Thomas Forrester with microscopes in his workshop, Wharfe Street, Oamaru

“If they wish to have a museum, by all means let them have a museum…”

This is the second blog in a series of four focussed on the history of the North Otago Museum.

The Oamaru Museum seemed to come to life in 1882. Under the auspices of the Mechanics' Institute Thomas Forrester was appointed as Curator. During that year Alexander McKay assisted Forrester in setting up and categorising the Museum’s fossils and geological collection. I believe this style of label dates from that time.Oamaru Museum label

No known original list of the collection at that time exists but I have compiled a list from the remaining labels. The collection mostly consisted of mineral samples such as Andesite and Chalcedony and fossils including Ostrea wuellerstorfi and Pecten hutchinsoni. The collection also included some Pacific cultural artefacts at this time.Original Oamaru Courthouse, circa 1902. Waitaki District Archive 4124

In 1882 the old courthouse was acquired from the government for the purpose of using it as a museum. The Museum moved in to the original courthouse in 1883.

But progress was slow. The Museum sub-committee worked away at arranging the collection and seeking new donations. Getting enough funding to present the collection properly was an issue. At this time the museum was not open to the public.

In 1888 Dr de Lautour was appointed as a co-curator with a focus on natural history. That year the museum held an open day and fundraising bazaar.

The Museum was criticised in the Oamaru Mail in 1891 including this rebuke:

If they wish to have a museum, by all means let them have a museum but the abortive attempt at antiquity which now exists constitutes a sheer waste of a building that might be made useful.”


Things didn’t improve. In 1895 the Museum building was leased to the Church of Christ. The Museum continued to collect but there was little other activity. Thomas Forrester died in 1907 and the museum languished. Despite the committee’s efforts, by 1938 it was noted that the exhibits were of “no use or ornament the way they were”. There was discussion about offering the collection items to other institutions. But it wasn’t until 1947 that the last recorded meeting of the Oamaru Athenaeum and Mechanics’ Institute was held. At this time some of the collection was dispersed to Otago Museum and elsewhere.

If you would like to know more, the book Diatoms to Database by Thomas Heyes covers the history of the North Otago Museum from 1863 to 1994.

Chloe Searle