There’s no such thing as a wrong answer

By Tamsin Falconer, Museums Wellington Project Manager

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

cable car survey

The surveys tell us some interesting statistics, including:

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


More to Lions than Rugby

Written by Brent Fafeita, History Curator – Museums Wellington

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

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

Margaret Mahy’s ‘The Lion in the Meadow’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just stand up and roar.

Rusty the Lion in the Attic at Wellington Museum


Fresh eyes on old treasures: Revisiting Wellington Museum

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 1968I 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.


Home Sweet Home – Guanfu Museum Travel Journal

By Moira Sun, Visitor Host – Museums Wellington

Being Chinese and living in New Zealand for over a decade, it’s always fascinating for me to visit museums and galleries back home in China. With an art and museum background, I enjoy finding differences and similarities between museums and galleries in both countries. This truly has become a unique experience for me.

你不知道的“观复”(风之子, 2016)

This year I went back to Guanfu museum in Beijing, the first private museum in China, to have another visit to one of my favourite galleries – the Furniture Hall. Often, an interactive and inspiring exhibition with respectful collections can create a memorable experience that adds value to my visit. Yet, I must admit, having opportunities for ‘looking closely’ is more than enough for me when it comes to very treasured collections.


爱上博物馆之最契合中国人的气质 – 观复家居(sic)馆 (龙悦堂, 2017) Visitors can walk around the galleries and observe the details at a very close distance.

This is what the Furniture Hall allows audiences to do – visually observe the collection as closely as possible. I walked through all six mini exhibition halls and a special Chinese ancient study room to see over 500 pieces of furniture. Many of them were at a touchable distance with “Please do not touch” signs sitting on top of them instead of hiding behind glass cabinets or behind distanced barriers.

黄花梨玫瑰椅、垛边方桌 (2016)

To me, this is a very challenging and fearless undertaking. Most museums would prefer to keep certain distances between their valued objects and audiences but the Furniture Hall allows for maximum access and exploration of the collections for the public. Besides this, as an audience member I was given the impression of being trusted by the Museum. Overall, it was a thrilling experience to be able to pay close attention to some of the distinct features, i.e. the plain but elegant ornamentation, or the rich decorations and engraved designs on the furniture from the Ming (1368–1644) or Qing (1644–1912) Dynasties.

Finger prints on the table.

As much as I loved to experience such a visual ‘intimate encounter’ with the objects, I also noticed the difficulties. It was particularly difficult to control some visitors who unintentionally touched the objects on a busy day when the crowds were overwhelming. There were not enough staff to keep an eye on the audiences, and it became fairly problematic when some people could not resist touching the ‘unprotected’ furniture. Having authentic treasures ‘out there’ for the public is a true temptation; especially when they are so valued and well preserved. However, oils and dirt from our hands indeed will gradually cause staining and damage to these artefacts (Haines, 2016).

有情怀的家具长什么样? (观复学堂, 2017).
 Families attended a workshop at Guanfu Museum where they learnt some knowledge about Chinese antique furniture joinery, and had a hands-on experience with the ‘mortise-and-tenon’ joint. It would be nice to have some similar (guided or self-guided) activities for general audiences as well.


Does this mean Guanfu Museum should forbid this exceptional ‘visual engagement’ access? No. It’s more important to educate audiences with a growing awareness of some of the rules applied to museums and galleries. Furthermore, it is important to find appropriate activities that encourage the audience to interact with the objects. Although museums and galleries’ standards are varied, it is always inspirational to discover how these institutions attempt to offer diverse hands-on activities, not only to raise awareness of whether an object could or could not be touched and the reasons behind it, but also to stimulate people’s creativity and willingness to engage.

Te Whanganui a Tara – Wellington Museum collection

Naturally I think of some exhibitions at Wellington Museum. For example, China Town – Haining Street’s herbal display cabinet in the Attic, which allows people to open the drawers and smell the Chinese herbs that were used to make soup or congee. Another great example is Te Whanganui a Tara, a poupou & tukutuku panels carved by the late Erenora Puketapu-Hetet and Rangi Hetet (Te Ati Awa) of Waiwhetu Marae, which can be touched by visitors and was made especially for Wellington Museum. According to Museums Wellington Registrar Taila Roth, ‘blessings’ have been “deeply imbued with Wairau (Spirit), Mauri (Life Force), and Mana (Prestige/Strength) into these carvings and weavings during Te Whanganui a Tara (creation and life) in the Museum” (T. Roth, personal communication, May 04, 2017). They were ‘brought to life’ by Erenora and Rangi who are considered as Tohunga Whakairo and Tohunga Raranga (master carver and weaver).

Visitors can touch and talk to Te Whanganui a Tara 

Te Whanganui a Tara acknowledges the bond between the taonga (treasure), the museum, the artists, and visitors by sharing some of the stories of the ancestors and the region; it reveals our identities (who we are and what we do) and by touching and talking to it “we may share a part of his Wairua, Mauri and Mana”. This is a “mutually beneficial relationship”, where the spiritual connection is continually passing to living people, and “we too leave echoes of ourselves on this taonga”. That is, “we mutually transfer what makes us special to it adding to its life stories”. All these characteristics make Te Whanganui a Tara one of the most significant taonga at the Museum. (T. Roth, personal communication, May 04, 2017)

爱上博物馆之最契合中国人的气质 – 观复家居(sic)馆 (龙悦堂, 2017)

Being able to form a physical connection between the museum objects and the visitors gets people emotionally and spiritually attached to the artefacts and the stories behind them. Above all, creating a multisensory experience for museum visitors is thought to enhance audience engagement to a new level (Ucar, 2015). These interactive approaches can also strengthen respect for the identity, culture and ownership etc that shaped the objects. As a museum insider, I love the idea of ‘what can we do better to benefit our communities’. On the other hand, when wearing a hat as a museum goer – an outsider – there is always one question in my mind – ‘what more can I offer back if I really enjoy my experience?’ Maybe visitors can start to understand, respect and cooperate more when certain standards and rules are required by the museum or gallery, apart from providing financial support.

新馆员宋球球的实习(观复猫, 2016) Fun fact: the newly adopted cats (most of them used to be homeless/street cats) at Guanfu Museum get to explore the galleries before they officially become assistant curators.

And lastly, it might be worthwhile sharing what the tour guide said regarding ‘respect’ at Guanfu Museum: ‘People who cannot resist touching the objects often do not mean to harm them, but because they don’t understand how to show respect – not only respect from historical perspectives, but also respect for the story and the significant meanings behind these works. This piece of furniture may have served many generations, been through and survived many historical events, was eventually discovered by us and collected by our museum. The object itself has already become a very knowledgeable creature who is silently telling us what it experienced in all those years. If you know how to respect these objects, then you will always remember not to touch them.’

I love how different cultures share some of the fundamental ideologies of how we see and treat our collections as being worthy of respect, and how exhibitions nowadays intertwine with modern ideas, concepts and applications to form connections with our past, present and the future.


风之子. (2016). 你不知道的“观复”. Retrieved from

龙悦堂. (2017). 爱上博物馆之最契合中国人的气质 – 观复家居(sic)馆. Retrieved from

观复秀. (2016). 黄花梨玫瑰椅、垛边方桌Retrieved from

Haines, L. (2016, October 04). To touch or not to touch: interacting with artifacts [Web log post]. Retrieved from

观复学堂. (2017). 有情怀的家具长什么样? Retrieved from

Roth, T. (2017, May 04). Personal communication.

Ucar, E. (2015, September 08). Multisensory Met: Touch, Smell, and Hear Art [Web log post]. Retrieved from

观复猫. (2016). 新馆员宋球球的实习. Retrieved from



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

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