My Favourite Building

Acukland museum lit blue.

Auckland Museum's exterior is lit in remembrance of those who served and died in war, and to mark significant events.

Images of the beautifully-lit exterior of Auckland’s museum have featured online and in traditional media outlets in recent months. For a select number of significant global, national or community events each year we offer up something special – to reflect the interests of Aucklanders.

We have customarily lit the building a somber red for ANZAC Day to pay respect to those who gave their lives.  In recent months we’ve provided customised lighting for events such as the return of Team New Zealand, Matariki, the Auckland Pride Festival, the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation and the birth of William and Kate’s first child.

On the evening of Saturday 12 October however, as part of our Passchendaele commemorations, the exterior of the museum will intentionally not be lit.  In just two days in October 1917, the Battle of Passchendaele saw New Zealand suffer its greatest ever military losses.  More than 840 New Zealanders died and some 3000 casualties were recorded.  To mark this extraordinary sacrifice, the museum exterior will “go dark” on Saturday night.

Prompted by media coverage about the lighting of the building of late, I penned the following tribute which I hope you will enjoy.  It’s entitled “My Favourite Building”.

New Zealand’s contribution to the First World War was literally second to none. From a population of fewer than a million people, 1 in 5 travelled 12,000 miles to fight – and in so many tragic cases to die – in a war triggered by politics in far-away Europe.

After the end of WWI, our forefathers hatched a plan for a memorial on a scale to match the sacrifices, both – obviously – in the trenches and less obviously, but in many ways more deeply etched, on the home front. They conceived a building of classical Greco-Roman design, with a commanding north elevation that speaks clearly of commemoration and remembrance. It stands with serene authority on the very edge of one of Auckland’s more than 50 long-extinct volcanic cones, facing the Waitemata and prominent from the waters of the harbour and the Hauraki Gulf beyond; visible to generations of travellers by sea and a landmark for the people of the extended province of Auckland.

Back in 1929 when construction was completed, the views were unobstructed from right around the compass. More recently, the skyline of the bustling city to the west of The Domain distracts the eye, while a variety of trees and notably many beautiful Pohutukawa have softened the surrounding landscape. The vegetation, the bush and the grassy slopes provide a mature and soothing natural environment. The building seems at times to nestle, but it loses none of its distinctiveness; and our forefathers’ intention is a clear as ever.

The soaring columns of the memorial, fashioned by skilled craftsmen from stone brought by sea from England, convey with undiminished and eloquent determination the complex twin messages: “we will remember them” and “a war to end all wars”. The first remains the abiding purpose, day by day, year on year; lasting and in perpetuity. The second is a resonant plea, handed down from that generation of the post-Great War families; it remains our ideal, an elusive goal in our supposedly civilized society. Inside, through the Grand Foyer with its sense of the invincibility of the human spirit, the visitor ascends to a sanctuary that bears the names and records the terrible impact of war.

After the awful loss of more than 4,000 Aucklanders in the Second World War, the people of this Pacific city once again raised a massive subscription to extend the memorial. By the 1960s the building had almost doubled in size, extending southwards to a graceful curving counterpoint. Meanwhile, within, the design incorporated a ‘Hall of Memories’ – more names, more emblems – and a single marble section bearing the hopeful echo of our long-lived ideal: “let these panels never be filled”.

During a stroll around the perimeter of the building – north, south, east and west – each battle comes to the eye through the stonemasons’ inscriptions above the windows. New Zealand has more than done her bit and the stories are told all-too clearly; the military and social histories are not locked in archives, they are hand-crafted in stone and available to the busiest readers as they hurry by.  This is indeed a building that speaks for itself; that offers pause for thought; that reaches towards us from the courageous people of our past.

By virtue of its inspiring position, near the sky, and through its engaging proportions and surprising gracefulness for its scale, it offers reassurance. It is a constant in a changing world. Sometimes lit at night to reflect important causes; always available as a place for Aucklanders to connect with their history and ponder the future; a whare taonga; a soft place for the exchange of hard ideas, with space for story-telling; and above all – ‘we will remember them’ – an abiding reminder that we must all try harder to fight for peace.

Based on an article published in Heritage New Zealand magazine.

February 22, 2013

Posted by:

Roy Clare

All, From the Director


Rising from the ruins

Today, 22 February, our country recalls the magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch that killed 185 people and injured several thousand two years ago. The earthquake occurred more than five months after the first in September 2010, but it is considered to be an aftershock. The pair of quakes are among the most significant natural disasters in New Zealand history.

Our thoughts and prayers will be with those tens of thousands of New Zealanders and many others whose lives have been changed forever by the experiences; these numbers including many colleagues among our staff and volunteers here in the museum.

Reflecting on that, and having recently visited Hawkes Bay, I recalled a date in February 82 years ago when New Zealand’s deadliest earthquake devastated the cities of Napier and Hastings. Our own collections hold images of the devastation that was caused including these Tudor Collins images 

View of earthquake fissures running down a road. Two cars have toppled into the cracks and two men look on.

View of earthquake fissures running down a road. Two cars have toppled into the cracks and two men look on.

Building ruins after the Napier earthquake

Building ruins after the Napier earthquake

More building ruins - a family home

More building ruins - a family home

A birds-eye view capturing some of the scale of devastation in Napier

A birds-eye view capturing some of the scale of devastation in Napier

Christchurch City Libraries website has an interesting feature, from where I have edited the following notes:

At least 256 people died in the magnitude 7.8 earthquake; many thousands more required medical treatment. HMS Veronica had just berthed in Napier’s inner harbour when the earthquake hit. The Captain at first thought there had been an explosion on board, but then saw the wharf twisting, and beyond it houses and other buildings crumpling to the ground. Dust rose in clouds from the shattered buildings, making it difficult for people to breathe; huge splits appeared in the roads. 

Telephone and telegraph lines were down in Hawke’s Bay, so information about the earthquake and requests for help had to be sent by wireless operatos onboard Veronica and other ships. The sailors from Veronica and other ships in the area collected supplies of food and other goods from the evacuated buildings in Napier and took them to the emergency camp and hospital set up at Greenmeadows. This camp stayed in operation for six weeks after the earthquake.  

Napier was officially evacuated. With water and sewage pipes out of action, the risk of disease was high. Over 5000 people left the city, including many of the injured that could be moved. Half-destroyed buildings were completely demolished in the interests of safety. Explosives were used to make a hole in the cemetery big enough for 54 coffins in the first burial service. When Napier was rebuilt, the streets were widened and the services improved, including the installation of New Zealand’s first underground power system.

As we all know, central Napier was reconstructed to reflect the architectural fashion of the time, Art Deco. Visiting Napier today, there is encouragement to those who now dedicate their lives and energies to see Christchurch re-built. Do spare a moment to remind ourselves of the ambitious plans as they currently stand: Christchurch Development Unit

Given the traditionally gutsy Kiwi resolve, No8 wire and all, the city will be re-built, but let’s pause for a moment on Friday … in doing so we can communicate our energy and spur on the efforts. We can be confident that – like Napier – Christchurch will rise again.

Napier today

Napier today

And especially let’s lend a moment of reflection to those known to us, particularly colleagues of our museum and friends, who suffer still and whose courage will be part of re-generating the future for a proud and important city at the heart of all New Zealanders.

Voyages & versions: remembering the Orpheus 150 years on

Whatipu - looking out to the Manukau Bar where the Orpheus sank taking 189 lives

Whatipu - looking out to the Manukau Bar where the Orpheus sank taking 189 lives

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” CS Lewis

Standing on Whatipu Beach yesterday with colleagues from our museum and more than a hundred others, it seemed to me that CS Lewis had it about right. Commemorating the heart-rending loss of life on Manukau Bar 150 years ago, we were reminded of the many perspectives that surround daily life.

There is no dispute over the core facts: HMS ORPHEUS foundered in fair weather on 7 February 1863; 189 lives were lost or unaccounted for; the tragedy remains New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster. But the circumstances are another matter.

In his speech yesterday, Taumata member Te Warena Taua reminded us that the ship was perceived by his people as a threatening force; nevertheless, courageous Maori made a major contribution to saving life, with recognition both in cash and in medals awarded by the Royal Humane Society.

Auckland Museum Director Roy Clare and Taumata member Te Warena Taua at the site of the Orpheus commemorations

Auckland Museum Director Roy Clare and Taumata member Te Warena Taua at the site of the Orpheus commemorations

Another speaker narrated the role of the taniwha in shaping the coastline, with its treacherous sandbanks and ever-changing topography.

We heard about Commodore Burnett, in command of the ship, who perished and was later buried with military honours in the cemetery in Symonds Street (don’t look for his tomb, the motorway has displaced it); and of the young man ignored in the ship’s brig, Frederick Butler, the quartermaster who knew the bar and could see from his cell that the ship was on the wrong track. Despite centuries of tradition – if a ship grounds, the Captain takes the rap – Burnett escaped censure, with the Admiralty laying blame instead on local harbourmaster Edward Wing. The Royal Navy’s failure to acknowledge the navigational errors made by ORPHEUS remains a rankling echo of the Victorian empire’s capacity to patronise its colonies.

A photograph of the tomb of the late Commodore Burnett in Auckland. The tomb was sent to landfill when the Newton motorway was developed. Higginson Montagu 1863

A photograph of the tomb of the late Commodore Burnett in Auckland. The tomb was sent to landfill when the Newton motorway was developed. Higginson Montagu 1863

Meanwhile local Maori recollect that one day before the wreck a pakeha settler had felled a sacred puriri tree and used the wood for fence posts, an action that violated tapu and led to the disaster.

A news piece about yesterday’s commemorations, which ran on Nightline last night, captures some of the scale of the disaster, the lasting impacts of the tragedy and the fact the different versions of the story remain

Whatever the point of view, the huge loss of life that day 150 years ago was a human tragedy on a great scale. Many of those who perished were very young indeed (the average age for the entire crew was less than 23) and most from land-lubber backgrounds could not swim. We know that many sang the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ as they clung to the masts and bravely awaited their fate. We sang that yesterday, too, and said a prayer in memory of those lost and those who still mourn. Together with Murray Reade, CEO of Voyager Maritime Museum, I laid a wreath on behalf of both museums. The Coastguard took the wreaths out to the Bar a mile or so from the beach where we were gathered; as we sang ‘Abide by Me‘, the crew dropped them into the water where the Orpheus and so many of her complement were lost. Whatever the perspectives, we were all united around a single idea: to commemorate the lives of those lost on that fateful day in 1863 and to pause to reflect on their sacrifice.

Wreaths from Auckland Museum and Voyager Museum were taken out to sea by the Coastguard and laid at the site where the Orpheus and so many of her crew were lost

Wreaths from Auckland Museum and Voyager Museum were taken out to sea by the Coastguard and laid at the site where the Orpheus and so many of her crew were lost

Anyone interested in learning more about the Orpheus could also look into Auckland Museum’s collections – which features several items including a letter to the Caption of the Wonga Wonga, Captain Renner, who is credited with saving many lives of Orpheus crew and a photo of Renner – or read the fascinating first person accounts in the Papers Past online archives

Matariki, a tradition handed down through generations

Tena koutou katoa,

Recently a member of the public wrote and asked why the Museum is celebrating Matariki, which they described as “a modern invention”.

I replied that Matariki is not a modern invention, it is a tradition that has been handed down through generations. It has been suppressed for a time, but people now feel more liberated, free to participate and able to choose connectedness and to learn more about a wide range of points of view.

I wrote: “Our month-long programme illuminates cultural and social facets and reflects scientific origins in the way-finding experiences of early peoples. Our literature invites people to explore themes and activities and to consider the ways that people pass on and sustain aspects of their culture and heritage; an opportunity for communities to come together to tell stories, sing, dance and do creative work; spreading understanding about the customs and practices of New Zealand’s first settlers; exploring the consequences of the migration of peoples and ideas…….”

One of the Museum’s jobs is to give people access to collections, to enable interchange and encourage the exploration of themes. Our Matariki programme just does that and has been has been attracting many people.

Wananga Maunga: Hikoi up Maunga Whau (Mt Eden)

Wananga Maunga: Hikoi up Maunga Whau (Mt Eden)

For example, in the first of our series of wananga ‘beyond the walls’, people joined us up Maunga Whau (Mt Eden) to hear perspectives on what our mountains represent, with colourful inputs from archaeologist Louise Furey, tangata whenua  Pita Turei and volcanologist Jan Lindsay.

Last Saturday the focus shifted to Takaparawha (Bastion Point), where we explored native plant regeneration and learned about medicinal properties of native flora and fauna, with inspiration from botanist Ewen Cameron, tangata whenua and horticulturalist Char Wiapo and rongoa specialist Rob McGowan.

Ewen made the important point that the Museum’s collections and their records connect people and knowledge across generations. In this case, it was the methodical work to create the herbarium by the distinguished past Museum director, Thomas Cheeseman (who was secretary of the Museum Institute and Curator for almost 50 years until his death in 1923). His work now enables people to know what was growing at Orakei in times before urbanisation and in turn to plan a restoration that suits the land, the birds, the plants and the people who make their home there; whakamana, nga taonga tuku iho, hei whakataki i nga ra ki muri … honouring the past, embracing the present, guiding our future.

Grass specimens Thomas Cheesman (pictured) collected at Orakei Point in Oct 1878.

Grass specimens Thomas Cheesman (pictured) collected at Orakei Point in Oct 1878.

This coming Saturday more of our audience will have an opportunity to participate in the Wananga Puoro, led by Curator Maori Chanel Clarke and Taumata member Bernard Makoare around Auckland Zoo and the newly opened Te Wao Nui a Tane native bird sanctuary.