Matakohe, New Zealand: Kauri Museum

DSC02155I was recently in New Zealand for the first time, as some of you may already know, and it was a grand time indeed (I’ll be in Australia when this post is published, if I haven’t gotten eaten by a shark or pecked to death by a cassowary or something)!  So, let the Kiwi-themed posts commence!  The first stop on your Diverting Journeys tour of the country is the Kauri Museum in Northland, but before I get into that, I should probably show you what a kauri tree is.  Basically, you’re looking at one in the picture above.  That particular specimen, located in Waipoua Forest, is the second largest tree in New Zealand.  They also have the largest tree, and several other impressive trees, and I absolutely recommend you go see them, but unfortunately all the tremendously old and huge ones were chopped down long ago (well, not that long ago, from roughly the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s or so) for the logging industry.  Which is kind of where the Kauri Museum comes in.

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If you ever wanted to learn more about kauri, this is the place to do it.  You will find out about the many uses of the kauri tree and its gum, the history of the logging/mining industry, and so much more.  All for the low, low price of 25 NZD.  Ok, so $25 for a museum admittedly seems awfully steep.  And I was extremely put off the prices of everything for my first few days in New Zealand.  But eventually I learned that this is just how much things cost here, and if you don’t suck it up and pay amounts of money that seem absolutely ridiculous ($4.30 for a Magnum ice cream?! Though to be fair, that’s the gas station price.  It’s only $2 each if you buy a box of them at a supermarket.  I recommend the cookies’n’cream ones, which are far better than any of the flavours they have in the UK, where I’m not terribly keen on Magnums at all), you won’t find yourself doing very much at all.

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This museum is not only about the kauri tree, it is also about the gum (a kind of fossilised resin coming from the tree, similar to amber), which itself became a thriving industry after most of the kauri trees had been cut down. Upon entering the museum, we immediately saw signs telling us not to miss the famous gum room in the basement, so of course that’s where we headed first.  Some guy’s life work was collecting, polishing, and occasionally carving pieces of gum, and he eventually ended up with something like 840 pieces, which are all displayed here for your pleasure.  The best were the pieces that were actually carved into things, like Maori chiefs and kiwi birds.

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Now, my boyfriend’s aunt recommended that I see this museum – she being someone who regularly reads my blog and knows my likes and dislikes quite well – in large part because of the impressive mannequin collection in this museum.  She did not lead me astray; these are some damn good mannequins.  The best part is that they are apparently all based on actual people who lived locally, which gives them a real character you don’t always get out of dummies (since ideally, they’re inanimate and all.  Unless it’s some kind of horror movie, or that spectacularly awful Kim Cattrall film).

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These tableaux were spread throughout the museum, but were especially concentrated in the re-creations of a miner’s cottage and a boarding house, which also came complete with authentic smells.  And I suspect these were authentic authentic smells, probably coming from all the wood and such.  This museum did have an old-school feel, with loads of black and white photographs with very lengthy matter-of-fact captions (case in point, a picture of an old miner in front of his shack, reading, “This is the home he will die in.”); in fact, all the text was rather overwhelming, but I didn’t feel compelled to read all of it, otherwise I would have been there well past closing time (if this does happen to you, you are allowed to return on the same ticket the next day to finish up.  We were staying over two hours away, so that wasn’t an option for us).

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Things really started to get interesting when we entered a room with old felled kauri tree stumps in it.  We had thought the ones in the forest were impressively large, but some of the stumps in here would have put the living trees to shame, judging by the girth of them (the one in the picture above, behind me in the kauri tub, was at least 800 years old when it was chopped down).  By modern estimates, over 85% of New Zealand was forested before human habitation, and though the Maori did practice some slash and burn agriculture over the centuries, by far the greatest damage was done by the logging industry – the percentage of forest in New Zealand is now something more like 25%.  So this museum comes with a price (other than just the $25), but it’s not like they recently hacked down these trees to stick them in the museum; the damage had been already been done many years ago.  (That said, they still sell things made from kauri wood in the gift shop, and I’m not entirely sure where it’s being sourced from.)

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This museum also had a fair amount of random crap in it; while there was of course a variety of furniture and carvings made from kauri wood (including about five different busts of various museum benefactors or other important locals), there was also a section with pottery and bottles, displays of taxidermied native animals, and a WWI display for all the ANZAC soldiers who fought in the First World War (you’re going to hear a LOT about Gallipoli in future posts).  I was quite partial to the bottle shaped like a potato.

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They also had a room showing the logging industry at work, which was very noisy, but gave you a chance to see the old machines in action, accompanied, of course, by more mannequins, because why the hell not?  Throwing more mannequins at something invariably makes it better (as you’ll see in my upcoming post on Demolition World).

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My favourite part of the whole experience probably came in the next gallery, which was devoted to farming.  They had a replica of a milking machine (complete with fake cow, because that’s the kind of wondrous place this was), which started up, rather loudly, when one pressed a button.  There were a couple of older ladies trailing us throughout the museum (as in, I tried multiple times to shake them by deliberately going a different way, but they kept popping up again) who would loudly read each caption to each other, and then stand there discussing it (they were pretty much the only people in the museum besides us, which was why it was markedly irritating).  Anyway, one of them pressed the milking machine button whilst the other one wasn’t really paying attention, and she jumped a foot in the air when it started up, and started yelling at her companion (I tried my best not to laugh, but didn’t entirely succeed.  Fortunately, the noise from the milking machine hid all).  But seriously, there were also a number of photographs dedicated to the “cow of the century,” a “magnificent uddered cow,” and those were pretty great too.

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But wait, there’s more!  Although this was the end of the museum galleries (and these alone would have been fairly impressive), there were a couple more rooms just past the admissions desk, by the toilets.  These contained wooden panels (I’m assuming kauri wood) depicting native birds, and a gallery dedicated to the life of Joseph Gordon Coates, who served in WWI, and became the prime minister of New Zealand from 1925-1928.  He was mentioned throughout the museum, since he was born in Matakohe, but this was a more comprehensive look at his life and work.  There was also a church dedicated to him across the street.

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Also across the street was a pioneer church, one of the outbuildings that was included with your museum admission.  There was also an old post office, a telephone exchange, and a school, all complete with their full complement of mannequins, though I unfortunately didn’t get to visit the school as it was closed due to a wasp infestation (I’m glad they warned us, I’d much rather not visit it than end up with a bunch of nasty wasp bites).  Additionally, there was a cafe, which was open when I left the museum; I briefly popped my head in the pioneer church, and then headed to the cafe for an ice cream, but by the time I got there, they’d stuck a closed sign on the door.  It was very bizarre, as the museum itself was open for another hour and a half.  Maybe they just didn’t like the look of me, and they saw me coming?

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Despite my annoyance at getting deprived of ice cream (that is why I know exactly how much a Magnum costs; because we had to stop at a gas station so I could get one on the way back, since I had a taste for ice cream at that point (who am I kidding, I ALWAYS have a taste for ice cream!)), I really did enjoy this museum.  It was much bigger than you’d expect from a museum that was essentially in the middle of nowhere (it was an hour and a half drive from the actual kauri forest, and even a fair bit of a way from Dargaville, the largest nearby town, which is apparently the kumara capital of the world (kumara being a slightly rancid tasting sweet potato-ey root veg)), and damned if those mannequins weren’t unusually impressive.  And of course the massive tree stumps, and all the information about life in the time of kauri logging/mining.  The whole package was really rather impressive.  However, I will add the caveat that this is an incredibly European-centric museum; the Maori are barely mentioned at all, and the extent of the damage that the loggers did to the native forests of New Zealand is also glossed over (I learned those statistics I mentioned earlier at the Auckland Museum and Te Papa, since they weren’t discussed at the Kauri Museum). Because of these glaring omissions, I’m going to give it a 3.5/5, but it nonetheless made for an entertaining afternoon.

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  1. Wow! Wonderful mannequins – I’m partial to the lumberjack with the forearm tattoo. And that cow is super impressive! It actually looks like it has a proper hide.

    1. I think it was an actual hide. According to a sign in the museum, it used to squirt out actual milk from the udders, and members of the public could milk it, but I think the stink of spoilt milk got to be too much. Or something. I just got off a 24 hour flight, so I might be mis-remembering!

      1. 24 hours?! Ugh … I hope it felt markedly less than that. OK, with milk squirting abilities, that cow is the coolest museum figure I’ve heard of. I would have loved to give it a try – milking is so much more tantalizing without threat of being kicked by a real cow.

  2. I can’t wait to read more about your trip! And I know it’s a bummer when you plan on getting ice cream but then the shop is closed

    1. Glad to hear it, because there are many many more posts coming! And don’t feel too badly for me about the ice cream, I had a lot of amazing ice cream elsewhere, which I’ll probably also mention where relevant! 🙂

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