By Adrienne Rewi
When a small, inland museum plasters a bold sign across its frontage declaring its height above sea level, I’m already half in love before I’ve put a toe through the door. And so it was with the Taihape & District Historical Museum Society, which I visited this week – and which, for the record, is 1,450 feet above sea level. Then, to find an old tin hat box in the entry being used as the receptacle for ‘gold coin donations’- padlocked and guarded by a large stag’s head on the wall above – I knew there were treats in store.
When I was a child, I wanted a museum of my own – a place to store and showcase my collections of named rocks, birds’ eggs, shells, my pressed flowers and leaves, my pinned-out insects, my birds’ nests, my seed and nut collections, my stamps, my bottle tops and so on. All a curatorial nightmare by today’s standards I’m sure but in my childish appraisal, who wouldn’t want to pay to see them all? And surely, if I’d had the museum, all those little collections would still be around today. As it is, I have no idea what happened to them all, though suffice to say they have been superseded by my ‘grown-up’ collections.
It is perhaps because of my own random and sometimes chaotic approach to collecting, that I particularly love small town museums; and in Taihape, where the museum has colonized the old Methodist Church, I found a gem of mismatched marvels that could have occupied me for hours had I had the time. A display of moa bones from Waipukurau was cased beneath old photos of the Taihape Volunteer Fire Brigade and Horton Brothers Lorry Company circa 1936; a painted seagull’s egg sat beside a shark’s tooth earring and a lump of coral; and I was fascinated by a small piece of Cook Strait cable – and how it might have ended up in Taihape. There were spectacular collections of old trophies – assorted sporting and harness club cups and a marvelous Rangitikei A&P collection. Taihape’s first shop has been recreated – and the old shoeing forge; the regions saw-milling history sits beside a collection of Taihape souvenirs and a Black Sambo money box; and a big display of memorabilia from Taihape’s old Cascade Brewery filled a large cabinet next to an old dentist’s chair and drill – and everywhere, a mass of historical photographs depicting the early days in Taihape and its surrounds.
“We take everything we get,” offered the museum volunteer on duty that day – one of eleven who take turns at opening on a Sunday and during school holidays. “We’re always getting bequests and we never know what we’ll end up with.”
That to me, is half the beauty of these little museums. They’re not as flash, nor as curatorially coherent as their big city cousins, but there’s a charm here, an accessibility that is often lost in the modern obsession with clinical conservation. I know conservation is important if our sociological history is to be preserved but I do like a museum that looks as if it has been put together by some absentminded professor trying to find a home for every little thing. And it is a testament to small communities like Taihape that local volunteers give so much to the preservation of their local history. At Taihape, the passionate volunteers have card-indexed over 25,000 people, organizations and businesses; they’ve indexed a vast photographic collection; and they have a collection of indexed obituary books. Other volunteers work outside, restoring the buildings and agricultural collections. I raise my hat to them all.
Adrienne Rewi works fulltime as a freelance journalist, sub-editor, blogger and travel guide writer. When she is not traveling the length and breadth of New Zealand updating travel guides, she is based in Christchurch where she readily gives in to her passion for art, museums, photography and fiction writing. In addition to publishing several non-fiction books and travel guides, photographing everything in sight and writing on almost every subject, she is a passionate collector of far too many things and really needs her own museum.