House of treasures: 150 Objects from Canterbury Museum Ngā Taonga Tuku Iho
This large and heavy book, with a beautiful and imposing red and gold cover and elegant red marker ribbons, has every appearance of being a treasure in itself. To mark the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Canterbury Museum staff have collected 150 items from its extensive collections to feature in this volume. Each taonga is carefully photographed by Jane Ussher, displayed on thick quality cream paper, and each one is accompanied by text written by Museum curators and researchers. A number of the images fold out to two or even four times the width of the paper.
Taonga from this book are showcased in the 150th anniversary exhibition which opened at the Museum on October 1 this year.
A short history of the Museum’s development, by Museum Director Anthony Wright and Curatorial Manager Sarah Murray, introduces the book but apart from that the catalogue of images and accompanying descriptions speak for themselves.
The selected taonga show the huge extent of the Museum’s natural and human history collecting over the years as the Museum has grown to currently contain 2.3 million items. The range of objects, from small to enormous, from objects connected to the local area to those from other continents, both natural artefacts and man-made works of art, some uniquely individual and others indicative of a culture, place or time, and with stories ranging from tragic to quirky, confirm this volume as a rich and varied treasure chest.
It is eerie to see an ancient Moriori carving on tree bark and the tracing of a Canterbury limestone rock drawing, incredible to know that these blackened lumps of carbon are Neolithic apples, amazing to view both huge moa and whale skeletons and the minute fairy fly, awe-inspiring to see the fragility of a coracle constructed and used by shipwreck survivors and the beauty of the embroidered Pacific Crossings coat and waistcoat. The only remaining nest of Aotearoa New Zealand’s huia bird, the glassy eyes of the stuffed laughing owl and the labelled body of the flightless wren probably killed by a lighthouse cat are all sad evidence of the extinction of much native wild life. The clay pipe of a WW1 German prisoner of war, the dominoes made and played with by Antarctic explorers trapped in pack ice, the tin mug of an imprisoned WW2 pacifist and the quirky and colourful crocheted coat of a local television entertainer are all testament to the fact that history is made up of individuals’ real and personal experiences.
The taonga are presented in no discernible schema, so a linear approach reading from the beginning, page by page, creates an awareness of the amazing breadth of the collection and the depth of knowledge pertaining to so many items but also a sense of overload. Certainly this is a book for dipping into time and time again, to be fascinated by each of the objects and the details of its history and often its acquisition. But I did find that the random organisation made it difficult to find a thread to link one object to the next or to make connections between the various items. I found myself asking questions as I read. Why were these particular objects chosen? Was there a logic to the order in which they were presented? An explanation of the process by which these taonga were selected and arranged would have offered a useful insight into what the museum sees as significant and offered a perspective from which to approach them.
And also the more I read, the more I wondered about the museum’s approach to collecting these treasures, particularly as some early acquisitions from other parts of the world were swapped for local NZ artefacts and some have a clearly cultural significance but were acquired with a colonial attitude to ownership. Has there been a change in focus as to what the museum collects and how it does so? A discussion of the Museum’s philosophical history as well as its physical history would have added depth to the reader’s understanding of what makes these objects taonga.
Apart from being interested and educated by the individual items themselves, this book certainly brings me to a greater awareness of the place of a museum to preserve the past, as a storehouse from which we can learn and enrich our own present lives and a reminder that our past is a treasure to be honoured.
It is clear that much work by a wide number of highly specialised contributors has gone into creating this very special book which certainly honours the museum’s work in collecting and preserving so much history.
This sesquicentennial book, a collection of treasured objects, is a treasure in itself.
Reviewer: Clare Lyon