The Kauri Museum is a bittersweet experience for GARY STEEL.
Our small but low income family is becoming adept at discovering free events, and given the potential boredom during the school holidays, we were ecstatic to find out that the famed Kauri Museum was holding an open day.
I was a callow youth the last time I visited and my parents paid. It all seemed like just an endless bunch of boring tree stuff to a pimply adolescent who was only interested in two things: rock music, and girls. I’ve resisted going back ever since, and while I’ve been keen to check it out since moving up North a few years ago, the admission charge of $25 seemed steep.
As an older person now, my interests have evolved to encapsulate the usual addictions of the elderly-to-be, including various manifestations of history (genealogy, local and world history), and the mighty kauri now seems mighty interesting; maybe not twenty-five dollars interesting, though, so the prospect of a free visit was just too good to turn down.
It turned out that loads of other families had heard about the open day as well, and the place was swarming with over-excited children running rampant and preventing their parents from stopping long enough to catch anything more than a glimpse of individual exhibits. Our 4-year-old thought it was a great lark, but I think she missed the significance of the place. The museum is huge, and it seems like an interconnected series of rooms (upstairs, downstairs) and rooms within rooms. I loved it for about 30 minutes, and thereafter felt a mixture of claustrophobia and dizziness and basically wanted to get the hell out of the maze. But that’s me. The child was thrilled to race from room to room, catching a glimpse of some historic re-enactment of an early 20th century dentist or some old lady having a bath or a collection of carved kauri gum or an ancient organ but always onto the next, next, next.
For me, the whole thing was utterly fascinating, and the museum itself hugely impressive. Sure, some of the exhibits were clunky and a bit musty in the way that museums put together with love and perseverance by the community often are, but it suited the theme and the period in time covered by the exhibits: essentially, from the time the conquering pioneers discovered the usefulness of kauri in the mid-1800s through the booming industry of the late 19th century to the dregs of the early 20th century when all that was left was the digging up of kauri gum.
It struck me that the kauri museum was a monument to a holocaust, a celebration of the rape of our land, and although it echoes what’s happened throughout most of the world during the 20th and into the 21st century, the big difference is that with kauri, there’s no turning back.
These trees have been standing in Aotearoa for an estimated 100 million years, and the largest trees were three or four thousand years old. Human lives are just blimps in the life of a single kauri, and yet our forefathers seem to not have once considered the long-term consequences of their actions as they chopped down, processed and exported these awe-inspiring trees (mostly to America) with the intention of then converting all the former forests to pasture land.
After awhile it became almost impossible to process the information: if only there was a way of going back and seeing into the heads of these settlers. Did they know that their destruction of this unique ecosystem would come at an incredibly high price down the track? Were they just thinking with the same short-term, day-to-day mental attitudes we still use as we happily churn through polluting diesel in our oversized SUVs? Did they realise that once the kauri was gone – along with much of the rest of the forests and its birds – that there was no turning back? Did they love England, the Motherland, so much that they simply wanted to replicate its green and pleasant pasturelands? Or weren’t they thinking at all?
Ultimately, the Kauri Museum is a deeply depressing experience – albeit a hugely educative one – and immersing yourself in it all filled me with a sorrow I just can’t describe. The museum seeks to portray the incredible hardship, determination, entrepreneurship, innovation and courage of the settlers who worked with kauri, and it does that well. It’s hard to imagine how difficult life must have been for those hardy souls, not to mention any poor wives who most probably would have spent most of their time scrubbing mud off the floor of their shacks. History, of course, is made up of individual stories, and there are many fascinating biographies here.
But perhaps the one that summed it up best for me was the current temporary exhibition about Tudor Collins, who in the early 20th century was involved in the waning days of the kauri industry and who we can thank for the majority of great photographs from that era. By the 1940s Collins had become a vocal advocate for saving the remaining strands of kauri forest, and as such, can be seen as a unique figure – someone who experienced first-hand the last of the decimation (and probably even contributed to it) but came around to understanding that living kauri forests were much more important than the wood we got from the wholesale destruction. It was all too little too late, and today we’re left with relatively small stands of kauri forest and precious few ‘elders’ like Tane Mahuta, and on top of that, the survival of kauri as a species is being challenged by kauri dieback disease.
Recently, the Kauri Museum has revealed the extent of its financial problems, which it says stem from a lack of tourist dollars since busloads of foreigners no longer visit. With the Government’s intent to push Northland as a tourist destination, perhaps the museum will become flush again, but I wonder if its emphasis on celebrating the settlers who raped and pillaged our forests is quite right. Maybe its curators could look at a wing devoted to analysing and pontificating on the terrible destruction and the mournfulness that many now feel, all these years later, at a wrong that can never be set right.
I burst out of the museum into the bright spring day and felt a huge sigh of relief. Let’s get a coffee and a bite, I thought. It’s not yet lunchtime, so it should be easy enough to get a table at the café. Long queues not moving, and in the cabinet nothing but meat pies and meat sandwiches. Okay, let’s try the other café down the road. No customers, but only two food items available, both of them meat pizzas. Sometimes, being vegetarian (and wannabe vegan) in rural NZ can be testing. We had planned to immerse ourselves in the museum once again after a break, but a patisserie in Paparoa beckoned, and so did the playground across the road.
I’ll be back, by myself, and will pay that stiff fee, which will seem okay if I spend the necessary hours leisurely taking in all the exhibits (although they really should have discount prices for locals). But I’ll bring my own coffee flask and nibbles.