against an age criteria, how are they assessed? According to HNZPT, all proposed historic place entries on the List are assessed according to the following criteria: aesthetic, archaeological, architectural, cultural, historical, scientific, social, spiritual, technological and traditional, and must meet at least one criterion to be eligible for entry.

This implies that we can apply to register any building or site that we feel fits the criteria. Currently there are no Wellington buildings listed by renowned architects Ian Athfield  and Roger Walker. It would be a crime against architecture if some or all of these were lost (as Walker’s Wellington Club already has been).

I wonder what other buildings on our timeline will become listed in the future? The new Bharat Bhavan Indian Hall in Kilbirnie (1997), the Wellington Masjid (mosque) in Kilbirnie (2000), Te Raukura/Te Wharewaka on the waterfront (2011)? They all appear to fit HNZPT’s criteria.

(1992) Img 1 Bharat Bhavan Indian Hall. Museums Wellington
Bharat Bhavan Indian Hall. Photo: Museums Wellington
Wellington Masjid (mosque). Photo: Museums Wellington
(2011) Te wharewaka o Poneke. Lighthaus Ltd
Te Raukura/Te Wharewaka. Photo: Lighthaus

Are there any buildings or sites that you can think of that may need registering to be listed as historic?

Wellington City Heritage Week at Museums Wellington:

Nairn Street Cottage Open Day

WHEN: Monday 23 October from 10am-4pm
WHERE: Nairn Street Cottage, 68 Nairn Street
COST: Gold coin entry

Magical Mystery Drawing Tour

We’re celebrating Heritage Week with a drawing tour – and that’s all we’re saying! Come along with your preferred materials and we’ll take you to surprise locations where you can put your pencils, charcoal or paint to paper. In the week before, we’ll send you heritage clues that will disclose the meet up spot… Rain date Sunday 29th October.

WHEN: Saturday 28 October from 11am – 2pm
WHERE: To be disclosed!
PRICE: $20 (bookings essential)

heritage week

Film Review: The Square

Earlier this year a group of peeps from Museums Wellington went to see the ‘The Square’, a Film Festival movie.


Here’s a summary of the film from the movie website Rotten Tomatoes: “Christian (played by Claes Bang, pictured above) is the respected curator of a contemporary art museum, a divorced but devoted father of two who drives an electric car and supports good causes. His next show is “The Square”, an installation which invites passersby to altruism, reminding them of their role as responsible fellow human beings. But sometimes, it is difficult to live up to your own ideals: Christian’s foolish response to the theft of his phone drags him into shameful situations. Meanwhile, the museum’s PR agency has created an unexpected campaign for “The Square”. The response is overblown and sends Christian, as well as the museum, into an existential crisis.”

So this is what we thought of the movie…


Paul Thompson, Head of Content
A Nordic black comedy that raises important considerations of the semantics of the phenomenological signifiers ‘black’ and ‘comedy’ – does it not?



Brent Fafeita, Curator History
Is a square still a square if the square’s lines are incomplete? For instance, is a square paddock still a true square if a gate is left open or a fence line not finished? Is a square defined by its border, or more by its footprint, its content, or even something more irrational?

I left the movie early so for me the ‘Square’ was incomplete. Perhaps this feeling goes beyond the movie’s length however. I could just as well have felt this state of incompleteness at its conclusion. The question then is whether anything is ever truly complete. Our Museum is prone to change, more-so it seeks and welcomes it. Thus the Museum is also never complete – just like the ‘Square’. Maybe that was truly the movie’s point.



Brian Wood, Marketing and Development Manager
A movie that polarised people into two defined camps. LOVE it or HATE it. Personally I am in the LOVE it camp, mainly because it was genuinely thought provoking without providing answers or solutions and managed to be extremely funny in the process. The film highlighted many problems that cities around the world are currently facing including major ones like poverty and homelessness but it also touched on other issues like are museums connecting with their audiences? Overall for me the main point of the movie was, how bad can things get before someone or society has to step in? Definitely recommend A++ watch it and make your own conclusions.



Nik Bullard, Curator Social History
The opening scene of ‘The Square’ pokes fun at the inaccessible and elitist language of the contemporary art world. Interesting…

The central theme is based on an art installation with the premise: ‘The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations’. Great, that’s thought provoking.

Then there were frequent references to homelessness on the streets of Stockholm. Excellent, this is going to look at poverty and inequality as seen through the eyes of the rich art curator. And it does, somewhat.

So, all good so far.

But then… It gets increasingly disjointed and esoteric (and downright disturbing in parts!). And it ends up not making any of the conclusions or exploring the insights into society that I thought it would. I like to think that there is hope for humanity!

Maybe if it hadn’t been 2.5 hours long it would have worked better? Maybe not. I left feeling deeply frustrated and embarked on a week-long therapy session with my other work colleagues who saw it (some of whom were struggling to make sense of it too).



Tom Etuata, Communications Co-ordinator
It’s good to have a laugh at yourself sometimes. The movie ‘The Square’ certainly does that.

Working in the marketing side of Museums Wellington, I couldn’t stop grinning while watching the scene when the two young PR creatives and the museum management team discuss what would be the best way to promote ‘The Square’ exhibition via social media. What they come up with was certainly over the top and very ‘Monty Python’, and to its credit the film does that well – poking fun at the image of Museums and Art Galleries and today’s world of social media where it’s all about creating ‘buzz’ to generate more likes and comments amongst the clutter of snapchats, Trump tweets and cat videos.

Overall the film is an interesting watch and certainly funny and thought-provoking in parts, but it runs out of steam in the last hour and could’ve done with some major editing (like getting rid of the last hour).

By the way, don’t get a seat up in the R Row at the Embassy. There’s absolutely no leg room whatsoever.



Raukura Hoerara-Smith, Assistant Curator Māori
‘The Square’ was not an easy film for me to watch. My anxiety levels were creeping in, and by the end of the movie, my thoughts were incomplete and I was frustrated at the whole thing.

Perhaps it reflected what different societies consider to be humane and inhumane?

‘The Square’ is the type of film that stayed in my mind and would occasionally still pop up randomly in my head. I give the director kudos for playing with my emotions!

Overall, a sensitively sophisticated piece of film that creates an experience like no other.



Tamsin Falconer, Project Manager
In ‘The Square’, an ambitious and potentially contentious exhibition is being launched alongside a major fundraising event with an amazing entertainer.  And it is a professional disaster, magnified by personal disasters.

In ‘The First Monday in May’ (which I also saw recently), an ambitious and potentially contentious exhibition is being launched alongside a major fundraising event with an amazing entertainer.  And it is a glorious success, resulting in professional kudos.

‘The Square’ made me feel slightly queasy, not because of the exploding kitten, but because sometimes there seems to be only a thin line between glorious success and personal disaster.

Film lover of Waikanae
Vicissitudes and Volvos – the quintessential Nordic combination.

Cassini’s Final Farewell

By Dr Claire Bretherton, Curator Science

On 15th October 1997, Cassini-Huygens blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on its way to Saturn, the first spacecraft to enter orbit around the ringed planet. In the two decades since Cassini-Huygens has completely changed our knowledge of the planet, its stunning rings and dynamic moons, and taken some of the most awe-inspiring images of the Solar System we have ever seen.

The Cassini mission has always been dear to my heart. It launched on the 15th October 1997. I was 18 at the time, and just a couple of weeks into my degree at Leicester University studying Physics with Astrophysics. Seven years, and a long long journey later, which for Cassini took it half way across the solar system, and for me took me through an MPhys, teacher training and half of my PhD, we were both ready to do some real science. We’d both dabbled a little along the way, but now, as it entered orbit around Saturn, to begin its initial four year science mission, Cassini was ready to revolutionise our understanding of the mysterious ringed planet and change the course of future planetary exploration.

Cassini 1

Cassini-Huygens was a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and involved scientists and engineers from 27 different countries. NASA and ASI were responsible for the Cassini orbiter, named after the 17th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered four of Saturn’s moons and identified a gap in Saturn’s rings, which is now known as the Cassini Division.

View of Titan
First colour view from the surface of Titan taken by the ESA Huygens probe. NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona

ESA contributed the Huygens lander, named after the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. On the 14th of January 2005, Huygens was dropped onto Titan, braking in the moons dense atmosphere, and parachuting down to the surface. On its way down, the lander collected ground-breaking new data on Titan’s atmosphere, clouds and surface features.

Meanwhile, Cassini continued to study the Saturn system from orbit, providing tantalizing evidence of the diversity and dynamism of its many moons and studying the planet’s atmosphere, magnetic fields and ring system in unprecedented detail.

With its initial science goals completed in 2008, Cassini’s mission was extended. The two-year Cassini Equinox mission included 60 additional orbits of Saturn and over 30 flybys of some of its moons. It also allowed the spacecraft to observe Saturn’s rings as they were lit edge on by the Sun, revealing stunning new detail and previously unseen structure.

In 2010, the mission was extended again. Known as the Cassini Solstice Mission, this second, seven year long extension would take us all the way past Saturn’s northern hemisphere summer solstice. Having originally arrived just after the northern hemisphere winter solstice, this allowed us to observe a complete seasonal period and to complete more in-depth studies of both Titan and Enceladus.

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A huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

There are so many highlights from the Cassini-Huygens mission that it’s hard to pick a favourite. The mission discovered seven new moons, revealed new structure and activity in Saturn’s rings, observed the changing colour of the planet’s north-pole hexagon, and witnessed the aftermath of a massive reoccurring storm seen in 2010. But to me the mission’s greatest successes come from its in-depth study of some of Saturn’s many moons, which have resulted in some truly surprising discoveries.

These natural colour views compare the appearance of Saturn’s north-polar region in June 2013 and April 2017. 

Cassini-Huygens has found rivers, lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane covering Titan’s polar regions, complete with rain from hydrocarbon clouds, whilst the moon’s equator is marked by icy ‘sand dunes’ hundreds of kilometres long and 100 metres high.

Near-infrared, colour mosaic from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan’s north polar seas. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

It has tasted Titan’s thick atmosphere to find a rich and complex chemical soup that still can’t be fully explained and revealed conditions that may be similar to the early Earth. Meanwhile, gravity experiments have revealed evidence for an ocean of liquid water and ammonia deep underground.

Exploration of the icy moon Enceladus has revealed a hot spot at the southern pole, icy jets spewing out from the surface and a vast salty ocean below the ice.  These jets contribute directly to Saturn’s diffuse E-ring and further study of the ring’s chemistry suggests the existence of hydrothermal vents, not dissimilar to those found on Earth. Together, these astounding new results promote Enceladus to one of the top candidates in our search for life beyond our own planet.

Cassini’s last Enceladus plume observation. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute. 

In April this year, after almost 13 years of discovery, and with its fuel running low, Cassini embarked on its Grand Finale, a series of death defying dives between the planet and its rings, before plunging into Saturn on the 15th September, just a month out from its 20th birthday. Even in its final moments Cassini continued to send data. Whilst the space craft is gone, its legacy lives on in our new understanding of the jewel of our Solar System.

In Saturn’s shadow. Saturn eclipses the Sun allowing Cassini to capture this spectacular view. Look out for the tiny pale blue dot just outside the brighter rings – this is our own planet, the Earth. NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.


Te Reo Māori me ōna tikanga: A window into language revitalisation

By Raukura Hoerara-Smith, Assistant Māori Curator,

Museums Wellington

He reo e kōrerotia ana, he reo ka ora.

 A spoken language is a living language.

te reo 1

Tēnā koe,

Te reo Māori is of great importance to me. My mother and father raised me in a Māori-dominated world, where te reo Māori was my mother tongue. It wasn’t until my last year at intermediate school where I transferred to a mainstream class that I started to adapt myself to a more westernised world.

Today, I feel like every day should be a celebration of our language, wherever we are. I find myself only talking Māori when I’m around kaupapa Māori (environment), which is why I need to challenge myself more to speak the language that was given to me since birth. It is my mission in the future to provide my own children with the same intrinsic values my parents gave to me.

This week we are celebrating Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week). This acknowledges the Māori language as a unique cultural taonga (treasure) for all people in Aotearoa New Zealand. Each year, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission) sets a theme for the week, and a range of activities, promotions, and events that encourage the use of te reo Māori. The theme this year, ‘Kia ora te reo Māori’ was selected to honour New Zealand’s indigenous greeting – an exact description aimed for new partnerships for te reo Māori revitalisation between the Crown and Māori under the new Māori Language Act 2016.

As the Māori language started to significantly decrease in the 1970s, Māori language week was used to help create awareness about the revitalisation of our language. I’m writing this blog to give you an insight on this taonga of ours, in the hope that you will be able to take something away with you.

Te reo Māori has had an official language status since 1987 and numerous Māori language revitalisation activities have occurred to date. Despite these efforts, statistics continue to show a decline in the number of Māori language speakers.

The objective of Māori language revitalisation is to re-establish the language in today’s world. I am in support of the idea that Māori language is the heritage language of all citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s a cherished taonga that all citizens have a duty to help revitalise.  Some see that current trends among the most dominant languages, like English, Mandarin, German and Spanish, have a higher chance of survival than most other languages. Some may see this as a result of globalisation, indicating that languages are forever changing and adapting to the times.

Why should the language be revitalised?

The Māori language is embedded in the geographical naming system of Aotearoa, New Zealand’s cultural heritage and Māori is recognised as the de facto heritage language for all New Zealand citizens (Waitangi Tribunal, 2011). If it does not survive here it will not survive anywhere in the world. For the most part the Māori language is not being passed down through the generations, in homes, neighbourhoods and communities. The Māori language is significant because it is the carrier of the Māori culture as “without it the Māori identity would be fundamentally undermined, as would the very existence of Māori as a distinguished people” (Waitangi Tribunal Report #262, 2010:48). For Māori to exist the Māori language is a key identity indicator.

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Promotional  material from

For a bilingual speaker of Māori language, intergenerational transmission is a key objective. The value of the language is seen to motivate language choice, which promotes a change in language practices. This suggests that the fundamental values and beliefs are transferred from our parents, grandparents or from our social environments. Language value depends on perceptions and choice, illustrating the complex relationship between existing communities. Within these communities, bilingual speakers make their language choice based on the normalised language within a social setting. For example, a speaker has a higher chance of talking on the Marae, where te reo is normalised.

The findings of the Te Paepae Motuhake report, Te Reo Mauriora (2011: 63), identified seven primary values attributed to the Māori language:

  1. Intrinsic value
  2. Educational value
  3. Social value
  4. Cultural value
  5. Intellectual value
  6. Spiritual value
  7. Monetary value

These seven attributes regulate the attitudes that people have towards the Māori language. A person may decide to move towards, or away from these values. In terms of language acquisition, these values can be overwhelming for some people in learning the language and can have a positive or negative effect on a person depending on their particular position.

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Māori word map from

The establishment of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori promotes the recommendations of the Waitangi Tribunal and produces resources that recognise the language as a taonga, more importantly, as intrinsically valuable to Māori. Having said that, the establishment of the Māori Language Act, the discourse surrounding the Māori language continues to resonate a language under threat.

For the Māori language to truly flourish, the government should enact the recommendations of Te Puni Kokiri, and the Waitangi Tribunal language reviews must also be considered. Let us hope that the Māori Language Act will help with the revitalisation of our language so that it can survive for evermore.

Ko tōku reo, tōku ohooho; tōku reo, tōku mapihi maurea; tōku reo, tōku whakakai marihi.

My language is my inspiration, my special gift, my precious treasure.



Breaking into the museum

Guest blog by Matariki Williams, Curator Mātauranga Māori, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

I’m afraid this isn’t an instructional post on navigating the labyrinthine corridors of our nation’s museums, instead this is about a pathway in to working at a museum.

The route I took was by undertaking a Masters in Museums and Heritage Studies at Victoria University, a path that involved 600 hours of internship, some of which I spent with Wellington Museum. Though most of the internships are unpaid, I will forever be grateful to Wellington Museum and the Museums Studies programme for allowing me to use a short term contract as my placement.

It doesn’t feel like this is acknowledged enough. Although the Masters programme is a popular pathway into the museum, however because of the internship factor, there is an immediate financial filter on who will be able to apply for the programme. Perhaps this explains why I was the only Māori person in my intake and why there was only one Māori student the following year. It is very problematic that the most obvious pathway into the museum involves an immediate socioeconomic filter – this is part of the reason why eventually getting a museum’s role felt like I was ‘breaking in’.

This blog is running the risk of sounding defeatist but there are many reasons why people want to work in this sector so let’s change tack and focus on why people want to work in the sector. First for me is the taonga, the objects of mana that are inextricably linked to people, stories and the immeasurability of time. Through taonga our museums unlock hidden and visible connections between people and places. For Māori in particular, so much of our mātauranga has been covered by introduced knowledge systems, and taonga serve a reminder of what endures, waiting to be discovered. From a Māori perspective, it is also important to understand that it was in recent history that we had no autonomy in being the kaitiaki of our taonga, so being in the museum still feels like a revolutionary position.

Aside from the taonga, it is people that keep me here. I have come across so many who have inspired, encouraged and challenged me. One of the most supportive groups of people I have come across are my peers, both inside Te Papa and out. My peers are an upwardly mobile and fiercely engaged bunch. Almost two years ago my friend Nina Finigan (who completed the same Masters, has also worked at Wellington Museum, and is currently the Curator Manuscripts at Auckland Museum) and I started a website called Tusk – Emergent Culture.

Matariki 2
Photo: Antalis glaucarena (Dell, 1953), collected 04 Nov 1950, Chatham Rise, New Zealand. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (M.005678)

The impetus for this was that we were feeling unfulfilled in previous roles and felt like we had no way to affect change in the sector. Through Tusk we’ve been able to provide a platform for ourselves and our peers to write about sector issues in a supportive environment. Crucially, it has afforded us the ability to shed light on our peers and advocates through two columns of profiles: Tuakana and On the Level. Through this online platform, we’re able to provide diverse perspectives of the sector which is one of the most satisfying aspects of the website.

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Photo and linocut artwork: Matariki Williams

People are the glue for museums, when the going gets tough, we have each other. In saying that, I would also say that museology is evolving as museums continue to work with their source communities and eventually start to divest power in collecting and curating.

When I say that people are the glue I mean all people, from our donors to our audiences, from the people walking through our doors every day to the people on the other side of the world accessing our collections and research online. In this respect, I’m glad that it’s a lot easier for our audiences to break into museums as we continue to digitise our collections and make our research / public programmes/talks etc available online.

The winter holidays were ‘Far from Frozen’ at Space Place

By Claire Bretherton, Curator Science, Museums Wellington

At Space Place we inspire our visitors to look up at the wonderful southern skies and to learn more about our unique place in the Universe. What better place to start than by turning our attention to our own planet, and to the effects our way of life is having on Earth’s future.

Could it end up like Venus, with a runaway greenhouse effect heating the planet to the temperature of an oven, or perhaps a frozen wasteland like our neighbouring red Mars? Antarctic science can provide vital clues to our planetary fate.

Over the July school holidays, Space Place was delighted to host Otago Museum’s Far from Frozen exhibition. The exhibition used the latest technology to bring Antarctica to life. Combined with examples of the polar equipment needed to survive and work on the seventh continent, profiles of Antarctic scientists, and hands-on, interactive exhibits, Far from Frozen allowed our visitors to explore the latest Antarctic science, to learn about our changing climate, and importantly, to gain a better understanding of the impact we are having on our home planet.

far from frozen 1
Photo: Tom Etuata

The exhibition was based on a Royal Society of New Zealand ‘Ten by Ten’ talk series by Victoria University scientists Tim Naish and James Renwick, called ‘Ten things you didn’t know about climate change‘. Naish and Renwick outlined ten facts that New Zealanders might not know about global warming, its impact on our oceans, climates and weather systems, both globally and locally, and how our actions have and will influence Earth’s future.  You can read more about it here.

Photo: Tracy Stedall

Far from Frozen was a fantastic opportunity to try something new at Space Place. We were able to open up a part of our building that is not normally visited by members of the public. We expanded our horizons in terms of content, moving away from outer space, to look at the science of our own planet. We also involved a variety of volunteers to help host the exhibition, including scientists involved with the Deep South National Science Challenge. These volunteers not only made sure that everything ran smoothly, but also provided an invaluable insight into the current, cutting edge research going on today.

The exhibition also provided the perfect backdrop to host a variety of different and exciting programmes, including Climate Conscious Cinema in the planetarium and two panel discussions on the science of Antarctica and climate change, and how we can adapt to it.

We have recently rearranged part of our galleries to open up the space a bit more, so we made good use of this new area with the Cool Science shows, held twice a day every weekday of the school holidays. This was another new initiative for the team and we wowed our younger visitors with exploding balloons, bubbling, colour changing chemical reactions, and a home made comet, all linked to the Far from Frozen exhibition.

far from frozen logo
Photo: Tom Etuata

So what did our visitors think?

Well first of all they voted with their feet. Space Place has seen its busiest July school holiday since we reopened in 2010, with over 7000 visitors through our doors. Over 100 visitors also filled in our feedback survey, and nearly 80% told us that they loved the exhibition (only 1 person didn’t like it), 62% that they learned a lot from it, and another 30% that they learned a little.

far from frozen 4
Photo: Tracy Stedall

Nearly 98% said they would like to see the same amount or more about environmental issues in the future, and a similar proportion would like to see the same amount or more about astronomy/space science and other topics.

Particular highlights included the ‘cool new technologies’, the ‘great mix of movies, static displays & interactive, experiential options’, real scientists and the Cool Science show.

Overall, Far from Frozen was a great experience for all involved. The excellent feedback we have received from our visitors, the positive responses from our staff and volunteers, and the fantastic visitor numbers have inspired us to see our exhibitions and spaces in a new light, and I’m excited to see what we can do next.

Photo: Tracy Stedall

Far from Frozen was developed by Otago Museum in association with Antarctica New Zealand, the University of Otago and the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute with support from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment’s Unlocking Curious Minds fund, and was brought to Space Place with support from the Deep South National Science Challenge.

There’s no such thing as a wrong answer

By Tamsin Falconer, Museums Wellington Project Manager

Recently, I’ve been looking at visitor data from the Cable Car Museum to inform our plans for future changes.  As the Museum welcomes more than 200,000 visitors a year, it’s difficult to find out what each visitor thinks, or even where they all come from.  Instead, we use surveys to get a sample of visitor information and feedback.  I’ve been looking at the information from online sources such as Trip Advisor and two in-house surveys – one is done in March/April – a person-to-person survey, using the same questions as other museums throughout Aotearoa, the other is on an iPad that visitors can answer any time.

cable car survey

The surveys tell us some interesting statistics, including:

  • 16% of our visitors have visited before.  Except that if we look at the other survey, we know that 28% of our visitors have visited before.    Is this because the surveys are done at different times of year?  Anyway, why did people come back for another visit?
  • According to the survey data, repeat visitors are mainly from elsewhere in New Zealand, not local to Wellington.  But our staff recognise repeat local visitors, and know them.  Are they a small but very visible group?  Or are they just not answering the surveys?  How much weight should we put on statistics from surveys, when it contradicts the impressions of our staff who actually talk with people?
  • In the 2016 survey, 33% of visitors who ‘usually live’ in New Zealand were born overseas.  We ask where New Zealanders were born because it is part of a national survey, and it’s really helpful to have exactly the same questions asked at each museum.  But I’m not sure what we would do with this information, and the question feels a little bit intrusive.

So while the surveys give us some numbers, they also raise as many questions as they answer.

The surveys also ask a couple of questions that don’t provide percentages: what were the highlights of your visit, and what are your suggestions for improvements.  At first glance, some of the answers seem totally irrelevant.  But as I’ve thought about it more, even the seemingly irrelevant stuff has something to say.

For instance, visitors’ highlights of their visit to the Cable Car Museum included ‘The Lady Norwood Rose Garden’ and ‘the view from the summit point’.  The rose garden is in the Botanic Gardens, as is the Cable Car Museum, but unlike the summit point, it’s a good walk to get there.  Why did visitors (more than one) list this as a highlight of a visit to the museum, when it’s not even close?  Visitors also told us that they wished it was ‘less expensive’ (the Museum is free – but the Cable Car ride costs).


It would be easy enough to dismiss these ideas as responses from people who weren’t listening to the questions.  But from the visitor perspective, their highlight was the rose garden or the view, and the Cable Car ride was part of the experience too – they clearly see these as elements of the same experience that includes the Museum.  To me this suggests we should start to think entirely differently about what’s inside and outside the Museum, rather than thinking of the Museum as a distinct individual entity, we should think about it as part of a network of things that people enjoy.


Suggestions for improvements to the Cable Car Museum include ‘fewer children’.  Wow!  This one seems impossible to deliver on, or even take seriously, because we actually would love to see more children.  And more adults.  But it is true that groups of children in the Museum can sometimes make a lot of noise and take up a lot of space, particularly if they’re enjoying themselves and telling each other about it! While some adult visitors enjoy this, we know that others find this taxing.  This comment leads me to think about what we could do to lessen any negative impact on other visitors.  Can we advertise or schedule quiet times in the Museum, when school groups tend not to book anyway?  Can we put up signage so that other visitors know immediately that there is a group of children in the museum?  Should we have a specific area for noisy or child-focussed activities?


Other highlights included ‘Cable Car displays’ and the suggestion of ‘more exhibitions’.  This is where looking at the answers to brief surveys becomes frustrating.  While these come across as positive feedback, I can’t help wishing I was there asking the questions so I could find out something more specific that we could explore.


So, really the key is that there’s some great stuff there.  But to know more, we need to take the ‘wrong answers’ and use them as prompts for better, longer conversations, making sure we talk to people who don’t answer the surveys as well as those who do.  We can use the survey data as conversation starters.  “A lot of people say they would like to see more exhibitions – what do you think is missing?”, “Did you come to see the Botanic Garden or the Cable Car Museum or both?”

So next time you’re at the Cable Car Museum – come and have a conversation – we’d love to know what you think.


More to Lions than Rugby

Written by Brent Fafeita, History Curator – Museums Wellington

The British and Irish Lions roar into Wellington this week. With the city primed to host and play its part in the historic rugby series, it’s good to remember that Wellington’s connection with Panthera leo (lion) is far more extensive than just that played on the rugby pitch. In fact, although obviously not native to New Zealand, ‘lions’ feature prominently throughout Wellington, past and present.

Most people acknowledge both the value and importance of the lion to the balance of life and diversity in the animal kingdom. Zoos across the world host lions in their stocks as a means to educate the public and safeguard the species. Wellington Zoo is no exception. Two of the Zoo’s historic lions stand proudly in The Attic at Wellington Museum – King Dick (1898-1921), the Zoo’s first lion and currently on loan from Te Papa, and Rusty (1977-1997), the Zoo’s last lion to undergo taxidermy. Together their kingly presence highlights the change in thinking away from taxidermy to a greater emphasis in education and animal welfare.

Margaret Mahy’s ‘The Lion in the Meadow’

The lion is more than an animal however. Displayed alongside King Dick and Rusty are other mementos from the material world that evoke the lion, such as Margaret Mahy’s (1936–2012) popular A Lion in the Meadow publication, the Wellington Children’s Hospital mascot Hospi, and other lion memorabilia and merchandise. As a symbol of strength, leadership and dependability, the lion features prominently elsewhere – it is entwined within the Wellington City Council crest and is also the symbol and mascot of the Wellington Lions (provincial) rugby team.

Wellington Lions (provincial) rugby team top on the left.

It defies belief then, that with so much attention, attribution and source of inspiration that the species is under threat from extinction. Perhaps their plight is mirrored in past lion extinctions from Wellington’s history. Premier Richard Seddon, known also as King Dick for his ‘lion’ qualities, faced challenging political times late in his career and succumbed to mortality in 1906. Lion Brown, once a treasured beverage served in pubs across the region and a fierce rival to Lion Red (Auckland based), is now a distant memory. With the challenges of the modern age, let’s hope the British and Irish Lions don’t reach a similar fate for a host of reasons. Most of all, for the combative tie with New Zealand’s homeland.

Lion Brown beer cans & toy Lions with King Dick on the screen on the right.

Such connections between homeland and colony stretch across years, events, peoples and interests. Wellington Museum tells aspects of this story with England and the historical lessening of those ties as other immigrant groups arrived. Some groups, like those from India, have their own animal avatars – the elephant. At the start of the 20th century many New Zealanders saw themselves as ‘cubs’ with ‘Mother’ England represented by the lion. Now as a nation, we align more with the flightless but staunch kiwi.

kamala wellington z00 1970
Kamala the Elephant, Wellington Zoo in 1970.

 The act of associating ourselves with a symbolic feature of our environment is a measure of the human condition to need, and search, for belonging and identity. This is also evident with sports team names. Often, these names have humble beginnings but their meaning grows into something far greater than intended and becomes entrenched far deeper in more people than just those playing on the pitch.

That’s not to say every name has identical characteristics. Take the team names featured this week for example. Reasoning behind the Lions is understandable and already stated. The Wellington Super Rugby team, the Hurricanes, found meaning in a weather event heavily symbolic of the area. And the All Blacks, derived from a misspelt term during New Zealand’s first British tour in 1905, depict a silver fern, an icon of native New Zealand flora. Lining these and other symbols up against each other based purely on the symbol, and ranking order would likely be far different from that of their team. Above all, a name is only a name, for it is the legend behind the name that matters. Conversely, the weight of a name can be immense and burdensome – the British and Irish Lions know they harbour legendary status, but they also have much to prove.

Replica of All Blacks ‘Originals’ Rugby Jersey (Museum Collection)

And therein lies the crux – just as the animal species is threatened, so too is the Lions rugby concept. If the animal is allowed to wane and the symbol allowed to diminish, will the rugby battle also lose attraction? Both iterations of the lion are equally endangered if the original lion, the animal, is not treasured so. The same importance we place on the symbol should be conveyed in protecting the species.

There is cause for hope however. The Lions valued contribution to the first All Blacks test on this tour is evidence of that, as too are their supporters that epitomise camaraderie and passion. Likewise, there are great examples of progress in lion conservation and education such as that happening at Wellington Zoo. Wellington’s future lion connection appears in good hands. Needed however is more support from those with big wallets and more importantly, those with big voices. The future may be uncertain with challenging times ahead for all types of ‘lion’, but what is certain, is that the lion in all of us can make a difference.

Just stand up and roar.

Rusty the Lion in the Attic at Wellington Museum


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