Christchurch, New Zealand: The Canterbury Museum

DSC05917Having now visited both the International Antarctic Centre, and the Canterbury Museum, I can safely say that if you only have time to visit one museum in Christchurch, make it the Canterbury Museum.  Not only will it free up a whole lotta money that you could be spending on vegetarian dumplings from Dumplings Paradise inside Re:Start (the best dumplings by far of the many, many veggie dumplings I sampled on this trip) or real fruit ice cream, but it is also one of the most delightfully old-fashioned museums I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

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Canterbury Museum is free, and like most attractions in New Zealand, staffed by very friendly people who were only too happy to present us with a map of the museum and tell us their favourite exhibits (even as we tried to slink by unnoticed; living in London makes us awkwardly unaccustomed to talking to strangers).  On the whole, the museum seems to have escaped the 2011 earthquake relatively unscathed (apparently there was minor damage to the front of the building, but it remains structurally sound), save for a dollhouse that had some furniture knocked over which they have purposely left in a state of disarray in earthquake remembrance, because many of the exhibits in here looked like they were about fifty years old (which is no bad thing, except perhaps their unfortunate use of some once ok, but now outdated terminology on a couple of the signs).  Case in point: the Maori and native New Zealand fauna tableaux near the museum’s entrance.  They put me in mind of similar (but probably slightly more offensive) displays at the Natural History Museum in Cleveland, which I adored as a child (except the shrunken heads, they freaked me out).

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There were also some displays on what I suppose you’d call the anthropology of the Pacific Islands, and on early New Zealand settlers.  I was rather intrigued by the reconstruction of a cabin that a family with something like eight children (or was it thirteen?) lived in, along with two servants and their child.  I don’t know if this cabin was supposed to be actual size, because while they mentioned how cramped it was, the one on display only had one tiny bed in it, and the rest of the living space was completely full of furniture.  Like, I literally don’t understand how that many people would have even fitted in there, let alone how children were conceived and birthed in there (there was also a story about how the wife gave birth once outside during a rainstorm, under an umbrella.  Poor woman.)

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In keeping with the old-timey theme, the museum had a rather extensive hall of yesteryear, which was where the dollhouse I spoke about was kept (you can see me studying it in the above photo), in addition to a penny farthing and a fake horse you could pose for photos atop of (in theory; I couldn’t because about fifty million children beat me to it).  There was also a costume gallery with the most superlative mustachioed mannequins inside, as you can plainly see.

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Not everything in the museum dates from 1950-something, or earlier, however.  My absolute favourite thing in the museum, Fred and Myrtle’s Paua Shell House (that link is to a brief video about them), was only added in 2008 after the couple passed away and their grandson donated the shells and their interior furnishings to the museum (ok, so the decorations are probably from the 1950s, but the exhibit itself is new!).  Fred and Myrtle were basically the cutest couple ever – they lived in a bungalow in Bluff, a seaside town known for its oysters, but chose to decorate the interior of their home with paua shells (paua being a type of sea snail with a particularly lovely iridescent bluey-green shell. I’m told they make good eatin’ if cooked properly, but I wouldn’t know), lovingly collected and polished by Fred, and a selection of other various knickknacks, including a few bits of taxidermy. After their entire lounge was covered in the shells, they invited tourists into their home, which became a national attraction.  Fred and Myrtle were even featured in TV commercials!  They lived into their 100s, but passed away in the early 2000s, after which their lounge was taken apart and eventually moved to the museum, which includes an exact replica of their lounge and part of the bungalow’s exterior, right down to the cheerful organ music that Fred loved, and a short film about their life, which had me tearing up because they were so damn adorable. I wouldn’t mind living somewhere decorated like this when I’m old, though I am certainly not nice or extroverted enough to invite tourists into my home like they did!

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The museum also had a temporary exhibit on about a local alternative radio station, which I didn’t really take the time to browse because we had to catch a flight to Sydney that afternoon, and I needed to see their Antarctic gallery before we left.  I’m so glad I did, because it was fantastic!

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Not only did they have extremely detailed busts of each of the major Antarctic Expedition leaders (Amundson was uglier than I thought, and I think they made Byrd more attractive than he was in real life), they also had a selection of artefacts from most of those expeditions (save for Mawson’s; maybe there was some animosity towards him because he was Australian?).

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These included things like leftover food supplies and cooking pots used to make hoosh (a rather horrible sounding stew consisting of pemmican, biscuits, and melted snow), boots, tents, sledges, and a glove actually worn by Scott, amongst many other excellent things.  I spent ages in here, and could easily have spent even longer if I had time.  Everything the International Antarctic Centre was missing in terms of actual history was in here.  If only they’d had a Hagglund ride, I could have skipped the Antarctic Centre altogether!

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The rest of the upstairs was fairly standard local museum stuff – a hall of ceramics and sculpture and things from around the world, and a natural history section full of taxidermied things that was fairly bird heavy (perhaps because New Zealand only has one native mammal, which is a bat), but was still pretty delightful, again, because of the old-schoolness.

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We concluded with a trip back to the hall of yesteryear to see if I could grab a picture on that penny farthing yet (nope, even busier than before) and found a room we’d missed before, which was evidently the re-creation of the study of some eccentric collector; lots more delightful taxidermy and skeletons.  Of course, we swung by the gift shop too to collect a few postcards.  They actually sell paua shells in there, so you can re-create Fred and Myrtle’s decor in your own home if you’re so inclined (at something like $12 a pop, it’s not too likely you’ll be able to acquire 1000+ of them, though we did buy one.  Then again, it took Fred and Myrtle 40 years to collect all their shells, so I’ve got time).  I really really loved this museum, especially the Antarctic section, and Fred and Myrtle (obviously). Even the parking ticket that awaited us upon leaving the museum (for apparently parking with our car facing in the wrong direction; we didn’t even know this was a thing you could be ticketed for) didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. 4/5.




  1. I’d have given my right arm for that dollhouse when I was a kid – maybe even now. It looks amazing. I’d happily live in Fred and Myrtle’s bungalow too – though I probably wouldn’t be keen on dusting the shells regularly. Is that the bust that’s supposed to be Byrd? Hubba hubba – but yeah, maybe not so much in real life.

    1. Oh I know the feeling, I’d kill for an elaborate Victorian dollhouse of some description. Particularly a haunted Victorian house, with ghosts that randomly appeared, and literal skeletons in the closets (if such a marvelous thing even exists). And yeah, that is Byrd. As soon as I saw him, I was like, “damn, Byrd was hot,” but two seconds later I saw an actual picture of him in the display, and that was the end of me and Byrd.

      1. Ack, this is really making me want a dollhouse … Have you seen The Awakening? The dollhouse in that was grand – sparsely furnished but little ghosty things happened inside.

      2. Actually, I don’t think I have. I think I’m confusing it with the Kate Chopin novel of the same name, which I probably have read at some point, or else the movie Awakenings, which I watched once but never again because it’s so sad. I don’t think I’d want ghosty things to happen of their own accord though, that would freak me out. I’d rather it was mechanical like those old penny arcade games and stuff happened if you pressed a button or something.

      3. Ugh, yeah I wouldn’t want to see Awakenings again either. But The Awakening is a nice, decently spooky movie (actually, it really messed me up for a bit) set in 1920s England. Yes definitely, automated ghosts would be best – but I’d be okay with real ones, so long as they were doll-sized. That’d be kinda cute (I think.)

      4. I don’t know, doll sized ghosts makes me think of that episode of Doctor Who (Matt Smith era, which was the only era I bothered to watch) with the lifesize creepy faceless Georgian dolls. I DO NOT WANT a dollhouse full of those things! I guess if they were like friendly Casper type ghosts, then it would be cute.

  2. I know that some of the museums you have visited did not meet your expectations, Jessica, so I’m pleased for you that you liked this one so much that you didn’t mind the parking ticket! an interesting post — thank you.

    1. Actually, we wrote an angry letter to Christchurch City Council about that ticket, since there were no signs anywhere regarding the direction you had to park in, and they dropped the charges, so perhaps it’s only in retrospect that I’m not angry. I was annoyed at the time, but went and ate dumplings and ice cream right after, so I couldn’t stay mad for long!

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