Telling contested histories in museums

Written by Nik Bullard, Curator Social History, Museums Wellington

Canadian Museum of Human Rights

The theme for this year’s International Museums Day is Museums and contested histories: saying the unspeakable in museums. Is it the role of museums to do this? Of course! But more on that later…

Telling controversial stories is the reason I am a social history curator! So I can talk about the huge amount of unspoken narratives around New Zealand, and the world, that are just not discussed. Not in the mainstream media, and generally not in museums either (except the brave and ambitious human rights ones!).

This theme, Telling Contested Histories, begs the question – if it’s not the role of the museum to discuss these issues, then whose is it? Academics are certainly aware of local and global issues and a balanced view is encouraged. However dissemination of this material to the greater population doesn’t generally occur; hence tertiary institutions are often considered to be ivory towers of knowledge.

I’d like to think it’s the role of schools to tell the story of dispossessed, marginalised, persecuted, colonised and discriminated peoples but, if you take New Zealand as an example, it wasn’t until recently that a balanced view of the NZ Wars emerged. Until then, we learnt about the colonisers story (the British), and not the colonised who lost their land, and almost their language and culture (the indigenous Māori). In fact Māori were often branded as rebels or traitors if they fought for their land! But this is usually the case, we hear the occupiers or victor’s account of the war (or strife) and not the subjugated. The cliché, history belongs to the victors, unfortunately, is usually true.


Now more than ever is the time for museums to tell contested stories. Donald Trump has entered the world stage as the leader of a very powerful country, with an unprecedented lack of political experience behind him. He is anti- freedom of the press (and presumably free speech) and believes anything said against him is ‘fake news’. He is fostering hate in America (and legitimising it in other places) and it is increasingly important that the truth and facts are presented to people to counter this. Museums are a natural conduit to do this.

The world is currently experiencing the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa are fleeing their homelands and embarking on extremely hazardous often life-threatening journeys. Migrants are leaving what is becoming increasingly unstable Central and South Americas. Why? I rarely hear or read a discussion in the mainstream media about how these countries have ended up in such a political mess. What are the historical conditions under which ISIS or Islamic terrorism have risen? What are the lasting social, political and economic effects of colonisation on Africa, the Americas, the Pacific and other places?

Image: (

Can the West simply wipe their hands of their devastating colonising legacy? No they can’t as it has had a huge impact on those countries and this at least needs to be recognised. Or the role that the powerful countries play on an international militarist scale? Take America. It has had its hands (and munitions!) involved in many of the countries now affected by civil war/unrest, terrorism and so on but you wouldn’t know if you got your news from the mainstream media. My partner runs an American 20th century history course at his College but there is generally very little discourse around this (and what the students learn is usually new to them).

Impact of the Iraq War. (foreign

Apart from Trump’s anti-human rights policies (the Muslim travel ban, forceful deportation of migrants, cuts to Medicare and reproductive services, etc), and his ability to discredit anything he disagrees with, he and his cronies are also climate change deniers. The planet is currently not coping with the huge amount of refugees, I can’t imagine what will happen when climate or environmental refugees start fleeing their lands due to rising sea levels, drought, flooding, disease etc. Where are they going to go? Meanwhile these deniers are placing the future of our planet at risk.

Protesters chant during a rally against climate change. (

There are HUGE issues that desperately need discussing. Right now we have the rise of the far right/fascism. If the horrors of fascism are not remembered and spoken of (Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy), then the human mass consciousness forgets about it and unbelievably it recurs! And if the numerous dictatorships, (Pol Pot in Cambodia, Videla in Argentina, Marcos in the Philippines to name a few) and the massive human rights abuses that occurred in those places aren’t discussed – they WILL happen again.

Image from Imagining Justice website

So is it the role of museums to discuss these issues? Of course and it would be negligent of us not to. Museums have historically tried to remain politically neutral but to my mind, this is not serving the needs of our people and communities. They have the right to see and hear their own stories within the museum.

In New Zealand we have social issues that urgently need to be discussed in an open and non-judgmental way. The housing crisis and homelessness, the rising rates of suicide, the massive and increasing gap between the rich and poor, modern day slavery, settling in new migrants (and hopefully raising the quota), issues affecting lgbti+ communities… the list goes on…

To bring stories of marginalised groups of people into our museums are something we should all be striving for. To hear these stories, in the people’s own words, is a valuable tool in creating an inclusive and participatory museum, one that isn’t afraid of telling difficult or hard stories. I believe there is a social justice issue involved here – to tell the truth about what is happening on a local and global scale, thereby raising awareness and bringing about greater understanding, empathy and tolerance towards others.

Homelessness in Wellington

The housing crisis and homelessness do get media attention. But it is generally focussed on the unaffordability of houses in Auckland. This discussion fails to mention that there are actually more renters in New Zealand than homeowners. As house prices increase, so do rents. Ask anyone trying to find rental accommodation in Wellington – they are often queuing up with 30 other parties for often substandard places with a huge price tag. We desperately need tenancy protection measures so that people have safe, affordable housing for as long as they need it. And no one should have to live on the streets. I feel Kiwis are becoming increasingly blasé about this issue, rather than rallying together to help solve it.

In the words of Chinese human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng: ‘I choose to defend human rights because I cannot maintain my silence in the face of injustice.’

The Legend of Matiu Somes

By Richard Latty, Visitor Services Host – Wellington Museum.

Every day thousands of Wellingtonians travel down the motorway overlooking Te Whanganui-a-Tara. They glance upon the natural beauty of the harbour thinking ‘You can’t beat Wellington on a good day’. In the middle of this harbour sits three Islands, Matiu/Somes, Makaro/Ward and the smaller Mokopuna. The larger of the three islands, Matiu Somes, tells so many stories, but just how much do Wellington locals know about its varied history?

Matiu Somes 1
Matiu Somes from above with neighbouring Mokopuna. Image by Lloyd Homer of GNS Science.  Cite page ref: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, ‘First peoples in Māori tradition – Kupe’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. http://www.Te

Matiu/ Somes tells stories of both the Māori history of the region and its more recent colonial takeover. Before the arrival of the first European settlers in 1839-1840, the island was known solely as Matiu, named after the daughter of Kupe, the first Polynesian explorer to discover Aotearoa (believed to be between 720-920AD). Kupe is said to be responsible for the naming of up to 60 locations in the Wellington region.

Map showing the many places in the Wellington area named after Kupe. Cite page ref: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, ‘First peoples in Māori tradition – Kupe’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Once the first settlers had arrived in what they knew as Port Nicholson, they named it Somes island after Joseph Somes, who was then Deputy-Governor of the New Zealand Company. He was the largest ship owner in England at the time, with the Tory (the first New Zealand Company ship to arrive in Port Nicholson in September 1839) being purchased from him and a number of other settler ships coming from his fleet. Somes himself never visited New Zealand but it played a big part in the Wellington venture both financially and logistically.


It is believed the first Māori chief to settle in Wellington, Tara, and his kin first occupied Matiu and explored the harbour and its vicinity before establishing their permanent home on Te Motukairangi (the Miramar Peninsula). Later, in 1835, Ngati Mutunga (a Taranaki tribe who settled in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara following the Musket Wars) hijacked the ship Lord Rodney from Matiu and set sail to invade the Chatham Islands.

Matiu somes quarantine
Exercise yard at maximum security station, Somes Island. Dominion Post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1970/5206/18a-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Welington, New Zealand./records/22906689

Following colonisation, the island was used for recreational use until 1872 when an English ship sailed into Wellington Harbour flying the yellow flag which signified that smallpox was aboard. The passengers aboard were quarantined on Somes with the decision quickly made to build a quarantine station for animals and humans. A cemetery was built for those who did not survive diseases such as typhoid, smallpox, scarlet and influenza. The population of the island was estimated at 600 in 1919 following an influenza epidemic.

Perhaps the most iconic story of the island being used for quarantine was in 1903 when fruit and vegetable grower Kim Lee was sent to the island after other individuals in his industry claimed he had leprosy. He was sent to the small island off the coast of Somes known as Mokopuna, where he lived in isolation in a cave. The modern day belief was that Lee did not have leprosy. There was a general anti-Asiatic view at the time and this story showcases the result of these views. He died after approximately 6 months on the island. With no post mortem done, no confirmation could be made as to whether Lee indeed had leprosy or not.

Māori used this site as a strategic pā site (defence fortress). Local iwi would flee to Matiu when rival iwi were advancing from other parts of the region. The site offers a 360 degree view so any incoming waka (canoe) could be viewed giving the local iwi time to plan their defence. The high banks of Matiu made it difficult for attacking iwi to get in a good position to advance.

The island was again recognised for its strategic position in 1943 when anti-aircraft artillery was installed on the island. Japan had started bombing northern Australia and there was concern New Zealand would be next, with Wellington, the Capital, being particularly vulnerable. The guns were never fired (much like the Wrights Hill Fortress). The gun battlements remain but the guns were removed in 1944.

gun matiu somes
The anti-aircraft gun emplacements today. Reference: Department of Conservation,

During both WWI and WWII, the island served as a detention centre for people of alien nationality who were considered a security threat. Unfortunately, this included many people who had no affiliation to the regimes in their home country. Wellington had its own little Alcatraz. During WWI the internees were mainly German and Austrian, some of whom had been born in New Zealand and had families and businesses in Wellington. By WWII, there was an increased number of Italians and Japanese. German Jews were forced to share life on the island with proud supporters of the Nazi regime. There were allegations of ill-treatment from internees, including beatings, abuse and humiliation throughout both wars. Albert Zieger, an internee during WWI claimed he was taken to the beach, beaten and locked in the cow shed for up to 8 days after a soldier claimed he had laughed at the role call. This is one of the many claims showcasing rough treatment internees receieved during WWI and WWII.

matiu somes prison
German internees on Somes Island. Hart, Roger: Photographs of Somes Island and other subjects. Ref: 1/2-112228-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand./records/22401714

In its nearly 180 year history since colonisation, Matiu/Somes has been thrown around government departments to fit the times. After stints with the Marine, Health, Agriculture and Defence departments, the island was put under the control of the Department of Conservation (DoC) in 1995. Around the same time, the name was officially changed to Matiu/Somes as recognition to both the Maori and Pakeha history of the island and the rejuvenation of te reo Māori during the 1980s and 1990s.

Kiwi guardians on Matiu Somes Island. Department of Conservation,

Visitors can now take the ferry over daily and discover the natural beauty of the island while discovering the remains of the history. The visitors’ centre is housed in the old internee hospital. You can still see the quarantine stations and the gun embattlements put in place during WWII. Perhaps most importantly has been the return of native plants, birds, reptiles and invertebrates being released to thrive in the pest-free environment (DoC officials will check your bag for rodents upon entry to the island).

Matiu Somes Island owners, Taranaki Whānui, in co-management partnership with DoC and tirelessly supported by a community of volunteers, are dedicated and devoted to protecting, preserving and promoting its natural beauty and rich history.

East by West ferry departs from Queens Wharf and Days Bay Wharf daily.

The Wellington Museum offers a Ship and Chip tour, involving a 45 minute tour of the Museum, a fish and chip lunch and a return ferry trip from Queens Wharf. Call 04-472-8904 or email to book.

FLUX at Wellington Museum

Flux at Wellington Museum is launching on 28 March.

With the space aimed particularly at 18-30 year olds, Flux will be open for the community to share their stories through art, photography, performance, virtual reality, multimedia and more. Decisions about how it operates and what happens in that space are made by a co-op advocating for community voices.

In this post, we talk to Bena Jackson – a Massey Fine Arts student who is currently interning at Flux;

Can you tell us about the concept behind Flux? What are you hoping to achieve?

Flux is a new dynamic, co-operatively run space at Wellington Museum which challenges the museum status quo. It is aimed at 18-30 year olds who can use Flux for exhibitions and public programmes; creating content and experiences; exploring different ideas and perspectives; and building community relationships. We hope to host an incredibly diverse range of exhibitions, performances, workshops, programmes and many other things which haven’t even been thought of yet. Flux is incredibly lucky to have the support of the museum behind us whilst also having a huge amount of flexibility to present things outside of the museum’s constraints. The co-op works together to make decisions about how Flux operates and what happens in the space. Flux is hopefully not one specific thing; we want it to be open ended and flexible as things come and go.


And the name?

We went through quite a long process to find a name. The concept of the space has changed over time, so lots of names got thrown out for various reasons. The name Flux was originally going to belong to the first exhibition of work in the space but it clicked with the way we want the space to operate and we latched onto it! The word flux talks about continuous change and the flow of things or people in and out of a space. It is really perfect for a venue which will be used for quite diverse things and which will be frequently changing and transforming as different groups and people come through with their own ideas. The space and the collective will be in a constant state of flux, so it seems like a pretty good fit.

What’s been involved in getting Flux off the ground?

So many people have put in time into getting what is now Flux, started. I have only been involved since December and already a lot has gone into it, but many people have been working on it much longer! I’ve mostly been working on helping to plan the opening exhibition and some of the first programmes, as well as starting to figure out how organise and bring together all of the different people into some kind of identifiable and useful co-op.

Max Fleury and Lily Tunnicliff will both show their work in the opening exhibition.


There is so much more that has gone into it from so many people though. From the original concepts which Flux has evolved from, the designing and construction of the space, identifying who the space is actually for and what it is about, and figuring out and negotiating how Flux is going to operate in relation to the museum, the writing of a vision, strategy and kaupapa, thinking about marketing and connecting with all the different people who are going to make flux a success.

And finally, can you tell us about the opening?

Flux will be officially open from 6pm on the 28th of March! We’re launching with an exhibition of young Wellington artists who’ve responded to the concept of flux and transition. On the night we’ve got local bands girl boss and Zero Cool performing, food and drink and hopefully lots of people. It’s really an opportunity for people to come and check out the space in person and to start thinking about how they might want to be a part of it themselves. We’ll talk a little bit about what’s happened so far and what’s going on next, and have some information about getting involved but mostly it should just be a whole lot of fun and hopefully the start of some more very exciting Flux projects!

In the meantime we can be reached at or found on Facebook @fluxatWM



Goodbye Design Baby

Written by Tessa Baty, Graphic Designer for Museums Wellington

After working for two years as graphic designer for Museums Wellington, I’m looking back on our brand story as I prepare for parental leave. This identity system really has been my design baby – complete with the colossal effort (and sometimes anguish) to get to launch day and the joys and challenges of raising it. It’s with sadness that I’m handing this project into the capable care of our next designer.

When I arrived the graphic design role was quite new. Before then design work was mostly contracted job-by-job without a lot of coherence. Even the logos seemed to look different whenever they appeared (can you hear the designers out there gasping?).

I came in midway through a major campaign for Wellington Museum, giving me the chance to see the brand at work – to feel out its limits and demands on it. I learnt that the brand needed to be bold, simple and versatile for use in many different contexts by different contributors.

I was then tasked with rebranding Museums Wellington as an umbrella organisation and the four museums under it: Wellington Museum (at the time the Museum of Wellington City and Sea); Nairn Street Cottage (then the Colonial Cottage Museum); Cable Car Museum; and Space Place (previously Carter Observatory).

The museum logos before the rebrand

We had just a couple of months to rebrand, including rolling out signage for all sites, promotional material, corporate stationery and a website. We were starting from scratch with new names and a totally new look. I don’t remember the brief being much more specific than ‘make it bright and fun and they need to all be connected in one brand family – but also reflect their different offerings’.

So most of my objectives for branding were self-imposed. I wanted the visual identity to be friendly, approachable and human. It needed to be flexible, agile and robust – but also vibrant, fun and a little bit surprising to reflect the quirkiness of our region. It needed to be clear, accessible and welcoming for everyone, meaning I wanted to keep it simple but not minimal to the point of being intimidating or exclusive. All of these ideas influenced my approach to type, colour, shape and graphic language.

I did a speedy reconnaissance of the unique and common offerings of our museums, looking into their most prominent collection pieces, the spaces themselves, the content, and the experiences – trying to understand the personality of each place.

Some logo systems that were explored

Then I tried to reduce some of these characteristics into one unified visual system. I experimented graphically and typographically as far and wide as I could in the time I had. It was a relief to stumble upon the cross device that brought everything together, conceptually and aesthetically.

Final cross device after refinement
Visual references for each museum

For Wellington Museum, the cross echoes the tukutuku panel, Māori woven wall art found on Level 2. It was made by the late Erenora Puketapu-Hetet (Te Ati Awa) to represent the region and stories that the museum shares – making it one of our most significant taonga.

For Nairn Street Cottage, the cross represents stitches from an embroidery hanging in its front room. It is a sampler stitched by a daughter of the home (Clara) when she was 13 years old. To me it poetically embodies what the cottage does: tells the story of Wellington growing up through the story of one family. The shape of the stitches also mimics the cottage’s simple architectural structure.

For the Cable Car Museum, the cross is the start and end point of the cable car journey. It illustrates the physical working of the cable car and the location of the museum up the hill from the city.

For Space Place, the cross represents the stars of the Southern Cross, the most famous star pattern seen in our southern skies. Our unique perspective of the universe is our point of difference from other observatories around the world. This formation connects the name to space as well as our specific place in the world.

Final museum logos in complementary colour pairs

Getting the colours right was quite a process. Our desire to be dynamic led to using two complementary colours for each museum rather than one across all or one for each. Choosing them was partly symbolic and partly aesthetic: they needed a conceptual logic and to look good as a pair and part of the brand family.

I settled on the font Calibre by the New Zealand foundry Klim early on. I wanted to use the best of New Zealand type design because our purpose is around showcasing and encouraging local stories. Calibre is friendly, accessible and versatile – all characteristics we wanted to display.

The overarching Museums Wellington logo

It was easy to draw together the four museum brands into one logo for Museums Wellington. I simply took a cross from each institution, representing the organisation’s function of administering these museums.

After selling the idea to various stakeholders we had a quick design and production turnaround, creating a bit of pressure to line all our ducks up in a row for launch day! Being a council controlled organisation, there was the added element of media interest. Our brand’s first public appearance was in the newspaper with slightly disastrous results due to printing issues. But you live and you learn and I’m glad that our biggest mistake was the next day’s fish’n’chip wrappers instead of permanent signage!

Signage at Wellington Museum
Signage at Space Place
Signage at Cable Car Museum
Brand collateral: promotional brochure, business cards and seasonal events brochure
Wellington Museum visitor trails
A selection of favourite posters advertising our events

Our brand development wasn’t exactly the model of good design process. I would have loved to do more research, exploration and refinement. It was definitely a case of ‘we’d like to do this, but we can afford to do this’, and ‘I know there will be better solutions out there, but we have to go to print today’. But maybe that’s every design job (or maybe life at large) to some degree: we throw the best of our creativity and craft into the parameters we have and something exciting comes out the other end.

Despite that, I don’t know what I would change. Over the last two years the brands have held their own and worked the way I hoped they would – they’ve coherently carried diverse messages and allowed for flexibility in style and content.

The project has taught me confidence in my design process, even if I’d like more time or resources. It’s also shown me that brands are a living and dynamic thing. You nurture them and they grow into themselves as you iterate, improve and adapt to changing needs.


Fact or Fallacy? Five Urban Legends from the Cable Car Debunked.

 By Jay Èvett

Ask any Wellingtonian to rattle off a local legend from their day and you will get different stories depending on when they grew up. You may hear about tooting in tunnels, Japanese submarines in wartime Wellington Harbour or speculation over the identity of a certain fountain-bucket thief. However, one source of stories remains constant across generations – the early days of the Wellington Cable Car. But as with all urban legends, sometimes spinning a good yarn can get in the way of the facts. I’ve gathered together the top five tales you’re likely to hear about the Cable Car and tried to set the record straight about what really happened: are they fact or fallacy?

Tall Tale 1:
The Cable Car was built amidst a web of backdoor deals and shady agreements

Muir & Moodie (Firm). Wellington cable car and city. Ref: 1/2-003716-F.Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

FACT: The Cable Car’s early days are a web of conveniently interlocking business interests and political back-scratchings. There were so many intricate deals cut that it’s impossible to capture the full picture, even a century on. For example, whenever the line’s construction was delayed by the Council, heavily critical articles were published in the New Zealand Times to put pressure on them to cease the delays. The same newspaper purchased a plot on Lambton Quay, which it then leased to the Kelburne & Karori Tramway Company to build its lowest cable car terminal and offices – offices which were occupied by directors of the company, one of whom was a leading board member of the New Zealand Times. See, complex – and that’s just one small part of the web.

This net of convenience was cast so wide that there were few influential personalities who weren’t connected to the project, from former mayors and newspaper editors to business moguls and even a Prime Minister!

Tall Tale 2:
The Cable Car engineer’s young daughter was the first person through each tunnel

Kelburn cable car line, Wellington. Original photographic prints and postcards from file print collection, Box 10. Ref: PAColl-6208-14. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

UNVERIFIABLE: While there are multiple reports that Vera Fulton – engineer James Fulton’s 11-year old daughter – was the first person to pass through all three tunnels, there are no contemporary sources confirming this. What we do know is that Fulton’s tunnels were plagued with bad luck, casting significant doubt over whether this claim is true. A delicate and precarious job by nature, once two work gangs connected their tunnels in the middle it was common for the smallest worker to be sent to check its integrity. This highly dangerous task brought with it the potential for a section of the wall to collapse – something Fulton knew all too well as it happened several times during his work on the Karori Tunnel.

Did James Fulton allow 11-year old Vera to undertake this risky task not just once but thrice? We may never know but we’re more than happy to hear from anyone who could verify this tale for us once and for all!

Tall Tale 3:
Victoria University was bribed by the Cable Car to build in Kelburn

Hunter Building, Victoria University, Wellington. Adkin, George Leslie, 1888-1964: Photographs of New Zealand geology, geography, and the Maori history of Horowhenua. Ref: 1/4-023178-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

FACT:  Believe it or not, even institutions of higher learning were not above the power of the Pound. After searching for a location for its new campus, in 1901 Victoria College decided to build adjacent to the Cable Car line, abandoning plans to build in Mount Cook. What changed their mind? A liberal £1,000 ($178,000 today) ‘donation’ from Cable Car investor and Northland suburb developer Charles Pharazyn was offered to the College, on the condition that their campus was built in Kelburn. [E1]

This was to the despair of Mount Cook residents, who had been hoping that Victoria College would convert the former Mt Cook Prison into their primary campus. However, thanks to Pharazyn’s ‘generosity’, the iconic Hunter Building opened its doors in Kelburn three years later and in doing so ensured a steady stream of customers to the nascent Cable Car for years to come.

Tall Tale 4:
Prisoners were used in the construction of the line

Terrace Gaol, Wellington. Crown Studios Ltd: Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/1-032512-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

FALLACY: Contrary to popular belief, prison labour was never used during the Cable Car’s development. Tunnelling was a highly precise skill that was in short supply during the line’s construction. It’s unlikely that a significant portion of the Terrace Gaol’s population were skilled tunnellers (who hadn’t yet tunnelled their way out of the prison itself!).  Likewise, with dynamite used extensively to blast the line into Kelburn Hill it is just as unlikely anyone wanted to risk convicts handling anything explosive. This myth appears to have been inspired by prison gangs building infrastructure in Kelburn, at the time mistaken to have been working on the Cable Car line, as well as the use of the infamous ‘convict bricks’ from the Terrace Gaol brickyard to form the tunnel walls.

Tall Tale 5:
The 1973 accident was the only serious incident in the cable car’s history


FALLACY: While the best-known incident was the 1973 accident in which a construction worker was totalled after walking in front of a downward-bound cable car at Clifton Station, it was not the only significant occurrence in the line’s history. In the days of non-existent Health & Safety practices, the Cable Car was a hotbed for serious injuries and even deaths. Seriously heavy and originally incredibly cumbersome to operate, most reported incidents related to the cars’ unwieldy brakes and inability to stop promptly. This led to a record number of shattered bones, facial injuries, and compound fractures  among unlucky passengers and passers-by, including the amputation of a 10-year old girl’s foot after she stepped off the carriage too early and was caught by the wheels. Several deaths also occurred on the line, the first recorded in the minutes of the company’s annual meeting in 1905 [E2] , with three further deaths in 1918, 1931 and 1932.

Despite being less grisly compared to previous incidents, the accident in 1973 tends to overshadow earlier accidents due to the significant impact it had on the Cable Car. Not only did it trigger a serious investigation and see the closure of the line in 1978, but it brought the city to rally behind the continued service the cars provided, eventually leading to the introduction of the fenced tracks and enclosed carriages we know today.

So, there you have it – the top five Cable Car urban legends laid out and laid bare. Have you got any other local myths you’re curious about? Pop into Wellington Museum or the Cable Car Museum and have a chat to the staff behind the counters – you may be surprised by what you find out!

This post is written by Jay Èvett, Visitor Services Host for Museums Wellington and Director of Te Pāhi Pōneke | Wellington Historical Theatre Co. Special thanks to Alice Moss-Baker for her tireless work helping find the truth behind these tales.


[E1] Kevin Bourke, Kelburn, King Dick and the Kelly Gang: Richard Seddon and political patronage (Wellington: Hit or Miss Publishing 2008), p.150

[E2] Perfect, Colin (Prepared for the Wellington Museums Trust). Conservation Plan and Restoration Review for Kelburn Cable Tramway Gripcar 3. 2007. ISBN 978-0-473-12203-4

Object(ive) Perception.

(Written by Brent Fafeita, History Curator – Museums Wellington)

“The new limitations are the human ones of perception”
Milton Babbit,

The heated 2016 US Presidential Election showed us that perception now strongly roams across Fact and Fiction. ‘Fake news’ is the buzz term and ‘actual fact’ is, at least to some, a matter of perception. ‘Truth’ varies according to utterer and intended usage.


Facebook news engagement, 2016. Source: 

But perception (and bias) are not easily talked about when looking inward at ourselves. It is one thing to talk of how others have difficulty with this, but altogether another to overcome personal and work-place resistance to talk of our own. Only through continual reflection and seeing through others’ eyes can we get a sense of all the possible alternate views and viewpoints. We then become better critical thinkers about the world around us.

In museums, we showcase protected objects, but these objects only exist because some person or persons in history deemed the object important enough to collect and protect – sometimes a factor of happenstance, sometimes of personal status or power. Likewise, the history connected to an object has been retained because some person or persons thought it too was important to collect and protect. The reality of recording history however lends itself to influence by the beliefs and thinking of the recorder. And as perceptions change overtime, so too do collecting habits. Those who collect now are selecting what to collect based on their current worldview, beliefs and bias.

Exhibition entry panel. Source: Museums Wellington

Ngā Heke, at Wellington Museum, is a celebration of objects with varied amounts of ‘known’ histories. One objective is to promote thinking around what the object is and why it is here. Some of these objects demand their story be told as known by the Museum, while some allow for a minimalistic label approach to encourage imagination. For others, we offer alternate histories to challenge the very notion of fact – one is the Museum-told history while another is a fabricated but possible history. Visitors are encouraged to choose the history they believe or prefer using voting tokens, and then are invited to create their own alternate histories nearby. All these methods highlight perception and bias in varying ways.

Voting tokens. Source: Museums Wellington

Among many meanings, defines perception as ‘the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one.’ The key words here are facts known to one. Further, the many meanings of perception highlight the many forms it can take, and like an optical illusion, these can be different from different viewpoints. Our minds interpret what our senses record, and sometimes the mind only interprets what it wants or is able to comprehend.

Source: The Exploratorium

Other forums address perception in a variety of ways. showcases an ‘alternate history’ timeline, and The Museum of Alternative History (MOAH) presents ‘a selection of the fittest explanations for the nature of the world and universe, and alternate histories contrary to … well … history’ ( An alternate history theme park in Virginia (closed 2012) titled Professor Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom (, was a reimagination of the American Civil War with the inclusion of dinosaurs. How much different would history be if this was the actual case?! In text, the book Provenance: An Alternate History of Art’ edited by Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist explores:

”… in myriad ways how an owner’s relationship with a work of art or, in varying degrees, with the object’s previous owners can change irrevocably the way the work will be perceived and understood by future generations.” 

Many museums throughout history have operated on the basis of being an authority on our material world. Museum practitioners however should discuss more our challenges with perception and bias. In a user-defined world, perhaps perception is best left up to the ‘user’ – the one connecting with the object in the moment? Although lovely in concept, this appears near impossible. We encounter bias by merely placing objects on display. They are selected, presented and interpreted using some form of bias, known or unknown. By discussing our challenges in being objective, visitors are reminded that we too are governed by the same challenges of perception. And if judgement comes, we should welcome and embrace it to further the discussion of how museums of the 21st century should act.

‘Write Your Own Label’ wall. Source: Museums Wellington.

Looking ahead, we can’t be certain of future collecting practice, or even of the collections themselves, including the information attributed to them. Of importance is perhaps not the information, but the actual connection between object and ‘user’. Further, instead of rewriting history based on current perception, we accumulate and promote the creation of more. In this way value is placed in the many, not just the one believed correct. It is my view that all things extending from the material to the immaterial, from history to today and beyond, are governed by the perceptions of those partaking, and therefore those partaking are fundamentally the most significant aspect. Then again, that is just my perception, even if subconsciously, I am being biased.

‘All our knowledge is the offspring of our perceptions.’
Leonardo Da Vinci,


Whose story?


(Written by Nik Bullard, Social History Curator – Museums Wellington)

Nairn Street Cottage, the Wallis family home for over a hundred years, is a gem quietly tucked away in Central Wellington. The Wallis family story spans three generations – the original settlers Catherine and William who arrived from England in 1857, their daughter Clara who moved back into the Cottage with her children around 1910 and Clara’s daughter, Winifred, who was still living in the family home in the 1970s. Due for demolition, public interest saw the house saved and restored. It opened as a museum in 1980.


(Catherine and William Wallis, Museum Collection)

But how does a museum tell stories about people they don’t know and who have now passed away? This is an issue we have telling stories about the Wallis family and their home. Although we know a good deal about the Wallis’, we don’t know enough to be definitive about them.

We can get around this by talking about society back in the day – this is what life was like back then, this could be why the original settlers emigrated here, these are the social and technical changes they would have experienced along the way. So we know enough about life from the 1850s until the 1970s to paint a rich enough general picture of how life was.

But going from the general to the particular is more difficult. There are the fantastic research facilities such as Papers Past at the National Library (and the Wallis’ turn up in old newspapers) and the City Archives has the Cottage’s house and services plans. Probate records, court proceedings, school rolls, property transfers records can reveal information too. We can ask architectural experts about specifics to do with the house (mortise and tenon joints, hand-made nails, native timbers etc).

Wellington Independent, 1871. Image: National Library of New Zealand.


But that still leaves us with the problem of how to get down and personal with the Wallis’ themselves. The next stage of development at the Cottage is to tell the story of the house and the three generations of Wallis’ who lived there across time. As a social history curator for the Cottage, I’ll do this by giving Catherine, William, Clara and Win a room each and theming it in a different era (ranging from 1860 to 1970). I’d like to pretend they are still alive at that time and talk about their thoughts on issues of the day and the wonders of technical advancement.

But what did they think and believe? How did Catherine and her daughters (and her husband and sons for that matter) feel about women’s suffrage? The 1913 Waterside lockout? Were they for or against that? How did the Great Depression and both World Wars affect family members? Turning on the first water tap or electric light? How did that feel?

1913 Wellington Waterfront Strike from Alexander Turnbull Library, Sydney Charles Smith Collection (PA-Group-00242) Reference: 1/2-046169;G

The other tool we have at our disposal is talking to family members – of which there are a lot! Perhaps a relative can give some insight into the moral or political character of a Wallis. Or this method can yield memories of relatives visiting the Cottage and what furniture and fittings may have been there. We have brief transcripts of a couple of relatives’ memories but we would LOVE to hear from anyone else who has stories of the Wallis’ to share.

The Wallis’ Primitive Methodist Church on Webb Street. Image: National Library of New Zealand

Telling biographical stories is an interesting dilemma and one that historians face all the time. When reading an historical account of someone’s life (biographical or autobiographical), bear in mind that it is someone’s interpretation of that person and events of the time. It’s good to think to yourself, ‘So whose story is this?’ ‘Do they have an agenda or are they pushing a bandwagon?’ ‘Are there other views about this person or event out there?’ I suggest you research widely and then make an informed decision yourself.

thatcher   thatcher-2

But back to Nairn Street Cottage. Along with technological developments, I want to talk about the issues of the day, especially the huge changes that have occurred in society for women over that time. However I’ll be pretending to be a Wallis family member and this will be coloured by my own political and personal views. Although I will try to speak with integrity and authenticity, it will be a case of ‘poetic license’ and the hope that I am telling stories that are close enough to the real thing.

If not, visitors are always there to tell me where I went wrong! And believe it or not, we appreciate that in the museum world.

Photo illustration based on image from Wallis Family Collection.



Photo: Justine Hall



Ngā Heke: Bringing Māori Voices into Wellington Museum

Te Whanganui a Tara is the name of one of our most prized taonga at Wellington Museum, the tukutuku and poupou panel created for us by Rangi Hetet, the late Erenora Puketapu-Hetet and their whanau. It is currently sitting quietly, almost alone on level two of the museum while we prepare new exhibits to be installed, but not for long. Soon a noisy family of other taonga will surround Te Whanganui a Tara, keeping our poupou and tukutuku warm with different voices, creating a conversation of sight and sound and diverse perspectives, just like a whānau. Te Whanganui a Tara tells some of the Māori origin stories of Wellington. The new taonga continue those stories and bring voices from contemporary young Māori artists and poets into the Museum.

To have the full experience, you will need to visit level two when it re-opens as Ngā Heke during our Steampunk Weekend on 26th November 2016. In the meantime, below we profile the wonderful artists who have created new work for Wellington Museum. Continue reading “Ngā Heke: Bringing Māori Voices into Wellington Museum”

Trams on Film: History of Wellington Transport

This fantastic old Pictorial Parade covers the development of transport in Wellington up until 1970. Worth watching for the narration alone. But the visuals are also brilliant. Many thanks to Archives NZ, quoted below. Also, Brownies! Wellington tourism! And unfortunately offensive use of taonga Māori, as well as some jolly good old-fashioned sexism… These historical films are always eye-opening.

Continue reading “Trams on Film: History of Wellington Transport”

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