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No other New Zealand city has a student culture as vibrant and distinctive as Dunedin, says the organiser of a new exhibition on "scarfies".

Scarfies: Otago Student Culture, which opened at Otago Museum this week, blends humour, politics and the feel of a freezing flat to give people a taste of southern student life.

"Dunedin definitely has a reputation as a social university as much as a place to learn and gain a degree," said exhibition curator Ian Wards.

"Scarfiedom is part-mythology and part-reality. There's this myth propagated by people like Marc Ellis but there's truth to it, too."

He said the reasons Otago's student culture had developed the way it had included Dunedin's small size, the fact that many students came from other areas and were away from their parents for the first time, and the fact that most lived in north Dunedin, close to the campus.

The term "scarfie" seemed to have been around for only 20 to 30 years, Mr Wards said.

It evolved after students started wearing scarfs as a fashion item in the 1960s.

Some of the other traditions passed from one generation to another are also highlighted in the exhibition.

Apart from sports events, there were various initiation ceremonies in which "freshers" could get wet, drunk and covered in flour, eggs or treacle.

The Selwyn College hall of residence was renowned for its all-male ballet, established in 1928, and since 1935, freshers there could take part in the Leith Run, tripping their way down the Water of Leith while being pelted with flour and eggs.

While internal assessment had increased the workload for many students, meaning they did not have time to build floats for a parade, said Mr Wards, the capping carnival was a "huge" event until the 1970s, with students in costume parading down George St and causing general mayhem.

The capping show and magazine were often "very laddish", he said. By the late 1960s and early 1970s the latter could be described as "soft porn" and the most notorious magazine, Thrust, in 1981, caused huge controversy.

Women were starting to outnumber men for the first time on campus and there was tension between them and the "boozing, conservative male faction".

Protests were also part of the student culture. In 1958, about 400 people, mainly students, marched up George St in opposition to nuclear arms. Later demonstrations centred on the Vietnam War and the 1981 Springbok Tour.

"These days student life is a lot more insular and protests are about student-centred things such as fees and loans."

One of Mr Wards' favourite photos in the exhibition shows John Dawson, now professor of law at Otago, leaning against the Hocken building around 1979 beside graffiti which reads: "Let's all play middle-class intellectuals."

Also featured in the exhibition are furniture from flats, a student's scarf and blazer from 1937, and video footage of people recalling their student days.

Visitors will be encouraged to write down stories of their own time at the institution.