You know sometimes you go somewhere not expecting much, but end up utterly enchanted? That’s what happened when I went to Nigel Ogle’s Tawhiti Museum in Taranaki. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Just go there, and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to see everything – a few hours at least. And visit the café. It’s just… well… let me explain…
Tawhiti is the largest private museum in New Zealand. Housed in a former cheese factory, it was developed by an artist called Nigel Ogle, who spends his time creating life-sized models of people, using moulds cast from co-opted locals. These models, along with many scale dioramas, tell the story of Taranaki, from the early interactions of the European sailors and Maori tribesmen, to the tragic life of mid-twentieth century local author, Ronald Hugh Morrieson.
The entrance of Tawhiti has the look of one of those historic villages: quite charming. It costs $15 to get into the museum, and a further $15 to do the ‘Traders and Whalers’ bit – and, trust me, you want to do the ‘Traders and Whalers’ bit. There’s also a ‘bush railway’ ride for another $6, but that only runs on certain days.
The first thing I did was visit Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s attic. It wasn’t just a recreation; it was his actual attic, rescued by a local farmer when the rest of the house was demolished in favour of a KFC, and restored by Nigel Ogle. It was a room I felt right at home in: a 1950’s writer’s paradise. And there was the writer himself, sitting at a messy desk overlooking the attic window – a model, obviously.
Ronald Hugh Morrieson was born in 1922 and never left his parents’ house. His father died in 1928, leaving him, a sickly child, to be raised by his mother and aunt. He never married, was an alcoholic, and became increasingly reclusive. He quite clearly suffered from depression, tortured by the feeling that his writing wasn’t good enough. It’s a state of mind I’m all-too-familiar with and my dad, who was with me in the attic, jokingly reminded me that I musn’t become like Morrieson. It wasn’t really a joke and I was suddenly chilled to the core.
Morrieson died in poverty at just fifty years old. He once said to the famous New Zealand writer Maurice Shadbolt, “I hope I’m not another one of these poor buggers who get discovered when they’re dead.” Well, that’s just what happened. Two of his novels, The Scarecrow and Came a Hot Friday, were published during his lifetime, but did not become popular until years later. Morrieson’s third and fourth novels, Predicament and Pallet on the Floor, which were rejected by publishers during Morrieson’s lifetime, were published posthumously, and all four of his novels were later made into films.
Already impressed with the museum, I made my way to the ‘Traders and Whalers’ bit, stopping at the pirate-themed shop on the way. Tawhiti has two shops. The main museum shop sells some of Nigel Ogle’s pottery and other more ordinary souvenirs, but the ‘Traders and Whalers’ shop is like an exhibition in itself. You’d think perhaps that a pirate-themed shop would be tacky, but in this case it isn’t. I found some really nice, interesting things in there.
‘Traders and Whalers’ reminded me a little of Jorvik, the Viking museum in York where you go on a ride through a life-sized recreation of what York would have been like in Viking times, complete with people, animals and unsavoury smells. This didn’t have the smells, but it was almost as good. It was a short boat ride through a pre-European Maori village that was in the process of being visited by a shipload of European traders and whalers. The children seated in front of me absolutely loved it, and were thrilled when a surprise canon went off, lightly dousing us in mist. I must admit, it made me jump.
The next part of the museum was, for me, incredibly dull. My dad quite liked it, and we did find one interesting thing, which I’ll get to in a moment, but basically it’s an enormous hall full of old tractors. God, it was dull. Anyway, the interesting thing: Taranaki farmers have been at war with their boxthorn hedges for nearly 150 years, and at some point one crazy farmer decided to deal with his hedges by attaching an enormous propeller of blades to the side of an old WWII army tank and, well, you can imagine the rest.
Before going to the main part of the museum, we decided to refuel at the café, which, like the ‘Traders and Whalers’ shop, is an exhibition in itself. It’s called Mr Badger’s Country Café because its beautiful interior is decorated with scenes from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. There’s even a human-sized Badger reading by the fireplace in the corner! And in the opposite corner, sitting at a table, staring wistfully out of the window, is an eerily lifelike figure…
The main part of Tawhiti focuses on the lives of Taranaki’s Victorian settlers, but there’s a wonderful 1920’s house too, donated by the recently deceased local woman who lived there, along with all her period furniture. The most fascinating exhibition, I think, is the one about the New Zealand Wars – so many incredibly detailed dioramas!
I learned so much history as I walked around. Tawhiti seems more personal than other museums. Well, I mean, it is. It’s Nigel Ogle’s personal museum. But more than that. The individual personalities of the historical people leap out at you more than at ‘normal’ museums. You get the feeling that Tawhiti is a love letter to Taranaki. It’s not just a collection of artefacts behind glass.
One small room is dedicated to the life of nineteenth century merchant Chau Tseung, known to the locals as Chew Chong. He overcame racial prejudice to become an important figure in Taranaki’s history.
I was especially gripped by the story of Kimble Bent, an American who enlisted in the British Army because he’d spent all his money on drink. He ended up in New Zealand fighting the Maori, but was so harshly treated by army life – a fact not helped by his lying, thieving and boozing ways – that he deserted, throwing himself upon the mercy of a Maori chief called Tito Hanataua, who took him as a slave. Bent lived with the Maori for many years. When he eventually rejoined European society, he told his extraordinary life story to a journalist called James Cowan, who published a book called The Adventures of Kimble Bent: A Story of Wild Life in the New Zealand Bush.
Tawhiti is the quirkiest museum I’ve ever been to. In fact, I found it quite magical. And if this blog hasn’t convinced you of the necessity of visiting, just check out its amazing TripAdvisor reviews!
More from around Taranaki…