on May 26, 2010
Every once in a while, you duck into a museum for a few minutes and emerge hours later; that was the Canterbury Museum experience for me in a nutshell. I expected to learn a few things about the city of Christchurch, but I was amazed at the breadth of the exhibits and at how many of them completely captivated me.The museum starts with the early history of nature and man in New Zealand: moas, glowworms, cave wetas, Maori hunters. There’s a wealth of Maori artifacts and stories I’d never heard before—for example, an account of a Maori regiment in World War II. There are also exhibits on settlers from other places and former boom industries like whaling.And then came an unexpected sight: a paua-shell house. Fred and Myrtle’s paua-shell house, to be exact, on display at the museum for one year. I was invited in by an exceptionally friendly guide and shown a humorous four-minute film about the house; I really enjoyed the overview’s quirkiness. The story is that Fred began polishing paua shells for veterans to use in crafts during occupational therapy. When Myrtle got sick of vacuuming around them, she started tacking them on the walls—until the iridescent shells covered the entire house.Soon the little house in tiny Bluff was a top tourist attraction, and Fred and Myrtle were "world-famous in New Zealand," even appearing as pitchpeople in commercials for Tip Top bread. They welcomed over one million visitors into their home, seven days a week, eight hours a day, until they died in 2000 and 2001.The house at the Canterbury Museum is a replica, but some of the items are originals, and photos also help tell the story of Fred and Myrtle. It was such a fun experience to view the film and walk through a paua-shell room.The final area of the museum that I spent a lot of time in was the third floor: dinosaurs, mummies, and a fascinating Antarctic exhibit covering the natural history of the continent and the history of exploration there. The early clothing and equipment was amazingly rudimentary, but soon gave way to more sophisticated tools like the 4X4 vehicle now giving simulated rides in the museum. There’s a lot of wonderful information, and it’s fitting to view it in Christchurch, which sends flights to Antarctica each summer.The museum has more treasures—decorative arts, Asian arts, birds, costumes—but at that point, I had to head out. I spent an hour and a half here, but you could easily devote two to three hours.There is a suggested donation of NZ$5 and a few opportunities to donate throughout. Access to the Discovery kids area costs NZ$2; there are other hands-on opportunities for children throughout the museum.
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