The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 7 (October 1, 1936)
Our National Treasure House of Wonders. — Astounding Variety… Amazing Achievement
“The opening of the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum must be regarded as an event of outstanding significance in the cultural development of this Dominon. In this building have been gathered together examples of art and craftsmanship from the earliest ages to the present time.”
The Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. M. J. Savage.
The National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum is a long, arduous and expansive title. However, it is a fitting designation for the wondrous architectural pile that houses a univers of wonders, situated on the Mount Cook site in the City of Wellington. The title “Mount Cook” has caused some trouble overseas, as innocent and unsuspecting Cockney journalists have visualised in print that New Zealand has once more broken new revolutionary ground, and erected its main temple of the arts among the alpine snows of our largest mountain giant. The fact seems to have escaped them that even the sturdy New Zealanders would find it inconvenient to have to reach their Acropolis on skis and snowshoes.
The fact is that the erection of an Art Gallery on this site in the Capital City not only marks our cultural coming of age as a nation, but represents a mighty change of heart. Mount Cook was originally selected by our hardy forbears as a gaol site. There, they estimated, would its charm of outlook, its piquant peeps at free skies and blue seas have the best results and be best appreciated by that portion of the community who had broken the laws. The first exhibit seen by the incoming tourist, its grim fortress-like structure dominated the city for many years, the epitome of an age that was care-free, utilitarian, cheerily ruthless and engaged in the task of “getting on.” Our great Prime Minister, Richard John Seddon, suggested to those interested in the inception of Victoria College, that Mount Cook was the ideal site, and that for a while, even these dungeons could be utilised for classrooms. The idea was ridiculed, even reaching the depths of becoming the subject of a capping day song, “Just Because—because It Happened to be There.”
As it happened, the “Old Clay Patch” turned out to be a better site for the University, and the march of time has given us this ideal position for the noble buildings that now crown it. In searching for the pioneers of the idea, the efforts of one man seem to have been forgotten. This was the late James McDonald, painter, scientist, Maori scholar, photographer and journalist. He was assistant Director of the Museum at the time when Sir Francis Bell was Minister of Internal Affairs. Our first Rhodes Scholar, Allan Thomson, was the Director. While the latter was engaged on the researches which were to be of such enormous value in the study of evolution, James McDonald was ceaselessly pleading the cause of better quarters for the priceless treasures of the museum. It was a long siege.
However, when the attack was altered to the Mount Cook site proposal, the Minister capitulated, and the project was born. It is pleasant to know that portraits both of James McDonald (painted by himself) and Sir Francis Bell hang in the Gallery whose first conception was of their fashioning. They did not visualise the campanile, for with all its slender beauty, it hardly fits the picture, and the music of its bells in our windy air is of doubtful value. To me, the noble shrine now standing there is a symbol. Through our gifts of genial skies, warm and tender rains and rich soil, and our direct heritage of the British capacity for forthright practical action, we quickly reached a standard of material comfort which has no parity in the ancient or modern world, in its widespread incidence and almost universal diffusion. In older lands, where squalor page 33 sits by beauty and the dirt of slums is relieved by objects of surpassing loveliness, there is a tendency to charge us with a forgetfulness of the things of the spirit. I remember one silver-tongued young Englishman who pointed out that there was an elevation about the Hau Hau religion that was lacking in the worship of half-backs; and he found that after a service car journey with a farmer who had improved a milking machine, that his sympathies were definitely with the cow. It is just possible that there is a mite of jealousy in some of this.
In Middle Europe to-day the possession of a cow and six sheep, along with one spare holiday suit and a meagre collection of household “sticks” marks a man of moderate riches. On statistics, each family of four in the Dominion owns eighty sheep, five cows, three-fourths of a motor-car, and countless household treasures and luxuries. There is a school of thought that holds that too much comfort is an unmitigated evil. They are mostly folk who have never lacked anything themselves, but I must admit that it was competent for observers to say that New Zealanders were too exclusively occupied with material things. We were inclined to look upon progress as a matter of more bathrooms, telephones, paved roads, motor cars and a variety of things for breakfast. We handed out more money in racing stakes than the British Isles, we reckoned that our Rugby was the best in the world, we counted lakes and rivers as places from which to extract enormous fish, and got far more thrills from a new liver-coloured cinema than an exquisite ornamental fountain. A miracle such as the Turnbull Library had a handful of visitors now and again, and the ecstatic raptures of world scholars and awe-stricken globe-trotters about it, caused us mild surprise. However, let it be said that we share this range of obsessions with plenty of other countries; and it is not, either, just the lands that were emulating us in a rising standard of living. Even in the cities of the most awe-inspiring culture, where futurist art can be seen in elaborate galleries, we find folk attending in scores of thousands at football games, horse carnivals, dog races and other amusing but definitely “lowbrow” pursuits.
New Zealanders should now rise and firmly point out that for four successive week-ends, ten to twelve thousand people visited the National Art Gallery and that during the week the attendance, daily, was in the thousands every afternoon and evening. The building project was the work of enthusiasts who were dedicated to the cause of raising the standard of cultural taste of their fellow countrymen; every country has its select company of art-lovers, and of people who are interested in science, literature, painting, sculpture and other higher branches of human endeavour. Their fate is to meet mostly with indifference and cheerful disregard of any such boring duties. This reproach cannot be levelled any more at New Zealanders. In the first month of the life of this institution, more than half of the total population of the capital city will have attended.
Let us make a half day pilgrimage through the splendid edifice. The elevation is so handsome and the sweep of entrance drives, massive steps and stone balustrades so imposing, that the most irreverent caller is impressed, and consequently enters the portals in the right frame of mind, almost in spite of himself. The direct route on the ground floor leads to the Maori House. This is the central hall, as it were, of the museum which is therefore H shaped. The attitude is that of the whole building, so that the roof is a vision of sublime loftiness. The size of the chamber dwarfs even the colossal form of the war canoe, Teremoe, the actual Maori war vessel used as a raider on the Wanganui River, in 1865. Its ingenuity of construction shows that our native pioneers were naval engineers of no mean order.
The vast chamber contains also a full life-sized exhibition of Maori social life. There is a dwelling-house, a food store-house, the Pataka, raised on carved piles. These are actual specimens that have been in use. There are scores of fine examples of grotesque but somehow fascinating carvings for all manner of uses as interior and exterior embellishments. The Maori had reached a high state of development in the art of carving, as anyone who has done any whittling with a pocket knife will readily appreciate. This intricate work was done with tools made of stone and wood, ground and shaped with endless industry. This one impressive court devoted to the large-scale depiction of Maori culture will be a revelation increasing in interest all the time for our people and those from overseas.
I suppose the single most valuable and unique exhibit in the who'e museum, is the array of feathered cloaks from Hawaii. These were presented to Captain Cook and taken by him to England. In some way, not yet ascertained, they became the property of an institution known as the London Museum, and, when the latter was broken up, the St. Oswald family acquired these treasures. In 1912, Lord St. Oswald presented them to our Government. No one should miss seeing these, and the many other exquisite garments made by the Maoris. Delicate colourings, intricate patterns, fairy-like tracery of design and materials deftly and closely woven, make many of our modern fabrics look coarse and bizarre by comparison. They were very great artists, those ancient Polynesian folk, as witness the shapeliness of their steering and rowing paddles, the aesthetic delight of their carven foodbowls and richly adorned musical instruments. They were ingenious artificers as well. Crowds daily stand admiring the “trough” snares made for the pigeons at miro berry time. This is a deep wooden drinking trencher, laced with neat slip snares of flax filament; death to thirsty, plump birds.
The craftsmanship and complex efficiency of the circular nets and traps for all varieties of fish from the gargantuan sunfish to the fresh-water crayfish are proof that scientific observation was far advanced in those far off days. The late Augustus Hamilton builded better than he knew when he founded, as Curator, this great Maori collection.
Please, however, do not imagine that the whole Museum is devoted to relics of early history. Phar Lap's skeleton is not mounted yet, but it soon will be, and it is fitting that the greatest horse ever bred in the Southern Hemisphere should have his bones resting in the land of his birth. As one leaves the fine picture of Abel Tasman, there appears a magnificent model of one of the “Rangi” boats, and show-case after show-case of priceless china, Sevres, Dresden, Venetian, Chinese and more. By one shining glass cabinet of magnificent tall Sevres vases, two old ladies remarked, “Fancy having to dust them of a morning!”
Now that there exists a national repository for every kind of treasure, an embarrassment of riches is on its way, and the Director is continually at a loss in deciding on acceptance or otherwise. Still, gifts of national interest are continually arriving. The other day a Russian exile called with priceless Russian gold coins, saying he wanted to make the gift as a token of thanks for the kindness shown him in our country. I can foresee the time when this Museum will be one of the show places of the world. It has a natural lode of pure ore of wonders to exploit and its treasure already won is of amazing richness.
By the way, attached to the Museum is a lecture theatre with a complete talkie plant. It is a modern theatreette with a lecture dais and rostrum fitted with apparatus for scientific demonstration of all kinds.
Up noble stairways, where some genius thought of kiwi figures as supports for the balustrades, the first floor houses the Art Gallery. Its long colonnades take the breath away. The serene simplicity, the stately purity of wall and line, set off the coloured magic on the walls. It is a day's walk to go round slowly. The display of the Empire loan collection was of tremendous importance. It was a spectacular event that the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery should have sent to New Zealand, first of all, a selection of the world's greatest paintings. At random, Turner and Constable, Reynolds and Gainsborough can be noted among the early great ones, Orpen and Augustus John among the moderns. There is one by Samuel Butler. There is Lander's great portrait of the late King. It is idle to say any more on this point, but that it marks an epoch in our history. The mountain came to Mahomet.
There are nine large galleries from which open spacious annexes. The Murray Fuller exhibition was a panorama of modern art. In times to come, the proper tribute will be paid to the genius of these great personalities, the late Murray Fuller and his wife, who, year alter year, brought to these distant lands the best work of every artist of distinction in the British art world. It is an achievement whose merit will only be seen in the perspective of history. There is also the notable assembly of the permanent possessions of the National Board. These include a room filled with fine portraits of our great men, past and present. There is an annex devoted to our architecture, and a series of galleries of our own achievement whose standard is most comforting. Before this temple of art and science had come into being, Mr. F. S. Markham, the distinguished secretary of the Museums Association, reported to the Carnegie Trust that New Zealand ranked highest in this regard, proportionately to population of all British Dominions and colonies; no doubt due to Ijie notable Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Wanganui institutions. Now with our National Gallery and Museum in being, We must lead. We have never so far been charged with a lack of sticking power, and we have a flying start here.
For a country of less than a hundred years of existence as a social unit, this great edifice is a giant achievement. It is our greatest deed of symbolism so far. Along with our steady work of social reconstruction, must go the important study of what to do with increased leisure and better economic conditions. On the Mount Cook site in our capital city stands a shrine that should be, a permanent reminder of the need to worship right things. It is our duty to give it of our best in everv way.