Written by Raukura Hoerara-Smith, Assistant Māori Curator – Museums Wellington
Being a fresh set of eyes here at Museums Wellington, I had the opportunity to revisit and seek an understanding of my own museum experience. What kind of questions would I be asking myself and what observations would I be making? It is vital that our regional museum express Wellington communities appropriately. In my opinion, Wellington Museum represents those communities, and it is a privilege to ultimately work for the history of our city.
As I revisited the Museum on my first week of employment, I came to wander up and down the staircases in search of stories relating to the history of Wellington. Being a local myself I rarely visited the Museum, on the occasion that I did, it was mainly for educational purposes back in the late 1990s when it was known as the Museum of Wellington City & Sea. Today I took the time to become a fresh new visitor, returning to the roots of a city that showcases its attitudes, values, skills and knowledge of all of its people. I found myself experiencing personal reinterpretations of eye-catching historical pieces.
I tended to walk towards sections that triggered my interest. The first piece was a photo of the Māori Battalion returning home to New Zealand. This particular photograph was taken on the Wellington waterfront in 1946 and situated in front lay a ‘ship in a bottle’. I recently had a discussion with my uncle who had just returned home from France. Exploring the battle grounds, he described the location of Arras as a ‘land of rest’. Many Māori connect to land spiritually. He described his visits to the grave sites as being in a state of tranquillity. He said, ‘not one [soldier] jumped out to say they wanted to come home, peace surrounded me’. I have two great grandfathers who served in both WWI and WWII; they were lucky enough to return home to the East Coast. Wellington Museum shows us our heritage and the importance of celebrating our history.
My attention was captured again when I came across one of the backrooms displaying the significant Wahine disaster of 1968. I was attracted to the darkened room enclosed by a compassionate ambience throughout the collection of memorabilia. A timeline delivers a detailed overview of events that occurred, from the time they boarded the ship to the difficulties of the weather conditions faced by search and rescue. This exhibition pays homage to those affected by this tragedy but I would have loved to hear about the aftermath – how it affected the survivors or even the Captain of the ship years after.
As I left the Wahine display, I was greeted by Paddy, the wandering dog. I paused briefly and thought to myself, why is this dog statue so important? I then did a quick search online and found that Paddy would roam Wellington streets and occasionally take trips out to sea during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Wellington Harbour Board adopted him under the title of ‘Assistant Night Watchman’, where he would act as a guard dog. I remembered a recent story of another dog named Bernie, who was well-known around Oriental Parade and was the namesake and logo of a café that raised funds for the local SPCA. I came to the conclusion that Wellington has a huge passion for dogs.
For me, the most standout display is situated in ‘The Attic’. Ngā Hau intertwines a cinematic experience of Wellington’s history through a time travel machine. It transports you through time and is narrated by important characters of Wellington’s history. I appreciated how sections of the story were told through the eyes of Māori women, rather than from the viewpoint of a high-status Chief. For example, how Kupe’s wife, Kuramārōtini articulated to her husband the appearance of the land, ‘He aō, he aōtearoa – land of the long white cloud’. It retold a certain piece of history through a different perspective.
We tend to interpret what others say and do, according to our own set of past experiences, culture, faith and values, all of which help us create our beliefs about ourselves but also the world in general. In my opinion, it gave meaning to the events of this land’s discovery. It captures the way we make sense of their world as it was back then. Our minds are constantly trying to make sense of the world, forming judgements and opinions about every situation, event and interaction. It is as though we are looking at Wellington’s history through private lenses and everyone has their own personal perception.
Ultimately, how our history is conveyed to its audience is vital. Within the Museum, it emphasises the history of Wellington by capturing the moments and events that connect the visitor with past experiences. Technology advances us to work and understand things in a more contemporised world. The audio-visual instrument is a vibrant part of Wellington Museum’s storytelling, from historical audio and video playbacks to large-format video projectors as well as interactive sections for children.
Overall, I found my visit refreshing and thought-provoking. I found it to be a very compelling collection that leaves visitors surprised and entertained whilst being in an educated space of history. I challenge others to revisit a place of heritage with the same mind-set.