War Memorial

If you ever fall off the War Memorial, just go real limp, because maybe you'll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.

- Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey

A Tribute to Men

Phallic, isn't it?

The National War Memorial, more commonly known as the Carillon, is 50.6 metres of concrete and steel thrusting up into the Wellington sky - the most phallic piece of architecture in the country (with the exception of the Sky Tower).  It's also an enormous musical instrument featuring 74 bells struck by cast iron hammers triggered by a piano keyboard.

Many's the time I've lain in bed on a Sunday morning listening to the peal of the bells in the tower and thought, "why don't they tune those damn things?"

Problems of tuning aside, the bells do sound lovely.  It's hard to imagine such a sweet sound is created by a man banging at the keyboard with a clenched fist and stamping on pedals.

The Carillon is an impressive sight.  That in turn has made it a target for graffiti artists, vagabonds and late night adventurers.  One young man, who wishes to be known only as L, was so taken by the Carillon while under the influence of alcohol that he decided to climb it and be closer to heaven.  Half way up he was bathed in a blinding white light.

"Am I in heaven?" he thought.


He was caught in the spotlight of the WestpacTrust rescue helicopter.  They waved him down and probably saved themselves another callout while saving him from broken bones.

Source: Capital Times 25-31 October 2000

Peter Jackson and Costa Botes memorialised this building in their brilliant movie, Forgotten Silver (which, if you haven't seen, you really should).  The old National Museum was located behind the War Memorial.  It has been replaced, of course, by Te Papa.

Here's an article about a the problems facing museums around the world...

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

With more and more of what museums own ending up behind locked doors, curators are hatching plans to widen access to their collections

When, in 1983, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, DC, decided it had run out of space, it began transferring part of its collection from the cramped attic and basement rooms where the specimens had been languishing to an out-of-town warehouse.  Restoring those specimens to pristine condition was a monumental task.  One member of staff, for example, spent six months doing nothing but gluing the legs back on to crane flies.  But 30m items - and seven years - later, the job was done.

At least for the moment.  For the Smithsonian owns 130 million plants, animals, rocks and fossils, and that number is growing at 2 - 3% a year.  On a global scale, however, such numbers are not exceptional.  The Natural History Museum in London has 80 million specimens.  And, in a slightly different scientific context, the Science Museum next door to it has 300,000 objects recording the history of science and technology.

Deciding what to do with these huge accumulations of things is becoming a pressing problem.  They cannot be thrown away, but only a tiny fraction can be put on display.  Hiding them in rural Maryland, or its European equivalents, seems a counsel of despair.  But new attitudes, allied to new technologies, are coming up with solutions.

Fun in Store

The huge, invisible collections behind the scenes at science and natural history museums are the result of the dual roles of these institutions.  On the one hand, they are places for the public to go and gawp.  On the other, they are places of research - and researchers are not interested merely in the big, showy things that curators like to reveal to the public.

Squaring the two roles is difficult, and can lead to apparently curious decisions about what to retain and what to reject.  Blythe House in West London, the Science Museum's main storage facility, has, as might be expected, cabinets full of early astronomical instruments such as astrolabes, celestial globes and orreries.  But it is also home to such curios as Canopic jars, which were used by the ancient Egyptians to store embalmed viscera.  And the museum is custodian to things that are dangerous.  It holds a lot of the equipment of Sir William Crookes, a 19th-century scientist who built the first cathode-ray tubes, experimented with radium, and also discovered thallium - an extremely poisonous element.  He was a sloppy worker.  All his equipment was contaminated with radioactive materials, but he worked in an age when nobody knew about the malevolent effects of radioactivity.

Neil Brown is the senior curator for classical physics, time and microscopes at the Science Museum.  He spends his professional life looking for objects that illustrate "some aspect of scientific and technological development.  And it is often small things he looks for - objects associated with a particular place, researcher or event.

Collections of computers, and domestic appliances such as television sets and washing machines, are growing especially fast.  But the rapid pace of technological change, and the volume of new objects, makes it increasingly hard to identify what future generations will regard as significant.  There were originally, for example, three different versions of the video-cassette recorder, and nobody knew at the time which was going to win.  And who, in the 1970s, would have realised the enormous effect the computer would have by the turn of the century?  In this context, the Canopic jars - representatives, in some sense, of early medicine - look less odd.

The public is often surprised at the Science Museum's interest in recent objects.  Mr Brown says he frequently turns down antique brass and mahogany electrical instruments.  "I say, it's very nice but no, I don't want it, because our stores are full of them.  But when you are finished with that aluminium and plastic digital thing we'd be interested in that.  People double-take."  Sure enough, a random scan of the museum's recent accessions reveals the following items:

bulletthe Atomic domestic coffee maker
bulleta 114-piece DIY toolkit with canvas case
bulleta green beer bottle

Natural history museums collect for a different reason.  Their accumulations are part of attempts to identify and understand the natural world.  Some of the plants and animals they hold are "type specimens".  In other words, they are the standard reference unit, like a reference weight or length, for the species in question.  Other specimens are valuable because of their age.  One of the most famous demonstrations of natural selection in action was made using museum specimens.  A study of moths collected over a long period of time showed that their wings became darker (which made them less visible to insectivorous birds) as the industrial revolution made Britain more polluted.

Year after year, the value of such collections quietly and reliably increases, as researchers find uses that would have been unimaginable to those who started them a century or two ago.  Genetic analysis, pharmaceutical development, biomimetics (engineering that mimics nature to produce new designs) and biodiversity mapping are all developments that would have been unimaginable to the museums' founders.

But as the collections grow older, they grow bigger.  Insects may be small, but there are millions of them, and entomologists would like to catalogue every one.  And when the reference material is a pair of giraffes or a blue whale (each vertebra being almost the size of a chair and the jawbone weighing at least half a tonne), space becomes a problem.  That is why museums such as the Smithsonian are increasingly forced to turn to out-of-town storage facilities.  But museums that show the public only a small fraction of their material risk losing the fickle goodwill of governments and the public, which they need to keep running.  Hence the determination of so many museums to make their back-room collections more widely available.

The Smithsonian is trying to tackle this problem by computerising part of its catalogue over the next three years.  The new catalogue, which will be available on the Internet, will include digitised photographs of a significant proportion of the specimens.  This means that those with, say, a passion for crane flies will eventually be able to indulge it with the museum's l.5 million now-restored specimens.  But virtual access is not the only way to allow the public to see entire collections.  The Natural History Museum is making a virtue of necessity, and turning its reference collections and its researchers into exhibits in their own right.

At the beginning of 2001, some 20 million animal specimens preserved in alcohol will travel the short distance from their old, cramped home to a brand new building next door.  It will take six months of meticulous organisation to move the 450,000 jars, which contain everything from tiny parasitic worms to fish collected by Charles Darwin.  The head of the museum's basking shark will probably travel in more style than when it first arrived.  (It was originally part of a display in Harrods's food hall, just down the road, and was brought to its new home in a wheelbarrow.)

Although this new store will be a working laboratory, it is also designed as a public space.  Visitors will see into the collection areas, be given tours of different parts of the collection, and be able to watch live video links showing researchers at work.  At the moment, less than 1% of the museum's collection of animals and plants is on show.  The new store will increase this to more than 75%, and literally bring the public behind the scenes.  At present, most of what the public pays the museum's managers to do is unseen and therefore undervalued.  Now, this will change, and give a new emphasis to the institution's role in research.

Source: The Economist 23 December 2000

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