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Ngā Hītori Whare Taonga Museum History 

Sir Julius von Haast, 1888. A B Cambridge oil painting. Canterbury Museum ABC2

ABC2 Haast 1201

The Museum was first established in the Provincial Council Buildings in 1867 featuring geology specimens collected by geologists Dr (later Sir) Julius von Haast and Dr Ferdinand Hochstetter. The Museum was first open to the public on 3 December 1867. Haast became the first Director in 1868.

Haast, a graduate of the University of Bonn, had come to New Zealand in 1858 to report on its suitability for German emigration but did not return to Germany. He was appointed Geologist to the Canterbury Provincial Council in 1861 and excavated the great deposit of moa bones found in 1866 at Glenmark Station by the owner G H Moore during the draining of a swamp. Exchanges, mainly of moa bones and bird skins, enabled Haast to form the basis of the Canterbury Museum Collection which in his day became one of the leading museums in the Southern Hemisphere.

Benjamin W Mountfort, c1860. Barker Collection, Canterbury Museum Neg 5279

5279 B Mountfort

Mountfort-designed building

In 1869 the Provincial Council made a grant of £1,200 to erect a separate building for the Museum. This was increased to £1,683 11s by public subscription. The new building on Antigua Street (now Rolleston Avenue) was opened by the Superintendent of Canterbury, William Rolleston, on 8 February 1870 and the opening art exhibition ran until April.

The Museum was opened to the public on 1 October 1870. The building was designed by B W Mountfort and built of grey basalt from the Halswell Quarry with rhyolite facings. This building now houses the Mountfort Gallery and is surrounded by later additions. It was 70 feet long by 35 feet wide with a gallery supported by wooden columns of heart kauri. In 1872 a two-storey Gothic-style wing designed by Mountfort was added. This was entered from the Botanic Gardens and was again of Halswell basalt but with facings of dressed trachyte.

In 1876 there was a further addition of a right angled two-storey wing fronting Antigua Street (now Rolleston Avenue), built of basalt from Garland’s quarry on the Port Hills, with a porch held up by pillars of Hoon Hay basalt added the following year. The portico displays an array of animal faces peeping out from a background of leaves encircling the pillar capitals, which were all carved in Oamaru limestone by John Smith.The inscription over the entrance was suggested by William Rolleston as being a suitable text and was carved by Claudius Brassington in 1896. It reads, Lo these are parts of His ways but how little a portion is heard of Him (Job 26.14). It was not until 1957 that the inscription Canterbury Museum 1870 was carved by Cecil Dunn. The area between the 1870 wing and the 1876 addition was enclosed in 1882.

Museum’s management

In the meantime the Provincial Council had passed the Canterbury Museum and Library Ordinance Act 1870 setting up a board of trustees to manage these institutions. In June 1874 management was handed over to the Board of Governors of Canterbury College on which all the former trustees were included. It was not until 1 April 1948 that control of the Museum was vested in a new trust board under the provisions of the Canterbury Museum Trust Board Act 1947. Membership of the Board included representatives of local authorities and other organisations, much the same as it does today. A representative of Ngai Tahu was included when the Canterbury Museum Trust Board legislation was updated in 1983.

20th century additions

No major additions were made to the Museum buildings until the Centennial Memorial Wing was constructed between 1955 and 1958, doubling the size of the Museum. It was designed by Miller, White and Dunn of Dunedin, with the facade built to match the existing frontage. Architect John Hendry designed the Roger Duff Wing which was opened in 1977. The latest addition, known as the Garden Court Block, was built in the formerly open Garden Court as the conclusion of a 10-year earthquake strengthening project and was completed in 1995.

The collections

Haast’s own collection of moa bones, plants, birds, rocks and minerals formed the basis of the displays. The Museum increased its collections by exchanges with other museums worldwide and purchases from European institutions and Webster’s Auction House in England. Among the items that came to Canterbury Museum were natural history specimens such as foreign bird skins, butterflies, shells, mammals, vertebrate and invertebrate fossils; minerals and central European flora; medals, coins, Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian antiquities; ethnological objects from Africa, North and South America, Scandinavia, Europe, India and Australia; sculpture and bronze ornaments; items, including vases, from the London International Exhibition of 1871; and scientific publications.

Local supporters donated items including artefacts, publications, ceramics, flora and fauna. The Museum also benefited from numerous bequests. Haast’s breadth of cultural interests was demonstrated when, before the Museum officially opened in 1870, an art exhibition was shown.

The Museum’s second Director was H O Forbes, and after him came Frederick Hutton who continued actively collecting. Later Directors, including Edgar Waite, Robert Speight, Robert Falla and Roger Duff, continued to build up the collections. During Duff’s tour to England in 1948 he acquired a large collection from various museums either by purchase, exchange or on permanent loan. He negotiated the loan of the W O Oldman Collection of Polynesian and Maori Artefacts and the gifting of the Rewi Alley Collection of objects from China.

From the early 1900s the Museum has been the home of major colonial history and archival collections. The social history collections have grown in importance with clothing, furniture, household items, stamps, artworks, architectural plans, maps, photographs, diaries, personal papers and publications being added.

The Antarctic collections are of worldwide interest and importance. The scientists accompanying Robert Falcon Scott’s two Antarctic expeditions actually worked in the Museum en route to the ice. Based on these foundations active collecting culminated in the opening of the Sir Robertson Stewart Hall of Antarctic Discovery in 1977. Active collecting continues in this international point-of-difference for Canterbury Museum.

Sally E Burrage and Anthony E Wright
January 2013

Additional text sourced from:

  • Guide to the Collections in Canterbury Museum (1900), published by Canterbury Museum Trust
  • Canterbury Museum Trust Board Annual Report 1948