Bryan Jackson, raconteur and cultural magpie, stops in front of a display case and points to a wooden box brimming with clay Daker marbles. “That’s the guts of the museum,” he says. “Half of those marbles date from my childhood.”
“They are the seeds of all this, then,” I suggest, gesturing at the riotous press of exhibits. He nods, pleased by the phrase, and makes an note on a jotter pad.
Jackson, 62, is a knot of nervous energy, and gives the impression that hyperactivity is what has sustained him ever since, at the age of six, he began winning marbles at school and using them for commercial gain. He progressed to trading coins and stamps, selling manuka stakes and clothesline props, repairing and selling wrecked bicycles, and eventually starting what became the country’s largest caravan company. He ran it for 37 years, using the income to fund his increasingly expensive hobby: collecting things.
After opening a much smaller museum in Mt Wellington, Jackson moved in 1991 to a derelict art deco post office in the picturesque Auckland suburb of Devonport—itself something of a throwback to a less hurried era. He lives upstairs with his wife Robynne in the postmaster’s flat.
There is no mistaking the museum—more correctly, Jackson’s Museum of Automobilia, Sounds, Victoriana & Collectables. Its pristine white exterior, alive with fluttering flags and new awning and topped by bright red telephone boxes for turrets, revitalises the main street with a playful elegance.
But the real surprise is inside. Skilfully extended and refurbished, the building opens up into large, brightly lit galleries packed, decorated—festooned is the word—with jewels from the past. The exuberance, the vivid colours, the fairground music—the happiest music on earth, Jackson calls it—the endless parade of novelties, give the place the feel of Santa’s workshop; a warehouse of childhood memories. Which perhaps explains why the young find the place irresistible.
Some 15;000 exhibits documenting the country’s colonial heritage vie for attention: an 1873 New Excelsior lawnmower here, a Dutch parlour stove there. A rare 1910 German vacuum cleaner looking uncannily like a World War One howitzer. Soap cylinder records—yes, despite the fact that most histories of recorded music start at wax. A wooden sewage pipe found in Otahuhu and dating from the 1850s. A 1922 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. (There are 12 classic and vintage cars in all, among them a Straight Eight Studebaker limo and a V12 Rolls Royce sports sedan in which Jackson chauffered Elton John around on various Auckland visits.)
There is a complete British Crown Hotel pub bar dating from 1862. Threatened by motorway construction, it was shipped out from England, reassembled by Jackson and his helper of 31 years Paul Graham, and stocked with pub paraphernalia.
Jackson estimates he has around 1000 items that can be seen nowhere else in the world, including a Doulton Lambeth vase signed by the company’s top designer Hanna Barlow. Experts estimate there are 21 Doulton Lambeth water filters in the southern hemisphere, says Jackson, and his museum has 13 of them.
Which points to an underlying philosophy of the museum: more is more. “One old hotwater bottle may not be much. But put 183 bottles together, all of them different, and something starts to happen,” says Jackson. He has done the same with newel posts—the carved base posts of staircases; with porcelain and brass bed knobs and with Victorian fairy lights. All up, some 40 per cent of the museum’s collections are not in other museums as collections, he claims.
Like all good experiences of discovery, Jackson’s “collection of collections” abounds in unexpected juxtapositions and satisfying logic. A Chinese whisky bottle, mah Jong sets and related oriental objects sit—where else?—in a carved Chinese display case. Ceramic insulators are paraded on an old power pole. A kauri grave-header dated 1883 and rescued from a Thames rubbish tip is displayed with kauri gum plaited to resemble human hair and a “Kauri” brand Victorian toilet.
There is a ceiling-high wall of convict bricks, one found in a Shortland Street well, another from Fort Street where the wharf once stood. There are bricks with thumb prints to identify their makers, and others incised with diamonds or hearts.
The embossed lettering of glass bottles has been painted white to make the words legible. Elsewhere items arc overwritten with explanations, or have labels attached. “We have turned ourselves inside out to make humble things interesting,” he says. Here and there untouched pieces sit next to their refurbished kin, a testimony to the restorer’s art.
Needless to say, the $3.5 million complex, dedicated to Jackson’s brother, an RAF pilot killed in World War Two, has not been an easy project to complete. Even now, its economic viability is in doubt, thanks to endless bureaucratic red tape which Jackson claims amounts to a malicious attempt by a small group of councillors and Historic Places Trust members to close him down.
Out front, on an octagonal telephone box, and beside a turn-of-the-century cast iron one, Jackson has posted photocopied evidence of the legal nightmare, along with letters in defence of what supporters see as a threatened heritage museum of world standing.
A clue to its future stands behind the post office building. There, on one of Jackson’s caravans, is a family crest with the motto “Finis Coronat Opus”—”The end crowns the work.” A person with the foresight and the energy to rescue artefacts from tips, to tote home seats, pillars and tiles from His Majesty’s Theatre as it was being demolished—you’ll see these pieces at Jackson’s, and nowhere else—will surely endure.
My gaze again falls on the cabinet of marbles—on the aggies, shooters, glassies, steelies and clambroths. I can’t help wondering where the treasures of today’s children would find such a welcoming home.