A museum exhibition? In our school?
Not quite! But what about a museum case? For around 50 years in the 20th century, Te Papa’s predecessors delivered important, informational, and sometimes downright kooky exhibition suitcases to schools around the country.
How do I know? My research project has had me rummaging through the Archives, discovering interesting particulars on how the museum has evolved over the past 150 years. When I saw titbits about school cases, I had to know more.
The school cases
In 1939 the school case scheme began in an effort to expand the museum’s education outreach to distant rural schools. The initial idea was that primary and secondary schools would receive cases of specimens and images every fortnight. The concept of a portable exhibition was such a strong one that the number of places receiving cases expanded, and continued right through until the early 1990s.
So what kind of exhibitions are we talking about?
There was a huge variety of material housed in the cases. Local institutions and government departments donated specimens and modelling materials, and the museum’s Education Officer was tasked with designing and constructing the final exhibition (assisted by students of the local Teacher’s College).
If your class was keen on natural history, you might have liked the below exhibit on birds feet:
Perhaps you wanted to know more about the weka… and see a real taxidermy specimen:
Learning about the pueblo people could have been an excellent social studies segment, especially with the scale model of a pueblo building:
Maybe some of your students were descended from whalers and wanted to know more about their heritage:
What if they were inquisitive about far-away places and people – this exhibit on the Massai people could have captured their interest?
The demise of the travelling specimen boxes
By the 1990s the school cases were becoming outdated. They were considered out of place with the museum’s increasing levels of cultural sensitivity and aesthetic standards, so it was decided that the scheme would be stopped. The education team continued with other programmes, and the school cases were sold off. Interestingly, there are still a few in Te Papa’s collections – though not in their original form, and they have had a bit of a cyclic journey!
Artist Terry Urbahn bought some of the cases when they were sold, and reworked the exhibits in a display of anthropological meddling. Te Papa then purchased some of the altered artworks. As you can see below the case he upcycled here (first photo) looks similar to the original Massai one above. The second photo shows a re-purposed one on the Hutu people from the same geographical region.
Do you remember seeing a Dominion Museum school case in your classroom?
Riah King-Wall, Summer Scholar
Hi, do you know whether all the boxes were made in th 1930’s/40’s or did they continue making them over the years? I’ve just acquired one and am curious about how old it actually is (I’ll be using it for its original purpose of education too!). Thanks
I am not sure exactly which school sorry. His family were pretty itinerant really. Farm workers who traveled about with the seasons, often in shearing gangs, across the Manawatu and Taranaki regions mostly.
Fantastic, thanks for sharing your family story! Both of those regions are where I understood the school cases ventured, so it is excellent to hear of the impact they had.
Our class used to listen to the radio broadcast, have picnic days and had a big fireplace in each classroom. If you were good you could sit in front of the fire and do your work.
Each term we did projects. My favourite one was on India.
Hi Aileen – thanks for reading. Great to hear about your school days, the fireplace sounds like an excellent motivator indeed!
I remember my father talking about these. How the teacher would have the whole class sitting on the mat waiting for the surprise of what was inside. We were discussing his memory of these cases while he watched my daughter on the internet researching her homework. Times indeed do change.
Hi James – haven’t times changed indeed! Where did your father go to school (I’m interested to know if the cases travelled further than the lower/mid North Island)?