Inside the Te Papa Storeroom

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This weekend Wellington celebrated “Capital 150” – 150 years since Wellington became capital of New Zealand. Many buildings were open to display their ‘treasures’, including the national museum, commonly known as Te Papa. I volunteered at their off-site storeroom for a few hours and was stationed in the furniture storeroom, but before the public were let in I had a quick look at some of the other storage areas. This facility doesn’t house all of Te Papa’s collections – some items like art are stored at the museum on the waterfront. I’m not a scientist so my interest in cases like these is mainly aesthetic!

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A book I read several years ago when I studied an Honours paper on collecting practices was Philipp Blom’s To Have and To Hold: An intimate history of collectors and collecting, Penguin, 2003. In a chapter on Sir Hans Sloane (whose collection formed the basis of the British Museum), Sloane was said to have ‘a complete history of butterflies in glazed boxes’, ‘a collection of beetles’ and many, many more things. This was in the early 18th century and although his collection was ‘unrivalled in the world’, it was thought by some to be old-fashioned. He died in 1753 leaving his collection to the nation, but by the 19th century much of his collection had been lost, some because his methods of preservation weren’t satisfactory. Blom says “Sloane was probably the last of the ‘universal’ collectors, a man standing on the cusp of the old tradition of the cabinet of curiosities and the new fashion for scientific collecting and methodical classification.” (p. 88)

Nevertheless, as my essay on 19th century colonial natural history museums argued, some of the old ‘cabinet of curiosities’ mentality may have lasted longer.  I’m sure this no longer applies today; however, Te Papa’s forerunner began in 1865 with the Colonial Museum (yes, 150 years ago – it opened in Wellington along with gaining Capital city status) – so I’m sure there are items in the collection that wouldn’t necessarily meet today’s standards or criteria for selection. Perhaps some of the foreign birds or the black bear skeleton, for example?

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(The little bird in front is the oldest in the collection – it was collected in 1808.) DSC06533

However, as I said, I was stationed in the furniture storeroom, near this table: DSC06522  DSC06523

The ship in the background is a model of James Cook’s Endeavour. The table was made around 1880 in Wellington by a man called James Petherick (1836 – 1895) – you can see more photos of it on Te Papa’s collections online here:

It features a central chessboard with motifs on each side associated with the early history of Wellington – a church, government and commercial buildings, and a sailing ship, possibly the early immigrant ship Aurora, which Petherick came to New Zealand on in January 1840. The outer rim of the table top is decorated with a pattern of sailing ships and botanical motifs. The Pethericks were among Wellington’s earliest colonial settlers. James later worked as a carpenter and builder in Wellington, and served as a City Councillor for many years.

My grandfather Walter Morrell made this table (photo below), possibly as an apprenticeship piece – smaller and less elaborate than James Petherick’s table.

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It has a small drawer underneath for holding chess or draughts pieces. As far as I know he wasn’t a furniture maker – at least not commercially; he was a carpenter and joiner and made stairs (see my post on the Morrell family in Wellington for more information).

Back to Te Papa: other items near where I was standing were a late 19th century rocking horse, possibly made by J.R. Smith, Ltd. (attributed), 1881 – 1916, United Kingdom; and this Art Deco dressing table, which I was very taken with… te papa dressing table 1939

(It was too hard to photograph in its storage case, so this is Te Papa’s photograph). Made by Copp and Williams Ltd in 1939, it is in circular form with a built-in seat and a tall mirror. The seat is detachable, with a needlework cover (which was covered in storage). It was displayed at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition at Wellington (1939-1940) as part of a 5-piece suite of bedroom furniture. I was told the story that a young woman liked the dressing table and her father bought the suite at auction soon after the Exhibition closed and gave it to her as a wedding present.

I learnt that a piece of furniture called a Canterbury was used for storing sheet music. Here’s the link to the Te Papa item, but unfortunately there is no photo:  This site has a photo:

See also the Friends of Te Papa post:

Some kitchen items at Katherine Mansfield Birthplace

Some kitchen items at Katherine Mansfield Birthplace

I also visited some other ‘open buildings’ around town – the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace, Old Government Buildings, Supreme Court, Wellington Museum, Opera House, Holocaust Centre and Bats Theatre. With a free bus service doing a regular circuit, it was a well-organised and enjoyable weekend of events.

Stair case at Wellington Museum (former Wellington Harbour Board building)

Stair case at Wellington Museum (former Wellington Harbour Board building)

Opera costume displayed at the Opera House

Opera costume displayed at the Opera House

New 'attic' space at Wellington Museum (to be opened by end of the year)

New ‘attic’ space at Wellington Museum (to be opened by end of the year)


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