Friday, 30 October 2009

The Otago Settlers Museum

The Otago Settlers Museum is a strange collection of modern interactive exhibits and fusty traditional records. In the transport section there are examples of carriages, steam trains, motorbikes and cars throughout the ages. I was fascinated by the tandem bike although I can’t imagine my intrepid sister and brother-in-law looking sweet upon the seat of this bicycle made for two as they take their annual European jaunt. I also admired the penny farthing – those things are monstrous – you can clamber up and have a pedal, if you so desire.

In the main hall exhibits are dedicate to the immigrants (settlers is a much nicer term, don’t you think?) who populated this town and glass cases display the things they brought with them. There are separate areas for Germans, Māori and Chinese, with a smattering of Scots throughout. Dunedin was meant to be the Edinburgh of the Southern Hemisphere (although even the planners conceded that other than the street names there is practically no resemblance) and this museum was founded to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the planned settlement.

Much of Otago was established through the mining of gold and coal and there are homages to both, including a curious diorama of a stuffed miner in a tent who has clearly seen better days. The circular wooden carved table at which people used to fill in their deposit slips at the bank is magnificent, however.

The Smith Gallery is a classic Edwardian portrait gallery in which the pictures line the walls like criminal mug shots recording the original immigrants. The wealthier families could afford oil paintings which are hung symbolically above the lower class daguerreotypes – faces stare in silent soulless surrounds.

Samplers of genealogy and heavy wooden furniture such as stiff-backed chairs and cumbersome pianos cram the room. It’s oppressive and impressive at the same time.

A display called ‘Housekeeping Made Easy’ might more correctly be termed ‘Domestic Drudgery’. The washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning appliances look more like instruments of torture and I began to think how even the names – mangles, beaters, washboards, irons, plungers – have connotations of historical persecution.

In her brilliant book, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan pointed out that these ‘improvements’ that were supposed to make the lives of women easier were actually paternally tyrannical. Whereas you used to beat the dust out of the carpets once a year in spring, now you have to hoover once a week or face accusations of slovenliness.

‘Across the Waves’ is a multimedia exhibit relating to the trial by sea that many faced to arrive here. The videos enacting the conditions on ship and the passages of writing on the walls are taken from passengers’ diaries. Usually kept by women, this is how we know the colour of the journey – who danced with whom; who was boring or petty; how tiresome it was to eat the same thing and see the same scenery every day – rather than the dull masculine descriptions of time and weather. The faithful replica of the tiny bunks in dark lighting with creaking noises and a swinging lamp to indicate pitch and roll is perhaps a little too colourful and actually quite nausea-inducing.

Toytown has collections of eerie-looking toys that children used to play with. Sombre soldiers, garish painted wagons and sailor-suited dolls are among the curiosities. There are no pastel colours or soft fluffy animals – my, how times have changed.

Apparently there used to be a TV studio in Dunedin and it was here that the New Zealand version of Playschool was filmed. In addition to the familiar British characters, it featured a Māori doll called Manu (replacing Hamble, whom no one ever liked anyway) and a kiwi called Grubber.

Big Ted, Jemima, Manu and Humpty are displayed at Te Papa, and Dunedin gets the leftovers: a prototype of Humpty, Grubber, and a headless Little Ted. The sign next to the cabinet says that Little Ted was ‘tragically blown up’.

Further investigation – well, the woman at reception – led me to discover that he was actually blown up by the film crew on completion of the final series. So the decapitated body is in a glass case to terrify children, although they’re probably desensitised to such things these days, and to traumatise adults.

I stumbled out from the macabre murder mystery to the freezing winds of the town’s streets and roamed about admiring the architecture and the hardy plants and flowers.

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