Space, and a Certain Time and Place

As happens regularly in museums, we have recently been updating an exhibit at Space Place at Carter Observatory. This means ‘resting’ objects that have been on display, swapping in objects that have not been on display, returning items that we have on loan from generous individuals or institutions, and refreshing graphics and interpretation panels. Along the way we might go through the archives and rediscover stories hidden away like old scrapbooks at the back of a cupboard.

My beautiful picture

Peter Read, the People’s Astronomer, was an iconic figure on 1960s and 70s New Zealand television. There is a special place for him at Carter Observatory, and at NZ On Screen. Digging through one of our digital cupboards, we rediscovered these wonderful old images from a 2010 Carter Observatory exhibition about Peter. Some of them are from his time in the US witnessing the Apollo 15 launch. They are affecting for capturing a specific time and place while focusing so fervently on space and the future. They also tell part of Peter’s story, as do the film clips of his long-running television show ‘Night Sky’. The refreshed Peter Read exhibit should soon be installed at Space Place at Carter Observatory; in the meantime enjoy this online exhibition. And look out for a special Wellington feature at the end featuring a whole lot of history you won’t want to miss (but you may want to forget!)

My beautiful picture

2-3in 2in 4in cooke 4 in gregorian Continue reading “Space, and a Certain Time and Place”

I was photographing everything – Alison Jones

One of the great pleasures of opening The Attic at Wellington Museum has been seeing visitors spot themselves or their family members in the exhibits. We’ve had a visit from the granddaughter of the architect of our 1890 building, Frederick de Jersey Clere, and from the grandchildren of Ken Coles who features in the 1956 Chimpanzee Tea Party film. One of our most popular exhibits has been ‘Working on the Job’, a series of images of New Zealand Rail in Wellington in the 1990s, taken by then-clippie Alison Jones. It is with some delight that people recognise places and faces in the images, and sometimes even see themselves. Our Social History Curator, Nik Bullard, has curated an excerpt of the show for our first online exhibition. Also featured below is a brief but exclusive interview between Nik and Alison. If you want to see more, you can find it in The Attic




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Nairn St Cottage – View of a City

One of the lesser-known treasures of our collection is Nairn St Cottage, built in 1858, considered to be Wellington’s oldest residential house (restored as near as possible to original condition). The cottage sits on a hill above Aro Valley, overlooking the entire city, which was slightly obscured by a light drizzle the day I took this photo. Even so, one of my favourite things about the cottage is how you can immerse yourself in the story of an English settler family and their home in the same moment as you can look out over a 21st century New Zealand city. It’s impossible to do so without thinking about what used to exist on these streets, what you might find if you dig underneath the apartments, how the city has transformed since the New Zealand Company obtained the land from Māori in the mid-nineteenth century (which Māori, you might ask? That’s an excellent question that we might revisit in a future post).


Some favourite spots inside the house. From top: wash house, master bedroom, kitchen, scullery

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Te Ara Whānui ki te Rangi

Te Ara Whānui ki te Rangi – The Expansive Pathway to the Heavens. It’s a beautiful name that carries with it quite different connotations than ‘Space Place at Carter Observatory‘, and adds depth to our understanding of what the observatory is for, and the roles it plays. As I mentioned in my last post, there are heaps of genuinely cool things about the heritage buildings of Carter Observatory and its surrounds. Spend some time in the Thomas Cooke telescope room and it’s hard not to be awed and floored by the technology of the 1860s. I’m sitting under the telescope as I write this, and am reminded of our tendency to underestimate the knowledge and pure experimental guts of our forebears, who figured out how to build such a thing from scratch:

Think, then, how awe-inspiring it is to discover astronomical knowledge hundreds, if not thousands of years older: Polynesian people from many nations had such a keen awareness of the stars and their movements that they could confidently travel throughout the Pacific by reading the sky. They didn’t build telescopes or compasses like the Thomas Cooke, but that doesn’t mean their knowledge was any less substantial. They bet their lives, and the lives of their families, on the strength of their astronomical matauranga (knowledge) and they ventured far beyond their own ocean neighbourhoods to settle places like Aotearoa. Continue reading “Te Ara Whānui ki te Rangi”

Time Balls, Kings & Telescopes

Wellington is an extraordinarily beautiful city, especially when viewed from the Botanic Gardens lookout at the top of the Cable Car on a day not like today (gale force winds etc). But few visitors to this stunning summit are fully aware of the heritage around them. In the picture above, the cool little building lit up on the left is the old Dominion Observatory, currently occupied by the geographx map designers. In the centre of the image is a German-built Krupp field artillery gun from World War One, which marks the location of the ‘Botanic Garden Battery’ that stood here from 1894-1904 as part of our response to ‘The Russian Scare‘. To the right of the gun is a small dome which once housed an astrolabe, an instrument that measures the altitude of stars and planets. Behind this scene is the Thomas King Observatory and Carter Observatory (images below).  Just like Wellington Museum’s Bond Store, Carter Observatory’s building and surrounds are the first taonga (treasured objects) in our collection.Welcome to our potted history of the weird and wonderful history of observatories in Wellington.

Thomas King Observatory Historic Places Trust
Thomas King Observatory

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Long Walk to Freedom

The importance of the relationship between human rights and museums was highlighted to me during a recent return to South Africa. A trip to my birth country is always a bittersweet experience – it highlights our collective neglect of humanity, while confirming how far we have come.

About 2 hours out of Durban on the R103 is a small cairn which commemorates the place that Nelson Mandela was captured by armed apartheid police on 5 August, 1962. I’ve visited the site during each of my returns to South Africa. It always struck me as strange that the capture site was commemorated – was it first erected in triumph, or was it later put there to serve as a reminder of the nation’s darker days?

Either way, for a long time the site was small and insignificant – a semi-circular stone wall, no higher than my hip, with a brass plaque. But in the (nearly) three years since my last visit, something extraordinary has been built in the Midlands. Continue reading “Long Walk to Freedom”

The Attic Grand Opening Schedule!

Come and experience The Attic and see the stories and objects come to life through live music, dance and circus at the Grand Opening.

The Attic is the Museum’s new permanent exhibition space that honours the Wellington region, revealing more of its quirky stories. It aims to create enchanting experiences that captivate the imagination, stimulate curiosity and capture the essence of our city.

The new exhibition space has been curated to showcase the unusual and fascinating items in the museum’s collection. A time machine, Ngā Hau, will also be uncovered.


9:50am | Pineamine Taiapa’s Chair
Kapa Haka performed by Te Rau Taiohi

10:30am | Nesta Ngoi Carwell-Cook Collection
Ballet performed by the Deirdre Tarrant Dance Theatre

11:00am | Michel Tuffery’s Pacific Suitcase
Hip Hop workshop and performance by Boogie Tots

11:45pm | Frank Barnes Collection
Shanties performed by Wellington Sea Shanty Society

12:30pm | Richard Fuchs Collection
Music performed by Rayok Duo

1:15pm | Michel Tuffery’s Pacific Suitcase
Dance performed by Le Moana

2:00pm | Rusty & King Dick (Lions)
Circus act performed by Tess Munro & Nick Davies

2:45pm | What We Do in the Shadows Display
Music performed by Niko Ne Zna

3:30pm | Jack and the Beanstalk Float
Ballet performed by the Deirdre Tarrant Dance Theatre

4.00pm | Herbal Healing
Dance performed by New Zealand Chinese Culture & Arts Association

WHEN: Saturday 14 November, 10am-5:30pm
WHERE: Wellington Museum, Jervois Quay, Queens Wharf

Looking After the Future as well as the Past: Human Rights in Museums

Most people think of museums as repositories for nice old stuff, interactive exhibits and historical or scientific information. While it’s true we have some nice old stuff (and the other bits), the modern museum often has priorities that have more to do with who we are now and who we wish to be. How does our old stuff inform that? This is where museum perspectives and traditional Māori perspectives might meet: for Māori, our past lies in front of us, leading us towards our future. In other words, we cannot know where we are going unless we know where we’ve been.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM) conference at Te Papa. Human rights are not generally the first thing most people think of when they consider museums, but as UN youth delegate Melissa Gibson noted in her closing panel remarks, FIHRM  transforms perceptions of what museums are for, and how they can affect our lives.

Continue reading “Looking After the Future as well as the Past: Human Rights in Museums”

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Save the Date! Opening Weekend Saturday 14 November 2015.

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