The Carnegie Models of Whanganui Regional Museum

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie

As I prepare to leave New Zealand I am, not surprisingly, thinking about Andrew Carnegie and his contribution to uplifting an understanding and appreciation of culture in the United States and further afield.  In 1911 he established Carnegie Corporation of New York to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” Carnegie Corporation has helped establish or endowed a variety of institutions, including twenty-five hundred Carnegie libraries in the United States and abroad (including a smattering across New Zealand). I’ve heard that discussion was had back in the day for a Carnegie library in Whanganui, but it never went ahead. However, Carnegie Corporation nevertheless had an influence here through Whanganui Regional Museum, by way of a series of display models of Maori life, which the Corporation funded.

In 1995 Michelle Horwood, at that time Curator at the Museum, published the following about these models.

The Carnegie Displays  In 1936 a system of exchange displays was established in eight New Zealand museums with funding provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Whanganui Regional Museum took part in the exchange of displays which continued for six years and the Museum curator, George Shepherd, designed and created a number of models of Maori activities. The displays enabled special features in the collection of one museum to be seen in other centers as well as providing an opportunity for the special knowledge of staff from one museum to be available more widely. George Shepherd prepared accurate and detailed models of a range of Maori activities:

  • Maori fishing gear
  • Maori rat traps
  • Maori methods of eel and lamprey fishing
  • Maori methods of tree felling
  • Maori canoe bailers
  • Ancient methods of snaring birds
Eel traps (hinake) along the Whanganui River, one of the set of models created with a grant from Carnegie Foundation of New York
Eel traps (hinake) along the Whanganui River, one of the set of models created with a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York

The honorary director of the time, Mr J Grant, and the curator, George Shepherd, planned from the beginning to follow the theme of Maori techniques throughout the six displays. In some displays actual objects are used; where this was not possible, scale models are set up in which are employed exactly the same materials as were used by Maori. Due to the success of these displays for educational purposes, several copies were made for other museums.

Through the assistance of the Carnegie Trust a number of major benefits to New Zealand museums resulted. These included the establishment of a schools’ service and the appointment of education officers in the four metropolitan museums, as well as the provision of a grant for the building of the Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery following the destruction of the Napier Museum by the 1931 earthquake.

Carnegie Model 2
Canoe building, another one of the “Carnegie Models”.

I remember coming to see these models almost a decade before I ended up leading the Museum. They were a feature of the Museum’s bi-cultural offer that impressed me, as well as gave me insight to a way of life that mostly long disappeared.They are intricate scale models made from close approximations of traditional materials. They have been on display continuously for at least the last 50 years and still form a well-enjoyed aspect of the Museum’s education programming.

As I gear up to take my place in my new role at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, there’s a lovely sense of symmetry to be thinking once again about these objects, which represent the cultural history not only of local Maori of its Museum and – now – a bit of my own history thrown in.

Carnegie Corporation of New York has contributed to all kinds of human endeavor over the past century. I know that, in this instance, the contribution has touched many reconnect with their past and those of their ancestors and will continue to enrich the lives for generations to come.

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