Visual excesses

By Adrienne Rewi

The foundation stone for Otago Museum on its current Dunedin site was laid in December 1874.  Two years later, ‘half a world away,’ the foundation stone for the Albert Hall Museum, in Jaipur, Rajasthan in Northern India (below), was laid by the Prince of Wales in 1876. Otago Museum opened in 1877 and Albert Hall opened in temporary rooms in 1881 and was finally inaugurated in 1887.


I visited Albert Hall (often called Central Museum) in Jaipur in 2003 and it was a museum experience that has stayed with me long after the event. Heavily influenced by England’s South Kensington Museum, it is a wonderful example of elaborate Indo-Saracenic architecture, designed by architect, Samuel Swinton Jacob – a princely collection of domes, arches, colonnades and millions of pigeons. And inside, a marvellous mayhem of cabinets of curiosities, of eclecticism – a profusion of (often dusty) objects to tease all the senses:  a dissected horse, preserved snakes, Egyptian mummies, Rajasthani textiles, foxed prints, ceramics, tribal costumes, fossils, religious figurines and so much more – all ‘absorbed’ in the sapping Indian heat in the presence of Indian families, who followed me from cabinet to cabinet as if I, too were an exhibit. It was an experience so profound for me, that it triggered a series of short stories.

I am reminded of Albert Hall every time I visit Otago Museum’s marvellous Animal Attic – a tribute to Victorian museum style and “a place where displays have been laid out in systematic order according to the classification of living things.” Stuffed mammals, reptiles, birds and marine life have ‘colonised’ the glass cabinets around the walls; and intricate displays of pinned-out butterflies, bugs and other insects give us a peek into the ‘exotica’ of invertebrate life. And all around, that beautiful timber architecture that speaks of a different time.

Animal Attic doesn’t have Albert Hall’s flamboyance or scale, nor its sometimes questionable approach to conservation but for me it is riddled with that same sense of wonder and enchantment that comes with unexpected juxtapositions, with the bizarre in happy partnership with the beautiful. Both museums speak of a time when collections gave viewers an eye into new and expanding worlds, when taxidermy and bulging cabinets helped museum visitors establish a relationship with the greater world. Both remind me of my childhood visits to Auckland Museum – way back, long before it became what it is today – when museums were a source of wonder, excitement, bewilderment and a place for my imagination to roam free and unfettered.

 All that ‘Victorian clutter,’ that haphazard profusion of glorious, unpredictable juxtaposition must be the stuff of nightmares for modern museum keepers but when I saw the unbridled delight of a young family in Dunedin’s Animal Attic recently, I knew I wasn’t the only one to appreciate +the old over the new. It’s not that I don’t like modern museums but I do think that the strict formal focus on ‘the business of museums,’ the obsession with conservation, the sleek modern architecture, the stark walls and the often contrived thematic displays have stifled something of viewers’ emotional and aesthetic responses. I’m not against stylistic purity; I guess I’m just one of those people who has a much deeper, much more lasting emotional response to higgledy-piggledy riot of Victorian museum excesses

Image credits:

1: Albert Hall, Jaipur, Rajasthan, North India

2: Animal Attic, Otago Museum, Dunedin

3: Animal Attic, Otago Museum, Dunedin

4: Animal Attic, Otago Museum, Dunedin

Adrienne RewiAdrienne Rewi works full-time 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.