Wellington’s ‘own place’

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Guy Robinson

Shipwright George Bennett was scoffed at when, after arriving in Wellington in 1848, he bought land on Windy Point. Now known as Stewart Dawson’s Corner, where pedestrians turn from Willis Street into Lambton Quay, it was then on the waterfront—a place “around which, in a tearing northerly or high sea, it was often impossible to pass, especially if encumbered with a crinoline.”

No problem for Bennett. He set to work with pick-axe and shovel to widen the roadway, tossing the spoil into the harbour. He later claimed to be the first “reclamation pioneer” of Wellington Harbour. Many others followed his example to turn this area into the most valuable real estate in the city.

Bennett’s story is just one of a hundred tales of early Wellingtonians to be told on a portrait wall at the historic Bond Store building on Queens Wharf, home to the new Museum of Wellington City & Sea.

The former maritime museum re-opened in November 1999 after 18 months of earthquake strengthening, restoration and refit, with a broader brief as the city’s first permanent showcase for its history.

One of the features of the new museum is its emphasis on storytelling. Objects and interpretive panels weave together the strands that make up Wellington: the city, the harbour and the people, both past and present. Museum director Ken Scadden says that Wellington has never had a “place of its own,” and hopes visitors will find a “freshness and crispness” about the stories as they’re brought together for the first time.

One of those stories is about the building itself, which was built in 1892 and was the bond store, where all goods unloaded from the port were stored until duty had been paid on them. While you won’t find any kegs of whisky or gunpowder here today, you can still see the numbered bays where they were once held.

A re-creation of the Bond Store, complete with boxes and barrels and even a stray rat, is the first area experi­enced by visitors entering the museum. The store leads into three floors of galleries linked by an open staircase backed by a giant cinema screen on which a sequence of short historical films is projected.

The ground-floor gallery covers early Maori and European settlement through to modern times. Objects with associated stories are linked in an attempt to capture the flavour of the city. For example, there’s a section on disasters, featuring the bell from the Wahine, a fireman’s uniform and a seismic isolator. The last of these, designed to protect buildings against earthquakes (and used beneath the Bond Store itself), was invented by Wellingtonian Bill Robinson.

In the Maori section, two giant totara carvings flanking a tukutuku panel illustrate the story of Te Whanganui a Tara (Wellington Harbour). On one carving is the great Polynesian demigod Maui with the line and hook he used to pull up the North Island. Below him lie the two taniwha who created the harbour.

On the other carving is Kupe, supposedly the first human to enter the harbour. He is shown with the octopus Te Wheke o Muturangi, which kept stealing his bait on fishing trips and which he chased down the east coast of the North Island. Also depicted are two daughters (or possibly nieces), Matiu and Makaro, who accompanied him on the trip and after whom two islands in the harbour are named (they are also known as Somes and Ward Islands).

Artefacts on display in this area include a waka huia (treasure box) and a pre-European canoe prow or tauihu, both on loan from Te Papa. Close by is a greywacke patu, dug up by Wellington Harbour Board workers at the turn of the century at the Worser Bay pilot station, earlier the site of the Kakariki pa.

Early New Zealand Company history is also on display, and visitors can learn something of the Duke of Wellington, after whom the city is named. “Most people know that the duke was a soldier,” says Scadden. “But he was also a politician and a great liberal, very popular and long-lived. You could say, however, that he was geographically over­indulged—there are Wel­lingtons in all the former British colonies.”

Portraits of some of the city’s famous sons and daughters are on display in this section, too. Barry Devenport is here the first man to swim Cook Strait. So is tennis ace Kathleen Nunneley and yachtsman Russell Coutts.

On the museum’s second level a gallery entitled “By the Sea we Live” examines Wellington’s maritime history. Striking photo­graphs capture the city’s relationship with the sometimes violent seas that surround it: the helicopter rescue of crew from the stricken squid boat Yung Pen, aground on rocks at Owhiro Bay; Wanganella impaled on Barrens Reef. Sometimes a handful of objects capture the tragedy of shipwreck better than images or descriptions. Thimbles, a pocket watch and a teapot make a poignant memorial to the 18 people who lost their lives when Lastingham was lost at Cape Jackson in 1884.

The museum boasts a collection of 100 ship models, of which 20 are on display. The largest, at nearly four metres long, is a model of the four-masted barque Pamir. Splendidly crafted, with all canvas aloft, it is the work of Garry Atkinson of Silverdale, Auckland, who was taken on the vessel as a small boy by his father.

Pamir became well known in Wellington, its home port during the 1940s, after it was seized by New Zealand as a prize of war. German-built, it was used during World War Two by a Finnish entrepreneur to carry grain from Southern Australia to England.

As is the fashion with modern museums, there are a number of interactive displays, but not so many as to overwhelm the senses or lose the contemplative ambience of the place. Visitors can stand on a tilted deck in front of a picture of a wild sea and grapple with the helm, or try their hand hoisting freight with block and tackle, or operate a yacht’s grinder, which links to a video to show the effects of arm muscle on boat speed. They can pick up old-fashioned telephones and hear the stories of Wellingtonians at work around the turn of the century. There’s a bank manager in his three-piece suit, white collar and bowler hat, a ferry stewardess who looked after passengers on the Cook Strait run (and died in 1909 with 74 others on board S.S. Penguin), a hansom cab driver and four others.

A special section is devoted to the Wahine disaster—including a theatrette screening Gaylene Preston’s short documentary on the sinking, set to Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. Few who remember the tragic events of April 10, 1968, will emerge dry-eyed after viewing the film, which Preston describes as “a requiem for those who perished.”

On this floor is a com­plete captain’s cabin from Te Anau, built in 1879. First used for a passenger and cargo service across the Tasman and then as a coastaltrader, the ship was finally laid up nearly 80 years ago. In the cabin, the captain’s clock is still ticking.

In a gallery entitled “A Century Ago” on the third level, visitors can acquaint themselves with the practice of medicine in the 1800s. A macabre flipchart patented in 1887 and used to teach medical students here around the turn of the century details common diseases and conditions of the time, particularly those caused by alcohol. Scadden says that rife alcoholism spawned the temperance movement that flourished during this period.

Also on this level is a woman’s uniform (with an impossibly small waist) worn by a fundraiser for the Boer War. “This was the first real overseas war that we were involved in, and there was a real rash of patriotism, with New Zealanders clamouring to get there and fight for Britain,” comments Scadden.

Wellington was the depart­ure point for the troops, who had to raise their own funds and take their own horses with them. After examining the riches of three floors of exhibits, I found myself drawn back to the portrait wall. I read about Ellen Mary Carwood, born in 1907, who spent the first few years of her life on a coal hulk in the harbour. Her mother, Henrietta, though hating the dirt and discom­fort, wore long dresses and starched white aprons,because “a woman should never wear trousers.”

Then there’s John Luke, born in 1858, whose family firm put their engineering stamp on everything from the wharf cranes to the gates of Brooklyn’s central park and the lighthouse at Cape Palliser. As Luke would have it: “God made New Zealand, but engineers made Wellington.”

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