This is the first in a series of three museum reviews from Sam McLean’s recent trip to New Zealand. He visited The Kaikoura Museum in mid-February, 2020.
To be quite honest, the Kaikoura museum was quite a surprise. My wife and I had a spare day before a wedding, and since we had spent much of the previous week doing events with my family, we decided to drive out to Kaikoura as a day trip. I’d never actually been to Kaikoura before. As a child in NZ I spent my time shuttling between the grandparents, and the Kaikoura earthquake happened just prior to Ashley and my previous trip to NZ.
I’ve never actually been to a town like Kaikoura before. It’s approximately three hours north of Christchurch, and two hours south of Picton, so it’s a good mid stop on the eastern road from the northern end of the South Island and its biggest city. Kaikoura itself is pretty much just on the very edge, between the mountains/coastal hills and the sea- which is one reason it was hit so badly by the earthquake. Now it’s quite tourism-based, with whale-watching and other similar activities. But it very much feels like it’s on the edge. And that really, is what the Kaikoura Museum conveys through its collection and its displays.
The museum itself is on the first floor of the town’s library and main civic building. It consists of three spaces. The first large space is what I think was the original display room for the museum. It’s an eclectic mix, with no clear narrative path between the groups of items and displays and photos. Around the edges are a number of displays, with large objects in the centre. Things from different periods are juxtaposed next to each other. For me this emphasizes the juxtaposition of land and sea.
This image is one of the first things that you see when you come into the main room of the museum. The kōura are so important to the area that they are also part of the root of the name of the town. There’s also quite a few objects reflecting the town’s connection to the sea. This include a number of objects related to whaling, including harpoons, a kettle for rendering whale oil, and a number of sections of spine and other artifacts of the whales themselves. There are also things like a large collection of seabird eggs and examples of crustaceans for display. One of my favourite aspects of this part of the museum were the displays where they discussed some of the rarer aspects of the environment around Kaikoura- for example there’s a very rare species of seaweed that only exists on four rocks outside the harbour.
There is a bit of a sense of everything being smushed together. For example, there’s a random display consisting of school trophies- albeit with not much explanation. There’s a soda fountain, and two printing presses (along with preserved newspapers). However, there’s not much information about the origins of these objects. I hope that in the future the museum has some kind of digital interface or catalogue so that people who visit the museum can learn more about the origins of the collection.
The other main part of the museum focuses on the 2016 earthquake, in a special exhibition titled New Normal. On one wall is a long explanation of how the earthquake started and moved through the earth, and how its energies were felt and experienced.This image is of a quilt by Mary Simpson, which is absolutely stunning in person.
The main display of the earthquake section is a three-dimensional assemblage of boxes, where each box tells one aspect or one perspective of the story. These boxes can contain images, or items, or artifacts. It’s an incredible assemblage and very much demonstrates how much different experiences there were during that troubling time. Although a much smaller room, the Earthquake display has so many interesting nooks and crannies and facets that it took as much time to look at as the other gallery.
The Kaikoura museum does also have a small archive and records room, as shown on the left. Unfortunately, they do not have an online catalogue to search, and it consists of the documents that have been donated to them rather than any systematic kind of archive. However, it is possible for the public to research within their holdings. There is also a very interesting series of of portraits as well.
I was very much surprised by how much I enjoyed my visit to the Kaikoura museum. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect- but the way that the holdings were displayed, and were organized was incredibly evocative of Kaikoura’s position on the edge of the land and sea.