Winter is coming…no wait, it’s here…no, it’s gone. Hmm, what season are we in again?
This is our new norm. Climate change is now so prevalent in our world that instead of devising solutions to stop it, we’re devising means to live with it. The irony of facing such a crisis of our own making is not lost here. We are at the beginning of Earth’s new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – where human activity is the dominant influence on the planet’s climate and environment. Humanity is changing the world, but this change is reciprocally changing humanity.
Throughout history, museums have strived to be ahead of, or at least be on par with change. But like any living thing, the museum is intrinsically linked to its ecosystem and thus susceptible to any direct and indirect influence on that ecosystem. Ignoring environmental factors is detrimental. Change, whether natural, social, technological, economic or political, is increasingly enacting consequential change on the museum.
Prior to the present ‘climate’, the museum’s primary climatic concern focused on a common challenge – the planet’s rotating seasons, or more specifically what the environmental differences between summer and winter meant for museum operation. Naturally, peak operation aligned with peak visitation, and visitation tended to peak in summer months. Subsequently the winter ‘downturn’ had wide-ranging implications for museum activities and this is still so for many museums today.
In response, many museums have adapted to overcome such downturn. Those that have thrived have targeted other audiences such as schools to fill the void, or focused more on venue hire, extensive public programming and/or outreach. Others concentrate on project-work or temporarily cease operation. Some have even amalgamated with other organisations or have taken on new roles. And with increased avenues online, some have abandoned a physical construct all together. New-age ‘museum-like’ entities online are enviously free of seasonal influence.
The challenge still remains however for many on what to do during winter. Onsite, offsite, outreach, online – which is the way forward? Thanks to Climate Change the more stable and planning-friendly climatic conditions and weather systems of yesteryear appear long gone. Strategic planning must now factor in visitation impact from fluctuating and unpredictable weather systems, extreme weather events and increasing temperatures. There is no longer a guarantee of sunny days in summer, in fact quite the opposite – an anticipation of summer storms. Further, extreme summer temperatures can actually detract visitation. Planning for these fluctuations is the modern challenge.
It’s central to human evolution to alter ourselves and our environment (both knowingly and inadvertently) in the fight for species survival. We can’t then gripe when the manufactured environmental change we’ve created comes back to challenge us. Likewise, we can’t blame visitors for the erratic fluctuations in visitation, engagement or revenue. Neither can we blame Climate Change for the challenges ahead. We can only blame humanity in general. Better yet, let’s forgo blame and just get on with what humanity is biologically primed to do – change.
Tamsin at Shackleton’s Nimrod Hut at Cape Royds, 1999 . Photo: Tamsin Falconer
By Tamsin Falconer, Project Manager
Prior to working in museums I had the privilege of working for Victoria University’s world-leading Antarctic Research Centre. As part of my job I went to Antarctica to support climate change research. And on days off, I was lucky to be able to visit three of the most famous historic huts. The huts are known as Scott’s Discovery Hut, Scott’s Terra Nova Hut and Shackleton’s Nimrod Hut, after the leaders and ships of the expeditions that built them.
In one of his poems, Bill Manhire reflects on the profound banality that we find in extraordinary places, by lifting the comments from the visitors’ book at Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds. Anyone who has browsed a visitors’ book will immediately recognise the comments as universal.
VISITING MR SHACKLETON for Chris Cochran
Cool! Wow! Beautiful! Awesome!
Like going back in time.
Amazing! Historic! Finally
I am truly blessed.
Wow! History! Fantastic!
Shackleton’s the man!
Like going back in time.
Wow! Cool! Historic! Yo!
Awesome! Privileged. Unreal!
And Thank you, God. And Happy
Birthday, Dad. And Thailand.
One of the most interesting features of the huts for museum people is that they have no physical interpretation whatsoever. No labels, no intro panels, no fire exit signage, no modern lighting – nothing. They’re the ultimate immersive environment. As the poem suggests, many visitors comment that they feel as though the original inhabitants have only just walked out, not that they left a hundred years ago.
Most museums and historic places would feel the need to provide context and history, which we refer to as interpretation. But these huts are different.
So, given that there is no physical interpretation, how do visitors know what they’re looking at? One thing is that Antarctica (and the huts in particular) don’t get incidental visitors, everyone is an intentional visitor who knows where they’re going and some (or a lot) of the history of the places they’re going to. The stories are not quite universal, but they’re part of the common oral history of Antarctica. Secondly, a guide is compulsory, so you get verbal information. Though I have to say that the guides were mainly tasked with ensuring we cleaned the grit off our boots and didn’t sit on the bunks or help ourselves to a can of historic kippers.
And the huts are immersive – the smell of the seal and lamb carcases in the summer when they get a bit above freezing – the soot on everything – sketches and photos on the walls beside the bunks – the stuffed penguin on the laboratory bench. The custodians, the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) – have put immense amounts of effort into stabilising the buildings and the artefacts to ensure they don’t degrade.
I feel totally privileged to have been there and experienced that. It was transporting.
But it’s also a kind of historical erasure. By presenting the huts as though the inhabitants just left, the history of the intervening century is gone. When they were first rediscovered in the 1950s – they were jammed full of ice and the contents had to be chipped out of the ice. This happens when a building is left untended. Early visitors used the bunks – I’ve met someone who had slept in Shackleton’s hut when he was a young student. And as I mentioned, the AHT conservators have done vast amounts of work preserving things so that they don’t look preserved. It’s the kind of thankless task where your best work is unnoticeable!
So that’s got me thinking. When does history finish and preservation and interpretation start?
Featured image: Jane Tolerton holding a photo of the NZ Volunteer Sisterhood before the first group left Wellington for Egypt in October 1915. Hatless in the middle is Ettie Rout, the one woman associated with NZ in WWI whose name is well known. Photo: Bev Short
The cover of the 1979 reprint of Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand by Patricia Sargison has a drawing of women marching in the streets, carrying ‘Votes for Women’ placards.
What’s wrong with that drawing?
Nothing, if you are talking about London 20 years after we got the vote. But New Zealand women did not march in the streets to lobby for the vote, or chain themselves to railings, as is commonly said.
The cover is an example of the way New Zealand borrows British suffrage imagery when portraying our suffrage movement. Another example was the first image in a documentary on the New Zealand Herald website for Suffrage Day 2017 – a woman wearing a hobble skirt being arrested by two policemen: London bobbies!
The hobble skirt, tight at the ankles, is the shape worn by the figure on the pedestrian crossing lights near Parliament that is a nod to Kate Sheppard, who ran the Women’s Christian Temperance Union campaign. But she did not wear hobble skirts while doing so – 20 years before the style became popular.
Why do we want to represent our suffragists of the 1890s as 1910s British suffragettes? Because they’re more dangerous, edgy and exciting?
In fact, New Zealand has a better story to tell than the British one that includes the suffragettes. In our story, women organise and sign petitions, hold meetings, write cogent arguments, persuade politicians – and are first in the world to get the vote. New Zealand men feature as being open-minded enough to listen to such arguments and be convinced by them. In fact, a number of prominent men, including three prime ministers, were convinced before most women were.
The suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Britain used the motto ‘Deeds not Words’. A New Zealand woman, Frances Parker (calling herself Janet Arthur) was arrested for trying to blow up the Scottish birthplace of poet Robert Burns. She was force fed in prison and released when she was very weak.
Frances Parker’s uncle was Lord Kitchener, who was appointed Secretary of State for War when the First World War broke out, just weeks after her release.
Emmeline Pankhurst called a halt to the violent Women’s Social and Political Union campaign after war began. Many British women saw war work as a way of showing they were vote-worthy citizens.
Our history books say during World War One, women here knitted and fund-raised, but a significant number joined the war effort like British women did. There were New Zealand nurses in: the first British Red Cross group to go to Belgium; the first French Flag Nursing Corps group to work for the French government; and the first two units organised to go to Serbia by aristocratic British women.
About 550 nurses served overseas in the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. At least as many other women also worked overseas: as ambulance drivers in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force; as members of British women’s army, navy and air force auxiliary services; as land girls, munitions workers and civil servants. At least 25 women doctors worked overseas; one was the first woman doctor to work in a British military medical unit and two headed all-women field hospital units in the Salonika Campaign.
For 100 years there was no book that aimed to tell the story of New Zealand women who played an active role in the war effort – until the publication of Make Her Praises Heard Afar in November 2017.
These women in war have been unattractive to New Zealand while the suffragists, and even law-breaking suffragettes, have been vaunted. Te Papa spent $40,000 to buy Frances Parker’s suffragette medal. Kate Fulton (aunt of Wellington actor Kate Harcourt, nee Fulton) was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for driving her ambulance through shellfire in 1918 to rescue wounded soldiers. But the way New Zealand sees women’s suffrage and our women’s war effort, Fulton’s humanitarian bravery is in second place to Parker’s criminal bravery.
Kate Sheppard said we must be ourselves at all costs. She said she was sick of people talking about the women’s sphere – the domestic sphere, of course. Women just wanted to be just natural, she said.
The women who went to war were being themselves; they were being natural.
But how can we be ourselves if we think we come from British suffragettes instead of New Zealand suffragists?
Let’s be ourselves: New Zealand women with a legacy of law-abiding campaigning for the vote and a record of humanitarian effort in World War One.
These are virtues in our world, in which we deplore terrorist actions and welcome women in the peaceful democratic process – to the point of having a prime minister giving birth in office.
About the writer
Jane Tolerton, of Wellington, is the author of Make Her Praises Heard Afar: New Zealand women overseas in World War One. Published by Booklovers Press, available from bookshops and Potton & Burton.
Disclaimer The views expressed in this blog are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of Museums Wellington.
Suffrage 125 events at Wellington Museum
After Hours: Big Girls at Flux
Thursday 19 July, 6:30pm / Entry by koha
Big Girls on Parade: Shine A Light On Your RIGHTS Saturday 11 August, 6pm / Free
In Conversation: Feminisms with Dr Hera Cook Thursday 23 August / Entry by koha
In Conversation: #MeToo with Dr Hera Cook Thursday 30 August / Entry by koha
It’s International Museum Day and this year the International Council of Museums
(ICOM) is encouraging museums to find new approaches and new audiences by exploring, strengthening and creating connections. The day aims to raise awareness that museums engage in cultural diversity and can bring about mutual understanding.
How can museums grab the public’s interest despite the one-click option that’s available online? How can museums integrate information technologies to suit the experience of the customer better? The challenge for most museums is to seek new ways to engage with the public and to promote curiosity.
Exhibition design in museums today means not only looking at the purpose of the museum but also to integrate different resources and explore new engagements in the preservation, study and exhibition of artefacts, documents and stories of the modern world.
The vast development of new technologies can be applied in many ways. Through the use of the latest information technologies and accumulated knowledge, museums have become more accessible to visitors and the general public alike. With personal digital electronic devices, visitors can view images and text from websites and social media accounts. Interactive technology has dramatically enhanced some exhibitions and access to collections is more available as they become digitalised objects.
In the past, museums and heritage attractions were one of the leading providers of information and content. However this has changed with increased access to digital media. The sector needs to change focus on the experience of visiting, rather than just the content of the display. What counts now is the whole visit.
I think most visitors go to museums for the experience or for engagement. However, the objects on display make up a tiny slice of a museum’s collection and these are mostly inaccessible as they’re in storage. Museums must consider the visitor’s intention – whether it is for research or looking for an experience. The other side of it is creating and providing that information online where it is more widely accessible. These efforts can be such an overwhelming job, barely chipping away at the staggering amount of data and objects in collections – photographing them and transcribing object data etc.
As digitisation grows faster and cheaper, however, more institutions will start to invest more time in it and innovative ways of working are allowing institutions to think bigger – but it is a very time-consuming process. Although I believe it will improve the knowledge we have of the world around us. The difficult task will be to figure out the most appropriate way to implement these in our systems to save the museum time and money.
Personally, I consider real objects in museums to be an essential way for communities to get together face-to-face to engage more and enhance communications. As an example, here at Museums Wellington, we have a dedicated exhibition hub, named Flux, which is aimed at encouraging a younger audience to take control of a space and display an exhibition or host an event. This will hopefully encourage a younger audience to return to explore our museum more fully at another time.
Museums are an inherent part of our local communities so they are also committed to following current trends. To enhance the public’s understanding of, and connection with, museums they have to develop new approaches in interpreting their exhibits and explore new opportunities through social media to enrich the audience’s viewing experience. These new approaches will enable audiences to communicate with the exhibits and with each other. However, not all these new connections are due to technology.
Museums Wellington strives to maintain its relevance in society but it also makes an effort to organise cooperative projects focusing on the local community and different social groups to engage with new audiences and to ultimately strengthen local communities.
By Raukura Hoerara-Smith – Assistant Curator Māori
At the start of this year, I was assigned my very first exhibition – to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the TEV Wahine disaster. I was lucky enough to experience almost every step in the development process and the opening of this temporary exhibition.
Overall, it is not about providing information that visitors passively absorb but more around encouraging visitors to engage, to look closer at an object and to give our visitors a better experience that enhances their perception and value of Wellington’s history.
Phase one – A purpose to remember
How do museums make a difference within society? How do they support the public’s understanding of the world as well as of themselves? We live in an increasingly competitive world where every museum is competing for audiences and resources.
Today, museums are among the more successful leisure venues in the world, but it is not a given that museums will always be popular and successful.
A commemoration of the Wahine disaster 50 years on gives our audience a purpose for remembering the history of Wellington Harbour. Here at Wellington Museum, we are the primary caretaker of the Wahine collection. This temporary exhibition has provided the opportunity to focus on individual objects within the Museum’s collection. We have collected an extensive range of items donated to the museum, so it is only right that we display them respectfully.
The Wahine disaster affected many lives and from this came a sense of empathy and understanding about how this event still influences society today.
This exhibition brings together works from our Collection along with loans from different artists, making this an incredible opportunity to come together and remember this significant event.
Phase two – Researching
Armed with inspiration, I started my research on Vernon, our collection database. I was searching for relevant artwork that had some provenance to the TEV Wahine. I found approximately 30 artworks.
The most challenging part was then trying to contact the artist for further information. It came to be that the majority of the artists had since passed away. Although, in the end, I did manage to track down two artists who are currently living in Wellington. In order to respectfully represent them and their work, I needed to sit down and ask them about their personal connections with the Wahine.
The first artist was a survivor, Kay McCormick, who painted self-portraits of herself. One was shortly after the event and contrasted with another piece that she created years after. She created one self-portrait to express her pain and suffering and another to capture a sense of calmness by connecting herself back to the sea.
The second artist, Martin Cahill, a Wellington maritime artist, shared some of his collections as well as reflected on the importance of maritime art. Martin’s love for the ocean was a constant source of inspiration – from his voyages to his interest in ship models.
Phase three – Sorting out the artwork
Once finalised, all artworks were removed from storage and examined. Condition reporting helps to manage the state of objects when they are on loan. This also helps to plan exhibitions by showing which objects are in a stable condition and which need further treatment. After the loan requests are approved, there is the additional process of designing the exhibition and creating text and supplementary materials.
Phase four – Creating labels
Having the opportunity to tell the stories about the Wahine helps to demonstrate how different accounts can be used effectively to engage with visitors emotionally and intellectually. Furthermore, the learning outcomes from these narratives can contribute to the experience of the visitor by creating historical awareness and understandings that encourage curiosity.
Labels are essential to guide visitors through spaces that provide both general background and specific details such as dates and titles.
Working with Renée Feith, a graphic designer, we came up with the overall look of the label design. What type of colours would be represented? What kind of font suited best? All these minor details enhance the development of the story.
Phase five – Installing the exhibition
A lot more goes into installing an exhibition than just putting the artworks in the cases and on to the wall. Measuring out the layout gives an overlook of the setup from a designers perspective.
Our in-house exhibition technician, Matt Henry, installed the artwork and ensured the framing, lighting and case displays were sufficient.
In addition to the artwork, we displayed artbooks created by students from St. Mary’s College, Wellington. Alongside this was also a unique collection of stamps and a limited edition coin issued by New Zealand Post.
Phase six – Monitoring the exhibition
Visitor feedback is useful and can be used to make improvements for future exhibitions. It was great to hear the input received from the survivors and rescuers on Wahine day. It was a delight to talk to people who had traveled from afar and had a desire to spend time at our Museum. Connecting people and engaging in conversation helps connect communities.
We appreciated their stories, their responses, and their interest in the commemoration of the TEV Wahine.
My reflections on curating the exhibition
I enjoyed talking to Kay and Martin as they took me on a journey back to 1968. It profoundly altered their lives in unexpected ways but I thank them both for taking the time to revisit and share with me both their extraordinary experiences.
Personally, I never really knew much about the disaster until now. I was born in the 1990s so having this opportunity was a great way to expand my perception of maritime disasters and I am grateful for being the storyteller of those memories.
So next time you’re faced with something that’s unexpected, unwanted and uncertain; consider articulating your emotions through conversation, music, art, writing or even taking the time to surround yourself in nature.
Life is beautifully chaotic, a gift that is truly unpredictable.
If you haven’t been in to view the exhibition, please feel free to come in and take a look around. This exhibition will be coming down at the end of May – we do however have a permanent display on the opposite side of Level One.
By Tom Etuata, Communications Co-ordinator Museums Wellington
Over the month of May Wellington Museum will be celebrating some of the gems of Kiwi music history with a unique exhibition and concert series for NZ Music Month. The temporary exhibition called ‘Burning up Years: Aotearoa Music History’ is a collaboration with Audio Culture showcasing the Wellington music scene from 1960 to 1978 – displaying rare vinyl, posters, album art, NZ made music equipment and music videos. The Friday concert series will be held every Friday in May at Wellington Museum – with the added attraction of re-uniting some of New Zealand’s musical acts from the early 70s to not so long ago, spanning genres of blues, psychedelic rock, post-punk to hip-hop.
The exhibition will display a number of rare Kiwi music objects and items as Museums Wellington Events Programmer and the curator of the exhibition Benjamin James elaborates;
“For the exhibition the stage will be set up like it would have been between the years 1960 – 1978. We have a rare Commodore six-string guitar dating from the late 1950s with four-way push-button tone selector and Milton vibrato from Jon McLeary who played for the Spines. As well as gear from The Ghost of Tapeman which includes a vintage Sonic ss stack and TR100, we have other historical music gear from old brands such as Jansen, Holden, Wasp, Concord, Fountain as well… the list goes on. There will also be rare LPs sought after by collectors, and a listening post where you can listen to bands from the era.”
Music website Audio Culture will provide the historical content of the exhibition – giving interesting insights and stories of particular New Zealand musicians who were popular in their day.
One of these interesting Kiwi musicians was part of the band that makes up the title theme of the exhibition. Burning Up Years is the title of an album that was recorded in 1969 by the band Human Instinct. Their band line-up had one very important but forgotten Kiwi musician – a guitarist by the name of Billy Te Kahika, otherwise known as ‘Billy TK’.
Called ‘TK’ because the Pakeha school teachers couldn’t pronounce his last name properly, Billy Te Kahika was a force of rock music energy – with his wild guitar playing, long beard, hat and dark sunglasses, he was dubbed by many at the time to be the ‘the Māori Hendrix ’ in the late 1960s and early 70s. After a few years playing for Human Instinct, he left and formed a band called The Powerhouse in Wellington – playing with members which fitted ‘more like a family than a rock group’- trading rock, blues, R&B and soul riffs at the Lucifer Club in Wellington on Vivian St (which is now a venue where heavy rock bands play called Valhalla).
It also was a time when the Parihaka and Nambassa movements influenced his playing – changing his sound sonically from a Hendrix-like psychedelic edge to a more progressive, meditative sound that was more closer to that of another great rock guitarist, Carlos Santana.
A formidable band in their own right, Billy TK & Powerhouse played in the first NZ Music Festival in Ngaruawahia, performing after famous heavy metal group Black Sabbath in 1973. Their one and only album was recorded live at the Wellington St James Theatre in 1975.
Today, Billy is still busy playing and recording albums and will re-unite with his old band the Powerhouse to perform at Wellington Museum on 25 May. It will be the first time the band has played since the mid-1990s.
Another musician who’ll be playing at Wellington Museum and returning to his Wellington roots will be King Kapisi who’ll be performing on 18 May.
King Kapisi (Bill Urale), a Wellington local now living in Auckland is a popular Kiwi hip-hop artist who had the hit song ‘Screems from Da Old Plantation‘ from the album ‘Savage Thoughts’ in 1999. He will perform that whole album with special guests Tha Feelstyle, MC’S and DJ Raw.
Post-punk will be revisited on 11 May with rare performances from alternative music pioneers Peter Jefferies (Nocturnal Projections, This Kind of Punishment) and Chris Matthews (The Headless Chickens, Children’s Hour) with blues band Rhythm Hawks rounding out the night.
This unique exhibition and concert series is not to be missed.
The exhibition ‘Burning up Years: Aotearoa Music History’ runs over the month of May and the concert series will run every Friday of May at Wellington Museum over NZ Music Month:
Friday 4 May
Burning Up Years Opening Night DJ’s Boss Dude (Death Ray Records), Ms Juliet and TV DiSKO (Radio Active), Eclectica will be playing old vinyl of kiwi-classics, 8.30pm/ Wellington Museum / Free entry
Friday 11 May
Peter Jefferies (Nocturnal Projections and This Kind Of Punishment), Chris Matthews (The Headless Chickens and Children’s hour), Rhythm Hawks (Blues), 8.30pm / Wellington Museum
Friday 18 May
King Kapisi performs Savage Thoughts in its entirety. With guests DJ Raw,MC’s,Tha Feelstyle and Teremoana Rapley, 8.30pm / Wellington Museum
Friday 25 May
Billy TK and Powerhouse, 8.30pm /Wellington Museum
New Zealand Archaeology Week – 28 April to 6 May 2018
Written by guest writers Kathryn Hurren (Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) and Mary O’Keeffe (Heritage Solutions)
This blog has been written as part of the New Zealand Archaeological Association National Archaeology Week which will take place from 28 April to 6 May 2018. As such we would like to thank Wellington Museum for being part of the event.
Archaeology is the study of people via their material cultural remains. Many people associate archaeology with large scale excavations, Indiana Jones and grand structures such as pyramids, ancient cities, Stonehenge or civilisations such as the Mayans, Aztecs, Greeks or Romans.
While looking further afield we forget that we have our own history of settlement in New Zealand and our own very distinct archaeological record. New Zealand was the last landmass to be settled in the world and the types of archaeological sites found here are nowhere else in the world. We are a young country but one with a unique archaeological record. We have Maori archaeological sites tracing the change from Polynesian people to Maori, war sites (New Zealand wars, World War I and II), industrial sites, shipwreck sites, as well as Chinese and European sites.
We also forget that it is the little things found at a site which can tell us extraordinary things about our history as well as the people who lived here. Food rubbish or any rubbish for that matter can tell us a lot about people such as what they were eating, what they were throwing out and possibly why they were throwing things out, socio and economic class and a lot more.
In this blog we would like to highlight how small things can tell big stories. Below are three very distinct items – a musket ball, a midden site, and two maple leaves. You may not think much about these items but to an archaeologist they provide important information, make us question what we know about our history and tell us stories about the people who once lived here.
This is a small stone object. It’s a flint from a musket – a musket is a very early type of rifle, and the flint was used to create a spark to light the charge. This flint was found lying on a sand dune on the Kāpiti Coast, north of the Waikanae River. We can’t be sure of its origin, but we can make a few guesses.
There was a large and important battle on the Kāpiti Coast in October 1839, fought between Te Ati Awa and Ngāti Raukawa. It was fought in the dunes beside and inland from the river, and was known as the ‘running battle’, as the combatants ran up and down through the dunes. Each side had muskets.
It’s possible that this flint was dropped by someone running hard along the dune – perhaps he was chasing someone? Perhaps he was running for his life? I wonder how he felt when he realised he’d dropped his flint.
This patch of shells is an archaeological site known as a midden. It was recorded on the Kāpiti Coast. At first glance it doesn’t look much – it’s basically someone’s rubbish. But this ‘rubbish’ can tell a big story…
It can tell us about the environment at the time that people ate this meal. What kinds of species were they eating? Are they the same as the species found on the Kāpiti Coast today? If they’re not, then why not? Is this typical of archaeological sites found on the Kāpiti Coast? How does the archaeology of the Kāpiti Coast compare with other regional coastlines around New Zealand?
These are two maple leaves and they’re a long way from home. They’re from Nova Scotia in Canada, but they were found in a shipwreck in the middle of Wellington city.
The Inconstant was launched in Nova Scotia in 1848, but crashed on the coast in Wellington in 1849. The ship was rescued, towed to the shoreline beside Lambton Quay and operated by John Plimmer as a floating warehouse. This was before the 1855 earthquake, when the beach was just the other side of Lambton Quay, so the boat was floating in the shallow water. The big earthquake left the boat high and dry, she was partially dismantled and then swallowed up by reclamations. Buildings were constructed over the top of her.
She was rediscovered in 1996 when the historic buildings over her were being refurbished. The keel of the boat was investigated by archaeologists, and the maple leaves were found right down by her keel. They saw daylight again almost 150 years after they’d left Canada.
Without looking at the small things we can miss the wider picture of how people lived, where they went, what they did and we can imagine what they must have thought and felt.
When I first heard that there was a ship buried in the Old Bank Arcade I almost didn’t believe my ears. After all, how on earth does a ship find itself landlocked underneath a major city? After some digging I slowly learnt the origins of this well-known Wellington landmark and I will re-tell it for you.
John Plimmer, nicknamed the ‘Father of Wellington’, was the owner of this ship; however, he was not the first. In fact, this ship started its journey half way around the world in the Bras D’or shipping yards of Nova Scotia. It was originally a three-mast sailing ship known as the barque, Inconstant.
In 1849, only a year after she was built, the Inconstant sailed from Australia to Peru carrying a cargo of tea and animal skins. In need of fresh water she entered Wellingtons harbour to resupply for the rest of her journey across the great Pacific Ocean. However, the Inconstant was fated to never leave Wellington’s infamous harbour, which has claimed many ships both in our recent history and more distant past. The Inconstant hit rocks at Pencarrow head, at the entrance of Wellington harbour. The Royal Navy pitched in and hauled the ship off the rocks at Pencarrow and towed her into the harbour where she was beached at Te Aro.
A ship builder called William McKenzie bought the ship at an auction. Shortly after, he sold it to John Plimmer for ₤80. Once Plimmer took ownership the plan was set to move her to the foreshore in front of Lambton Quay, across from what are now known as Plimmers steps, which conveniently led to his house. In order to get the ship from Te Aro to Lambton Quay empty oil barrels and large casks known as hogsheads were strapped to the ships hulls to re-float her. At high tide, with the help of 40 men and a lot of rope, the Inconstant was dragged along the coast to her final resting place. Many locals who saw the commotion were said to have jumped in to help along the way – one can imagine it would have been quite a sight to see.
Once the ship was in position, the first major changes began. Plimmer had the bilges filled with spoil, levelled the ship by cutting away the upper works of the bow section, and erected a building with a pitched roof on the midsection of the hull. It was this building that would give rise to the ship’s new nickname. That night, across the road in Barrett’s Hotel they celebrated their success and christened the vessel ‘Plimmers Noah’s Ark’ after the well-known Christian story. The lower part of the ship formed a basement and a small bridge provided access from the Ark to Lambton Quay. The ship, or what was left of it, would now serve as a wharf, business offices, immigration, and bonded warehouse.
And it worked well, until the largest earthquake in New Zealand’s history hit Wellington in 1855. The 8.2 magnitude earthquake was so big it lifted the harbour’s foreshore by at least one metre and dislodged the Ark, causing it to tip over. The water surrounding the vessel was now too shallow to act as a jetty where immigrants and cargo could unload. It continued to be used as a warehouse and offices, though, as the years passed the city grew and began to reclaim land from the sea. Eventually the city reached the Ark and she became landlocked. The structure on the old ship that had earnt her the nickname ‘Plimmer’s Ark’ was demolished, her ribs were cut down to ground level, and she was buried as the city gave way to progress.
In 1899 excavations for the new Bank of New Zealand head office uncovered the remainder of the ship and sections of her timbers were turned into three chairs. One of which was given to Alexander Turnbull, and can be found even today in the Turnbull Library. The second was given to the Department of Education, and later gifted to the national museum, Te Papa, where it currently sits in their archives. And the third went to the head office of the Bank of New Zealand where it likely stays until this day. And the remainder you may ask? It was buried once again and would stay that way for almost 100 years.
During renovations to the Old Bank Arcade in the late 1990s, the Inconstant was re-discovered and excavated. Thanks to being buried under the city the timbers of the old ship were preserved from any serious deterioration. A display was set in the bottom of the Old Bank Arcade to house the timbers in their final resting place and this is how it has remained – a hidden surprise under Wellington’s inner city. You can view the timbers, along with other remains, and read further stories there.
It’s curious how we find ways to repurpose pieces of history. I wonder what George Old, the ship’s builder, would think about the fate of his vessel and all the extensive changes it underwent after leaving his hands in 1848. One thing is for sure however, the future of the Inconstant/Plimmer’s Ark looks bright, and remains assured.
Q: You work at Museums Wellington – you mean Te Papa?
A: (Smiling to self and considering getting a tee-shirt)
No, Te Papa is the national museum, we are a group of smaller museums who share the stories of Te Whanganui-a-Tara.
Q: Did you follow a university pathway into your role? A: (with gratitude to the senior management team at Museums Wellington)
No not at all, although I loved museums (and vividly recall my first wide-eyed experience as a little country kid visiting the great hall in Buckle St) I didn’t realise that there could be a career in them for me. I didn’t attend university and have arrived here through a teaching background.
Q: Can you give six key words that sum up your values? A: (Smiling apologetically because there are 8)
inclusion relationships relevance accessibility community whanau diversity ownership
Q: And a sentence around that? A: (you must be kidding, a sentence?)
Relationships, inclusion, diversity and access are key to everything we do – empowering communities to take ownership is critical to museums being relevant and making the move from stakeholders to whanau partnerships. (phew!)
Q: Can you identify key moments in the development of your thinking? A: (deep breath, this is really important)
Working with the Wellington Polish Community around the 70th anniversary of the Polish Children arriving in Wellington. This was where I saw the power and richness achieved when a community programmes and exhibits their own stories. It was a moving, generous and joyful week and during it I understood the difference between programming for and programming with/by. This has informed my thinking ever since, for which I am very grateful.
Q: Who or what have influenced your practice? Top three? A: (nervous smile – there will be at least 4)
1: FLUX, the co-operative of 18-30 year olds who run the community space at Wellington Museum. They support individuals and groups to schedule programmes and exhibitions for the space. This is making the museum relevant to an age group who are not traditionally museum goers. I have great admiration for the co-op’s dedication and commitment.
2: Arts Access Aotearoa, who have supported us to embed accessibility and a more inclusive approach across our museums.
3A: My colleagues, I work alongside exceptional colleagues whose creativity, knowledge and capacity to learn and push further is inspiring.
3B: FIHRM (Federation of International Human Rights Museums), who have informed my thinking around the role of the 21st century museum, particularly regarding contested histories and contemporary issues.
Q: It sounds a lovely job?
A: (genuinely and with a lurch of the heart)