In any museum collection you will find items or entire collections that were lent at some point in the distant past, sometimes more than a hundred years ago. It is always rewarding when a relationship is re-established with the owner and the items or collection can be returned to its rightful place. This happened to us recently at Te Papa when the Masterton Museum collection was delivered to Aratoi: Wairarapa Museum of Art and History. The story goes something like this…
The Masterton Museum was established in the early 1890s, initially just a display case in the Masterton Institute building but later housed in a building rented by the Masterton Central School. By 1953 that building required extensive repairs and a deal was made with the Dominion Museum (now known as Te Papa) to “take over all the exhibits considered reasonably worth while, would restore them where practicable, label them and give them a home in Wellington. Also that, should they be required at some future date if and when a new building were available, they would be returned to Masterton.” (Letter dated 8 September 1954)
Nearly 60 years later a small contingent of Te Papa staff made their way over the Rimutaka mountains in a truck and car, carrying 148 items identified as the Masterton Museum collection. We were met by Aratoi staff, Rangitane and Kahungunu who warmly welcomed us, and the collection, back to the Wairarapa.
The collection is wide in its composition and reflects the kind of collecting typical of the late nineteenth century. The collection consists of taonga Māori; items collected in Australia, the Pacific, Africa, Egypt, and Asia; natural history specimens (including two Huia and a number of Moa bones), as well as items with a national historical significance and those closer to home with strong Masterton or Wairarapa connections.
One of the more fascinating items is a circular ship’s biscuit made by G Wilkie & Co. Sydney. Ship’s biscuit, also known as hardtack, was a staple of a sailor’s diet. It was usually made of flour, water and salt and double or triple baked to ensure it lasted on long voyages. Sailor’s often had to soak the biscuit in liquid before they could consume it.
This particular ship’s biscuit is inscribed “from H.M.S. Galatea at Nelson NZ. April 1869. Captain H.R.H. Prince Alfred” giving us a tantalising glimpse into history. Prince Alfred, the 4th child and 2nd son of Queen Victoria, joined the Royal Navy in 1858. In 1866 he was given command of the HMS Galatea and he set off on a world tour in 1967. The Galatea arrived in Nelson on 18 April 1869. A newspaper reported “Various excursion parties in local steamers sailed around the ship. The Prince lands at 10 o’clock today [19 April 1869]. A Maori dance takes place in the afternoon and a ball at night.” The biscuit is inscribed on the back with a donor’s name; possibly “Mrs Boyes”, it’s too hard to make out. We wonder how she came by the biscuit – perhaps she attended the ball…
There are other fascinating items in the collection and Aratoi are planning to include them in an exhibition later on in the year. Wait until you see the cow hairballs or a drinking bowl that once belonged to the Hawaiian King Kalakawa (1836-1891). How about a hue (gourd) reputedly taken in a raid at Parihaka in 1881 or a Crypto Bantum safety bicycle used in Masterton in 1903 by Mr Howarth?
It is really warming to know that we were able to honour our 1954 agreement and see the collection return home.