Reflections on Whanganui

Castlcliff sand comp 15
Scene from a short film by Progress Castlecliff

The other day I was sent a beautiful short film of the Castlecliff Driftwood and Sand Sculpture Competition for 2105. As I gear up to leave Whanganui in a month, it’s started me thinking about what being here has meant and what I’ve learned along the way. It’s the last place I will live on what has been a 25 year voyage of discovery away from the United States. In a way, this competition exemplifies much of what has been enjoyable and inspirational about being here: families enjoying the stunning landscape of Whanganui together, doing something creative.

Canoeing the Whanganui River. Photo: Journeys on the Whanganui

When I first came to Whanganui, it was to canoe down the River with a bunch of friends over a long Easter weekend. Paddling silently through the breathtaking plant-encrusted gorges is a memory that will stay with me forever. Perhaps my enthusiasm for the river was one of the reasons I was invited to lead Whanganui Regional Museum. That emotional connection was certainly something I was able to draw on in my years there, and set the stage for a deep connection with the community. Both the role and the connection have been have been stimulating from start to finish. And the former could not have been possible without the latter.

Enjoying the Moa Gallery, not long after opening.
Enjoying the Moa Gallery, not long after opening.

I’ve tried to pick out some of the many highlights from being in Whanganui as a exercise to think about what it meant and why. Shying resolutely away from superlatives (and in no particular order), here are some of the things I will take with me with a sense of accomplishment, camaraderie and pride. The first of these has to be the Moa Gallery, which took advantage of an unsung collection strength. Years after identifying this, we are left with a world-class open storage space, generously funded by the Lotteries Commission and corporate sponsorship. We also have in-house expertise to leverage the wonderful collection to its fullest extent – now something that helps to put us on the map, both locally and further afield. It’s a huge satisfaction to be able to walk through something that just a few short years ago was just a good idea.

Museum International - just out this year
Museum International – just out. The hei tiki “Te Ara Whiti” features on the front cover.

Another project which has just recently come to fruition is the publication, with colleagues Conal McCarthy, Arapata Hakiwai and Aawhina Twomey, of an article entitled Mana Taonga: Connecting Communities with New Zealand Museums through Ancestral Maori Culture. I try to publish a couple of papers a year, but this was special because of the immense trust that had to be earned before I could have stood publicly behind this dialogue. This is especially true because our case study surrounded the 14th century greenstone hei tiki “Te Ara Whiti”. This object is immensely valuable both as a museum artifact and as a cultural and spiritual taonga (treasure). I’m humbled at the extent to which the Maori iwi (tribes) have allowed me in, despite a few early blunders! That trust and connection is something that cannot be manufactured.

Whanganui Regional Museum logo. Click on the picture to see the interactive dimension.

Perhaps one significant first step on developing that relationship was the Museum’s re-branding exercise, which I led with the participation of the very talented design group Inferno. It’s exciting on a number of levels. First of all, it is in the shape of our historic waka (war canoe) “Te Mata-o-Hoturoa”. Each of the shapes that it comprises is an object in the museum. Visitors can follow a link which allows you to roll over an enlarged version and see descriptions of these objects. Visitors can also write in and ask the Museum to change elements based on objects they think would be appropriate to tell a different part of the Whanganui story. The style of the logo, as well as the elements portrayed within it, were the product of extensive consultation with the community. The result is a well-loved image in which the entire community can feel a vested interest.

House of bones. Is it fair to pick favorites?
House of bones. Is it fair to pick favorites?

In terms of exhibitions, House of Bones had to have been the work in which I was most involved creatively. It’s a work-through mystery game, in which players (typically between the ages of 6 and 60) have to hunt for clues associated with animal skeletons set in a beautifully designed – and slightly spooky – Edwardian house. There are boxes and drawers to open, cleverly hidden labels to read, along with an attic area lined with genuine old newspapers, the foundation of a special side game. The idea is beautifully simple – visitors carry out the story, drive their own learning and soak the immersive environment, all without the use of didactic labels (they carry the game in with them) or high-tech gadgetry. Of course, there is the occasional “new evidence” that comes in, refreshing the game and offering a new crop of sleuths the chance of a reward. In this case, as it so often does, constraints have led to a wonderful innovation.

WRM personnel at Christmas
A few of the wonderful people at WRM with some of the fare for which they are justifiably famous.

Finally, it’s the people who have made this experience so special. Over the past four and half years, the staff of Whanganui Regional Museum have treated me (and each other) like family, with all the ribbing, humor, pulling together and loyalty that that entails. Because of them the time has really flown by.

Likewise, the Joint Council, especially our Chair Adam Kerse and the members of the Whanganui Regional Museum Foundation, all of whom give their time voluntarily to the Museum are an immense and ongoing support. The other volunteers add differently, but no less substantively. Over the time I’ve been here, Whanganui has also been fortunate to have Mayor Annette Main at the head of the District’s governance. Her vision to involve the community authentically in economic development initiatives has been inspirational. There are so many people that have become friends. The vats of coffee we have drunk (and probably crates of cake) have been the context for philosophical debate, creative projects and lasting memories. Ki ngaa tangata ataahua, noho ora mai…

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