Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New Zealand Museums: Good

I spent the Christmas break in northern New Zealand this year and dutifully visited a couple museums. The two museums were the Kaori Museum in Matakohe and the Auckland War Memorial Museum, incidentally in Auckland.

I must say, I was extremely impressed with the two museums. Even better than some of the world's best institutions such as those I visited in Washington DC last summer.

The Kaori Museum

Kaori is a species of tree that grows for thousands of years and is akin to the Redwoods of the North American west coast. The Kaori Museum is essentially a small town museum, entirely funded on ticket revenues and giftshop sales. It does have the good fortune of being able to sell large quantities of Kaori wood products which fetch a pretty penny. Nevertheless, any museum which runs on private funds is impressive. One that does it so well is amazing.

The museum has dozens of 'townspeople.' One for just about every role of 19th century life in New Zealand. These townspeople don't move much. Most mannequin's don't - Today's Special exempt. However, what's intriguing is that each mannequin has the face of someone who actually lives in the town. The tag might read, "This barber is modelled after Jim Smith who still lives in town and whose family ran the original barber shop in Matakohe."

Perhaps I don't get out much, but this was the first time I'd ever seen such community involvement in a museum.

I can't say enough good about this museum.

The walls are packed with old photographs - probably a large percentage of the archival holdings of the museum - each with a caption that viewers can choose to read or to ignore. Dozens of artifacts are on display, including many tools which I was allowed to try out - at least, I did try out and nobody said anything. Sensors in the walls took note of passing visitors and initiated coversations with some of the townspeople.

Needless to say, I was impressed.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum

I actually only got a chance to pop into the Museum, so I really only saw a small, temporary exhibit which I think was called "behind the scenes." It certainly put the muse back into museum. The exhibit was a collection of all the weird stuff the museum had collected over the years, including a baby orangutan which is being kept in a freezer "until they get around to doing something else with it." I must say, it was cute and intriguing, in a morbid kind of way.

Oh, and there was the stuffed deer that "had been in the women's toilet in the storage area longer than anyone could remember."

Apart from the weird and wonderful, the exhibit was also artistically and technologically marvelous. A giant wall of ticking clocks was the perfect - and extremely creepy - setting for peep holes, through which users could find any number of strange things. The atmosphere that wall of clocks created was unreal.

One aspect of the exhibit involved a series of dots spaced on the floor, each infront of a series of artifacts. To my sheer amazement, when you stood exactly on the dot, you could hear a perfectly clear narrative. Move one step to the left and the sound vanished.

If you are in the museum field, these are two museums you should definitely make the effort to see. And if you're doing an internship at a Kiwi museum, you should hop on a plane up to Auckland and check it out.

Kudos to the Kiwis and their museums. They were an absolute delight and an example the world should be following.