Auckland War Memorial Museum turns 90 on Thursday, November 28. Here Ruth Spencer imagines the museum as a woman turning 90, looking back on what she's seen and heard.
Ninety years seem to have gone by in rather a flash. I can't say I feel at all old; I'm having some work done at the moment, just to freshen up you know and then I'm looking forward to the next 90.
Of course, it's not the museum itself that's turning 90, just me, the War Memorial building. I'm what they kindly call a neo-classical masterpiece, although I prefer to think of myself as a north-facing charmer with sea views and excellent bones.
There was an international contest to design me and I think they did rather well. The architect team who won were all local boys who'd served in World War I – two had lost brothers. I couldn't have been more proud of Hugh, Ken and Keith. You may know them better as Grierson, Aimer and Draffin but they're family to me.
It's all quite fascinating – they did the most wonderful job of incorporating Māori designs and patterns into the Greco-Roman architecture. Taiaha spear heads in the Greek key border motifs, kawakawa leaves instead of laurel in the bronze wreath. At the opening ceremony, the Governor-General knocked on my tall bronze doors with a mere to command them to open for the first time.
Did you know our cenotaph outside is a smaller replica of the Whitehall monument in London? Kenneth Aimer had a sketch he had made of it on a visit and Keith Draffin went to the cinema every night for a week to see it on the newsreels and fill in the gaps. Imagine sitting there at the flicks waiting for the bit about the monument to come on, then furiously sketching in the dark for the few seconds it's on the screen! That was the only way to get a look at it. These days it probably has its own Instagram. Keith and his son, Rodney Fox Draffin, were actually the ones who designed my extensions after World War II, although I don't think Keith went to the movies for ideas that time!
Being rather classical, I like to think I have an air of timelessness about me but inside things have been constantly changing. Before long I gained a cafe and a planetarium, Keith Holyoake opened my lecture hall (there seemed to be more Keiths around back then) and then, of course, in the 90s. I had quite a lot of work done for seismic strengthening which I was very glad of. I also got a stylish new atrium and dome. Someone compared my dome to a wavy potato chip, which I didn't really appreciate but I find some people don't properly understand a fetching hat.
Before I was born, the museum was housed in a little farm labourer's cottage on Grafton Rd. It had just two rooms, one for the exhibits and one for the curator - a cosy sort of arrangement although I feel you'd never be quite sure which drawer was beetles and which was underwear. It was set up by John Smith after he'd organised a collection of New Zealand exhibits for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The growing collection was moved to the Provincial Council Building in 1867 before moving once again to the old Post Office building in Princes St, which had the charming benefit of looking like a two-room farm cottage without actually being one. They built a more impressive building to house the collection next door but people were very keen about gathering exhibits and soon it was bursting at the seams again.
Thomas Cheeseman was in charge in those days and, although he was never curator under my roof, it's really him that I have to thank for being here. Thomas was such a force of nature and really a force for nature too. There was no university in Auckland when he left school, so he taught himself botany and did such a good job of it that he became internationally recognised. Darwin wrote to him about the perplexing pollination habits of orchids. Thomas was always travelling and collecting new exhibits and the passion spread to his family – when the museum could not afford a taxidermist his sister Emma learned how to do it at home; I still have her work on display. Admirable but you can't help sympathising with their maid.
Thomas Cheeseman had been tirelessly fundraising for a new museum building for a long time but it wasn't until it was combined with the public's demand to build a memorial for WWI that they managed to get the funding together. Thomas sadly died just before I was built but he had seen the artist renditions of how I would look and I know he would have been so proud of how I turned out. He left us his wonderful herbarium and a heritage of passion for New Zealand flora.
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With Thomas gone, we were very lucky to find an excellent young botanist to manage things. Have I told you about that dear young woman? Lucy Cranwell she was, when she came to be in charge of my botanic archive, aged only 21. One of my oldest friends really, a marvellous thing. Full of energy! In the 1930s she used to borrow her brother's footy shorts to climb mountains in, collecting samples and exhibits. Never a tent, just a canvas sleeping bag, waking up covered in frost. She was a world expert on lichen, which I find amusing: this energetic woman who was always running off somewhere, choosing to study something that never moves.
But she was a dyed-in-the-wool botanist. I mean that quite literally – one of her interests was using the various lichens as wool dyes. People would write to her with their own experiments too, I have in my library a letter from a lady who tried dying wool with old man's beard and wanted to show Lucy. Enclosed is a coarse tuft of yellow wool. It is rather like an old man's beard, I must say. Dare I say it reminds me of Thomas Cheeseman, whose chin cultivated a fine specimen of beardus Cheesemanii.
Things have changed a lot since the first days of Auckland museum but we still have drawers of beetles. They get around a bit, actually. When I'm having work done they get taken away to somewhere else so the vibrations don't shake their little legs off. We have to be careful of that sort of thing - and not just during construction.
In WWII, I felt rather vulnerable up here on the hill in plain sight. We sandbagged the precious waka to protect it in case of any bombing. We were lucky nothing of that nature happened here but my very existence is a reminder of war and its impact on people. New Zealand's important battles of WWI are etched into my stone - Chunuk Bair, Ypres. Names that once we had to learn to pronounce – the soldiers called Ypres "Wipers" at the time - have been an indelible part of our story for 100 years already.
So really, I'm just a spring chicken at 90. The museum itself has already celebrated its 150th birthday. What a time that was! They pulled out some of the really unique items to put on display. It's not all Greek vases and war medals and lichen round here. We had a 3D animated hologram of our Egyptian mummy. I have a collection of birds shot by Teddy Roosevelt. Not everyone can say that – or, to be fair, wants to.
I have my favourite memories, of course, but what I find is that everyone has something different they're most fond of. Some people love Rajah the elephant and the dinosaur skeletons are always popular. There's a lingering nostalgia for the piled-high ham sandwiches in the original cafe, which were famous in their own right. Many people enjoy the volcano room, with the virtual eruption experience in the little house. The children's natural history area is a delight too, because the little ones can actually touch things and get involved, which is of course how people come to love things and how Thomas and Lucy got their start in science.
I think the loveliest thing is that my collections are really everyone's. Right from the start they made a handbill asking for specimens for exhibits and people brought along whatever interesting thing they thought might be useful. We have things both humble and sublime, from that little tuft of dyed wool to the magnificent Hotunui, the carved meeting house built as a wedding gift, on loan to us from Ngāti Maru since 1925.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that I might prefer the past to the future, being a grand old neo-Classical thing on a hill and everything but the future is so exciting. We're doing as much listening as we are storytelling, finding out more about some of our collections. We have a Pacific Collection Access Project, inviting knowledge holders from island communities to interact with the taonga we have, reconnecting them with their treasures and finding out more information about them.
We're making all sorts of things available online so they can be experienced by people outside of me, outside of Auckland or even outside New Zealand. There's a 3D scan of our moa that people can download to their 3D printers, so they can print out a little model of a moa. It's funny to think people used to send in exhibits to us for display and now we can just send them out like that for people to experience. And it means we can keep some of our most popular things available even when they're not on display. Some people miss Centennial Street, our old Victorian storefront display, for example – it was originally put into the department store, Milne and Choyce, for their centenary and later installed into me. It was retired in 2015 but there's a 3D walkthrough on the museum's website, so you can have a virtual wander around and click on a funeral hat or a scrimshawed whale tooth or any number of fascinating things to find out more.
And my makeover is exciting too! Next year I'll have a new cafe, shop and event space and we'll be able to pop those little beetles back where they go without fearing for their legs. It's been a marvellous 90 years. I've been surrounded by the passion of archivists and scientists and the joy of people young and old discovering our treasures. But the most wonderful thing, I think, is that I was built because of love. Love for our lost soldiers of the wars. Love for knowledge and discovery. Love of beautiful architecture. Love of our culture and heritage. Love for humanity and everything it's managed to do and create. I love being the home of Auckland museum. I do hope you'll come and see me for my anniversary.