Canterbury Museum

Our first stop today was the Canterbury Museum located next to the Botanic Gardens. There are quite a few exhibition spaces within the Museum. You could spend the entire day here learning so much about Canterbury and its largest city, Christchurch.  I want to focus this review on three exhibitions: Slice of Life: The World Famous Dunedin Study, Squawkzilla and the Giants, and Christchurch Street. The first two are temporary exhibitions and the latter is a permanent display.

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Slice of Life: The World Famous Dunedin Study

For me, this exhibition was intriguing right from the start. I had no idea about the Dunedin Study that started in 1975 and was overseen by Dr Patricia Buckfield and Phil Silva from Otago University. Together, they studied just over 1000 children looking to investigate any health issues. Due to the popularity of the experiment, the subjects were revisited every few years eventually becoming the most studied people in the world. All of this information is included in the introductory panel. Hence why I was pretty much hooked from the start and wanted to learn more.

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The exhibition is very well spaced out and logically goes through each decade of the experiment (1970s – 2000s) displaying relevant objects and information. I particularly enjoyed the room layouts at the back of the exhibition that are an interesting way to present a timeline with some historical context. Rather than simply having a timeline of events during which the experiment took place, each decade is represented by a single room. In front of the room is a thematic panel outlining major events and defining moments. Here are the rooms with their decades underneath:

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1970s
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1980s
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1990s
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2000s

The room for the 1980s, for example, has a panel beneath explaining how the subjects would have been moving through intermediate and secondary school potentially going through a rebellious stage experimenting with drugs/alcohol/etc. One thing I noticed during our visit was that people were standing in front of the rooms and connecting to what was on display. Some were pointing out what they found familiar and what they remembered having in their room.

In the middle of the exhibition space, there is more focus on what exactly the studies observed and some of the results. Next to each decade is a large iPad where you can explore different themes. The one from the 1990s delves into sex, smoking, sexual identity and drugs. When you click on a theme you can read comments made by the researchers who compiled their notes revealing any trends as well as outliers. A great effort is made during the entire exhibition to keep the participants anonymous to maintain privacy.

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In this space, I found it particularly fascinating reading each year’s thematic panel. It is incredible to see that 90-99% of participants kept returning for more testing. The thematic panels have a great balance of images, quotes and informative text. The quotes and images of people engaged in the tests (with faces blurred) contextualizes the other written information and provides a much needed firsthand account.

Everything from the subject matter to the layout and objects included makes this exhibition one that is genuinely fascinating and relaxing to walk around.

Squawkzilla and the Giants

For research purposes, I decided to try the children’s activity in this space. Right at the start of the exhibition, there is a Zealandia’s Top Fossil worksheet and a pencil (everything you need to complete the task). On the worksheet there are three questions and if you successfully answer the questions, you can present the worksheet to the information desk and receive a pack of collectible cards.

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The exhibition was actually quite nice to see through a child’s perspective as it contained many fun elements – large models and interactives. For example, seeing how you measure against a giant penguin.

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One of the first things you see is five large models of ancient penguins. You have to find their names for the worksheet. In front of each penguin model is a display cabinet with genuine fossils of the corresponding penguin inside. The fossils in the exhibition were all collected from the upper Waipara River just north of Christchurch.

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The rest of the exhibition is quite structured in that there is a path to follow and no deviations. I didn’t mind because the exhibition is chronological working through the various time periods leading up to the Squawkzilla. Yes, the bird is scientifically called Squawkzilla. Fossils were discovered in 2009 and revealed a parrot around 1 m tall that didn’t frequently fly. Similar to the penguins, there is a model of the parrot. The use of models in this exhibition is a great way to bring the animals to life.

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As opposed to the other exhibition, Squawkzilla is more one of wonder and exploration. I am glad I opted for the children’s activity as it encouraged looking at the exhibition through childlike eyes.

Christchurch Street

The exit of Squawkzilla leads directly to Christchurch Street. This is a recreated street from 19th century Christchurch. There is a pharmacy, jewellery shop, shoemakers store and a metal shop amongst others. There is something about these recreated streets that really resonates with me. I think because they are immersive experiences.

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My two favourite stores were the pharmacy and the toy shop. There is a magnificent doll’s house in the toy shop that I’ve included a photograph of below. The pharmacy is something that I will always find fascinating. Especially all the little bottles and containers.

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Other Sections

There are quite a few other sections most definitely worth exploring that I did not cover in this post. For example, a small dinosaur section and a great exhibition on native flora. I also have to mention the dioramas on the third level of the Museum in the taxidermy section. There are some very solid dioramas, especially one of shags nesting in a cliff on the coast of New Zealand.

Practical Information

The Canterbury Museum is open daily, except Christmas Day, from 9am to 5.30pm. It is accessible and there is a cafe on site (located on the upper level). Entrance is free which is quite amazing! There is a fee of $2 per person if you are wishing to visit ‘Discovery’ – a more hands-on area especially designed for children.

Author: Rebecca Lush

Curator, Integrated Pathology Learning Centre.

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