Detail of crewel embroidery, NOM 98/398

Introducing the Empire Exhibition

One of the tasks I have been working on from home is putting more items on to our collections online website. You can use this website to view some of the items held by the Waitaki Archive, Forrester Gallery and the Museum.

I recently added a group of items that will be going on display when the museum reopens later this year. You can see these items here (some objects still require an image, something we will be able to address after lockdown)

These 100 items will be exhibited in a section we have called Empire. This exhibition is about the Victorian era (1837-1901) in our district. Some of the items selected are from a little after 1901 like this fork and these gloves related to Antarctic exploration. They are both included as they fit the Empire theme.

In the mid 1800s, Ōamaru was a bustling outpost of the British Empire. Immigrants from different cultural and social backgrounds settled here in search of a better life. Colonisation changed the landscape and the lives of Māori profoundly. These objects from the Victorian era represent two sides of the colonial dream. Some people found fame and fortune beyond their wildest imaginings. Others endured hardship and tragedy.

Our team has selected these objects with a lot of different considerations in mind. As curator I have utilised existing research and conducted my own primary research as well (with the help of our volunteers). The K.C. McDonald book 'Oamaru 1878' was especially helpful for getting a sense of what the 19th century was like here in the Waitaki. Papers Past has also been invaluable. I am thankful to all those who have generously given items from their families to the museum over the years. These items each provide a portal to a personal story. Together the stories give a picture of the time and place.

One major consideration when selecting items was feedback from our local community. We collected this feedback formally at focus groups we hosted a few years ago but also informally in dozens of conversations. It became clear that locals wanted our new exhibitions to tell unique local stories. One object that I think exemplifies this focus is a chair made by Walter Yardley of Palmerston. You can read the story of the chair and Walter in this blog post.

The selection also reflects comments from visitors to our old displays about what they liked, what they didn’t and what they wanted to know more about. Often visitors wanted to understand more about the Victorian era in our district. The striking streetscape of Ōamaru’s Whitestone buildings made people curious, but our previous Victorian display didn’t explain much. That display was set up as a diorama showing two Victorian rooms. It made little reference to anything particularly local. Our new display includes more label text to give people context for what they are looking at. It also links to other things they may see around town such as the impressive apothecary jars from the original Lane’s chemist building on Tees Street.

Decisions about what objects to display also depend on what is in our collections. The history of Totara Estate, Thomas Brydone and frozen meat is nationally significant and people can go to Totara Estate to explore this story. We felt we had to include this story too but there were no suitable items in our collection. Ultimately, we acquired an interesting prop to represent this story. Keep an eye out for it when we reopen!

Other collection considerations include condition and conservation of items. I really liked the idea of having this globe on display but it is simply too fragile for exhibition. We will be exhibiting some textiles like this wedding outfit. This garment is currently receiving conservation treatment at Otago Museum. We are fortunate to have this support from Otago Museum. Even with some TLC we will need to regulary change the costumes on display to preserve them. Fortunately we have a good collection of Victorian garments to showcase. Other light sensitive items including this lace sample book will be displayed in drawers.

We also thought about school education groups when selecting these items. There are items that relate to the lives of young people in Victorian era including a doll’s head, school dux medals, a school chair and the saddler's thimble used by a 13 year old apprentice. There are also items that can illustrate differences between life then and now like the candle stick holder and the knife polisher.

Another aspect is ensuring diversity and representation. I think it is important our exhibition includes urban and rural life, men and women, those who fortune rewarded and those who suffered tragic fates too. Almost all the items on display have personal stories connected with them. Some of these have been covered in our series of behind the scenes blogs like the heart breaking story of Mary Bee who made these human hair decorations.

Personally, working on this exhibition, I have been captivated by some of the migration stories. Many of the objects given to the Pioneer Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s are recorded as having been “brought out” by various people’s ancestors like this walking stick. Arthur Curwood’s adventurous migration story also caught my attention as one of my ancestors also arrived in New Zealand after jumping ship. Aside from these objects I wanted to convey some of the intangible things they brought to New Zealand that shape our culture today: languages, religions, cultural traditions. Two bibles, one in Gaelic and one Māori convey some of these stories.

Our team is working with Te Rūnanga o Moeraki and Waitaha Taiwhenua O Waitaki Trust Board on how the museum will present the stories of local Māori. The objects for those exhibitions are still be selected and are not on our website. They may be added later with permission from iwi. Items like the trunk belonging to John McKenzie also connect with the history of Māori and Pākehā relations in 19th century New Zealand.

There are plenty of stories that aren’t covered in the exhibition too. I have a virtual cutting room floor of ideas that ultimately didn’t fit this exhibition. I hope to return to some of these. One item that stands in for some of these stories is a padlock and key from the Oamaru Gaol. I think the gaol alone would make a great subject for a temporary exhibition at some stage. Some of the situations covered in the court reporting are haunting and tragic. Victorian Ōamaru was not all beautiful buildings and successful business enterprises.

An exhibition can only tell part of any story and some stories are better told in different ways for example by visiting historic sites, reading local history books and blogs, listening to public talks and podcasts and so on. Until the museum reopens please enjoy browsing through these objects. I will be writing some more blog posts about stories behind these objects so keep an eye on our website.

Chloe Searle