Cassini’s Final Farewell

By Dr Claire Bretherton, Curator Science

On 15th October 1997, Cassini-Huygens blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on its way to Saturn, the first spacecraft to enter orbit around the ringed planet. In the two decades since Cassini-Huygens has completely changed our knowledge of the planet, its stunning rings and dynamic moons, and taken some of the most awe-inspiring images of the Solar System we have ever seen.

The Cassini mission has always been dear to my heart. It launched on the 15th October 1997. I was 18 at the time, and just a couple of weeks into my degree at Leicester University studying Physics with Astrophysics. Seven years, and a long long journey later, which for Cassini took it half way across the solar system, and for me took me through an MPhys, teacher training and half of my PhD, we were both ready to do some real science. We’d both dabbled a little along the way, but now, as it entered orbit around Saturn, to begin its initial four year science mission, Cassini was ready to revolutionise our understanding of the mysterious ringed planet and change the course of future planetary exploration.

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Cassini-Huygens was a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and involved scientists and engineers from 27 different countries. NASA and ASI were responsible for the Cassini orbiter, named after the 17th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered four of Saturn’s moons and identified a gap in Saturn’s rings, which is now known as the Cassini Division.

View of Titan
First colour view from the surface of Titan taken by the ESA Huygens probe. NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona

ESA contributed the Huygens lander, named after the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. On the 14th of January 2005, Huygens was dropped onto Titan, braking in the moons dense atmosphere, and parachuting down to the surface. On its way down, the lander collected ground-breaking new data on Titan’s atmosphere, clouds and surface features.

Meanwhile, Cassini continued to study the Saturn system from orbit, providing tantalizing evidence of the diversity and dynamism of its many moons and studying the planet’s atmosphere, magnetic fields and ring system in unprecedented detail.

With its initial science goals completed in 2008, Cassini’s mission was extended. The two-year Cassini Equinox mission included 60 additional orbits of Saturn and over 30 flybys of some of its moons. It also allowed the spacecraft to observe Saturn’s rings as they were lit edge on by the Sun, revealing stunning new detail and previously unseen structure.

In 2010, the mission was extended again. Known as the Cassini Solstice Mission, this second, seven year long extension would take us all the way past Saturn’s northern hemisphere summer solstice. Having originally arrived just after the northern hemisphere winter solstice, this allowed us to observe a complete seasonal period and to complete more in-depth studies of both Titan and Enceladus.

Saturn hguens
A huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

There are so many highlights from the Cassini-Huygens mission that it’s hard to pick a favourite. The mission discovered seven new moons, revealed new structure and activity in Saturn’s rings, observed the changing colour of the planet’s north-pole hexagon, and witnessed the aftermath of a massive reoccurring storm seen in 2010. But to me the mission’s greatest successes come from its in-depth study of some of Saturn’s many moons, which have resulted in some truly surprising discoveries.

These natural colour views compare the appearance of Saturn’s north-polar region in June 2013 and April 2017. 

Cassini-Huygens has found rivers, lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane covering Titan’s polar regions, complete with rain from hydrocarbon clouds, whilst the moon’s equator is marked by icy ‘sand dunes’ hundreds of kilometres long and 100 metres high.

Near-infrared, colour mosaic from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan’s north polar seas. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

It has tasted Titan’s thick atmosphere to find a rich and complex chemical soup that still can’t be fully explained and revealed conditions that may be similar to the early Earth. Meanwhile, gravity experiments have revealed evidence for an ocean of liquid water and ammonia deep underground.

Exploration of the icy moon Enceladus has revealed a hot spot at the southern pole, icy jets spewing out from the surface and a vast salty ocean below the ice.  These jets contribute directly to Saturn’s diffuse E-ring and further study of the ring’s chemistry suggests the existence of hydrothermal vents, not dissimilar to those found on Earth. Together, these astounding new results promote Enceladus to one of the top candidates in our search for life beyond our own planet.

Cassini’s last Enceladus plume observation. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute. 

In April this year, after almost 13 years of discovery, and with its fuel running low, Cassini embarked on its Grand Finale, a series of death defying dives between the planet and its rings, before plunging into Saturn on the 15th September, just a month out from its 20th birthday. Even in its final moments Cassini continued to send data. Whilst the space craft is gone, its legacy lives on in our new understanding of the jewel of our Solar System.

In Saturn’s shadow. Saturn eclipses the Sun allowing Cassini to capture this spectacular view. Look out for the tiny pale blue dot just outside the brighter rings – this is our own planet, the Earth. NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.


Te Reo Māori me ōna tikanga: A window into language revitalisation

By Raukura Hoerara-Smith, Assistant Māori Curator,

Museums Wellington

He reo e kōrerotia ana, he reo ka ora.

 A spoken language is a living language.

te reo 1

Tēnā koe,

Te reo Māori is of great importance to me. My mother and father raised me in a Māori-dominated world, where te reo Māori was my mother tongue. It wasn’t until my last year at intermediate school where I transferred to a mainstream class that I started to adapt myself to a more westernised world.

Today, I feel like every day should be a celebration of our language, wherever we are. I find myself only talking Māori when I’m around kaupapa Māori (environment), which is why I need to challenge myself more to speak the language that was given to me since birth. It is my mission in the future to provide my own children with the same intrinsic values my parents gave to me.

This week we are celebrating Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week). This acknowledges the Māori language as a unique cultural taonga (treasure) for all people in Aotearoa New Zealand. Each year, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission) sets a theme for the week, and a range of activities, promotions, and events that encourage the use of te reo Māori. The theme this year, ‘Kia ora te reo Māori’ was selected to honour New Zealand’s indigenous greeting – an exact description aimed for new partnerships for te reo Māori revitalisation between the Crown and Māori under the new Māori Language Act 2016.

As the Māori language started to significantly decrease in the 1970s, Māori language week was used to help create awareness about the revitalisation of our language. I’m writing this blog to give you an insight on this taonga of ours, in the hope that you will be able to take something away with you.

Te reo Māori has had an official language status since 1987 and numerous Māori language revitalisation activities have occurred to date. Despite these efforts, statistics continue to show a decline in the number of Māori language speakers.

The objective of Māori language revitalisation is to re-establish the language in today’s world. I am in support of the idea that Māori language is the heritage language of all citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s a cherished taonga that all citizens have a duty to help revitalise.  Some see that current trends among the most dominant languages, like English, Mandarin, German and Spanish, have a higher chance of survival than most other languages. Some may see this as a result of globalisation, indicating that languages are forever changing and adapting to the times.

Why should the language be revitalised?

The Māori language is embedded in the geographical naming system of Aotearoa, New Zealand’s cultural heritage and Māori is recognised as the de facto heritage language for all New Zealand citizens (Waitangi Tribunal, 2011). If it does not survive here it will not survive anywhere in the world. For the most part the Māori language is not being passed down through the generations, in homes, neighbourhoods and communities. The Māori language is significant because it is the carrier of the Māori culture as “without it the Māori identity would be fundamentally undermined, as would the very existence of Māori as a distinguished people” (Waitangi Tribunal Report #262, 2010:48). For Māori to exist the Māori language is a key identity indicator.

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Promotional  material from

For a bilingual speaker of Māori language, intergenerational transmission is a key objective. The value of the language is seen to motivate language choice, which promotes a change in language practices. This suggests that the fundamental values and beliefs are transferred from our parents, grandparents or from our social environments. Language value depends on perceptions and choice, illustrating the complex relationship between existing communities. Within these communities, bilingual speakers make their language choice based on the normalised language within a social setting. For example, a speaker has a higher chance of talking on the Marae, where te reo is normalised.

The findings of the Te Paepae Motuhake report, Te Reo Mauriora (2011: 63), identified seven primary values attributed to the Māori language:

  1. Intrinsic value
  2. Educational value
  3. Social value
  4. Cultural value
  5. Intellectual value
  6. Spiritual value
  7. Monetary value

These seven attributes regulate the attitudes that people have towards the Māori language. A person may decide to move towards, or away from these values. In terms of language acquisition, these values can be overwhelming for some people in learning the language and can have a positive or negative effect on a person depending on their particular position.

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Māori word map from

The establishment of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori promotes the recommendations of the Waitangi Tribunal and produces resources that recognise the language as a taonga, more importantly, as intrinsically valuable to Māori. Having said that, the establishment of the Māori Language Act, the discourse surrounding the Māori language continues to resonate a language under threat.

For the Māori language to truly flourish, the government should enact the recommendations of Te Puni Kokiri, and the Waitangi Tribunal language reviews must also be considered. Let us hope that the Māori Language Act will help with the revitalisation of our language so that it can survive for evermore.

Ko tōku reo, tōku ohooho; tōku reo, tōku mapihi maurea; tōku reo, tōku whakakai marihi.

My language is my inspiration, my special gift, my precious treasure.



Breaking into the museum

Guest blog by Matariki Williams, Curator Mātauranga Māori, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

I’m afraid this isn’t an instructional post on navigating the labyrinthine corridors of our nation’s museums, instead this is about a pathway in to working at a museum.

The route I took was by undertaking a Masters in Museums and Heritage Studies at Victoria University, a path that involved 600 hours of internship, some of which I spent with Wellington Museum. Though most of the internships are unpaid, I will forever be grateful to Wellington Museum and the Museums Studies programme for allowing me to use a short term contract as my placement.

It doesn’t feel like this is acknowledged enough. Although the Masters programme is a popular pathway into the museum, however because of the internship factor, there is an immediate financial filter on who will be able to apply for the programme. Perhaps this explains why I was the only Māori person in my intake and why there was only one Māori student the following year. It is very problematic that the most obvious pathway into the museum involves an immediate socioeconomic filter – this is part of the reason why eventually getting a museum’s role felt like I was ‘breaking in’.

This blog is running the risk of sounding defeatist but there are many reasons why people want to work in this sector so let’s change tack and focus on why people want to work in the sector. First for me is the taonga, the objects of mana that are inextricably linked to people, stories and the immeasurability of time. Through taonga our museums unlock hidden and visible connections between people and places. For Māori in particular, so much of our mātauranga has been covered by introduced knowledge systems, and taonga serve a reminder of what endures, waiting to be discovered. From a Māori perspective, it is also important to understand that it was in recent history that we had no autonomy in being the kaitiaki of our taonga, so being in the museum still feels like a revolutionary position.

Aside from the taonga, it is people that keep me here. I have come across so many who have inspired, encouraged and challenged me. One of the most supportive groups of people I have come across are my peers, both inside Te Papa and out. My peers are an upwardly mobile and fiercely engaged bunch. Almost two years ago my friend Nina Finigan (who completed the same Masters, has also worked at Wellington Museum, and is currently the Curator Manuscripts at Auckland Museum) and I started a website called Tusk – Emergent Culture.

Matariki 2
Photo: Antalis glaucarena (Dell, 1953), collected 04 Nov 1950, Chatham Rise, New Zealand. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (M.005678)

The impetus for this was that we were feeling unfulfilled in previous roles and felt like we had no way to affect change in the sector. Through Tusk we’ve been able to provide a platform for ourselves and our peers to write about sector issues in a supportive environment. Crucially, it has afforded us the ability to shed light on our peers and advocates through two columns of profiles: Tuakana and On the Level. Through this online platform, we’re able to provide diverse perspectives of the sector which is one of the most satisfying aspects of the website.

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Photo and linocut artwork: Matariki Williams

People are the glue for museums, when the going gets tough, we have each other. In saying that, I would also say that museology is evolving as museums continue to work with their source communities and eventually start to divest power in collecting and curating.

When I say that people are the glue I mean all people, from our donors to our audiences, from the people walking through our doors every day to the people on the other side of the world accessing our collections and research online. In this respect, I’m glad that it’s a lot easier for our audiences to break into museums as we continue to digitise our collections and make our research / public programmes/talks etc available online.

The winter holidays were ‘Far from Frozen’ at Space Place

By Claire Bretherton, Curator Science, Museums Wellington

At Space Place we inspire our visitors to look up at the wonderful southern skies and to learn more about our unique place in the Universe. What better place to start than by turning our attention to our own planet, and to the effects our way of life is having on Earth’s future.

Could it end up like Venus, with a runaway greenhouse effect heating the planet to the temperature of an oven, or perhaps a frozen wasteland like our neighbouring red Mars? Antarctic science can provide vital clues to our planetary fate.

Over the July school holidays, Space Place was delighted to host Otago Museum’s Far from Frozen exhibition. The exhibition used the latest technology to bring Antarctica to life. Combined with examples of the polar equipment needed to survive and work on the seventh continent, profiles of Antarctic scientists, and hands-on, interactive exhibits, Far from Frozen allowed our visitors to explore the latest Antarctic science, to learn about our changing climate, and importantly, to gain a better understanding of the impact we are having on our home planet.

far from frozen 1
Photo: Tom Etuata

The exhibition was based on a Royal Society of New Zealand ‘Ten by Ten’ talk series by Victoria University scientists Tim Naish and James Renwick, called ‘Ten things you didn’t know about climate change‘. Naish and Renwick outlined ten facts that New Zealanders might not know about global warming, its impact on our oceans, climates and weather systems, both globally and locally, and how our actions have and will influence Earth’s future.  You can read more about it here.

Photo: Tracy Stedall

Far from Frozen was a fantastic opportunity to try something new at Space Place. We were able to open up a part of our building that is not normally visited by members of the public. We expanded our horizons in terms of content, moving away from outer space, to look at the science of our own planet. We also involved a variety of volunteers to help host the exhibition, including scientists involved with the Deep South National Science Challenge. These volunteers not only made sure that everything ran smoothly, but also provided an invaluable insight into the current, cutting edge research going on today.

The exhibition also provided the perfect backdrop to host a variety of different and exciting programmes, including Climate Conscious Cinema in the planetarium and two panel discussions on the science of Antarctica and climate change, and how we can adapt to it.

We have recently rearranged part of our galleries to open up the space a bit more, so we made good use of this new area with the Cool Science shows, held twice a day every weekday of the school holidays. This was another new initiative for the team and we wowed our younger visitors with exploding balloons, bubbling, colour changing chemical reactions, and a home made comet, all linked to the Far from Frozen exhibition.

far from frozen logo
Photo: Tom Etuata

So what did our visitors think?

Well first of all they voted with their feet. Space Place has seen its busiest July school holiday since we reopened in 2010, with over 7000 visitors through our doors. Over 100 visitors also filled in our feedback survey, and nearly 80% told us that they loved the exhibition (only 1 person didn’t like it), 62% that they learned a lot from it, and another 30% that they learned a little.

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Photo: Tracy Stedall

Nearly 98% said they would like to see the same amount or more about environmental issues in the future, and a similar proportion would like to see the same amount or more about astronomy/space science and other topics.

Particular highlights included the ‘cool new technologies’, the ‘great mix of movies, static displays & interactive, experiential options’, real scientists and the Cool Science show.

Overall, Far from Frozen was a great experience for all involved. The excellent feedback we have received from our visitors, the positive responses from our staff and volunteers, and the fantastic visitor numbers have inspired us to see our exhibitions and spaces in a new light, and I’m excited to see what we can do next.

Photo: Tracy Stedall

Far from Frozen was developed by Otago Museum in association with Antarctica New Zealand, the University of Otago and the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute with support from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment’s Unlocking Curious Minds fund, and was brought to Space Place with support from the Deep South National Science Challenge.

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.

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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.’

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