Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Entering the cave

Entering a cave means stepping from a sunlit, noisy world into a cool, dark underworld full of strange echoes and hidden dangers. Waving a torch about only heightens the mystery of the cave, because it makes us aware of how little we can see, of the corners and crannies that go unilluminated by flame or flashlight. Because of the way their darkness, dry air and layers of earth preserve bones, tools, and paintings for millenia, caves can be called nature's museums. The best man-made museums have the mystery and menace of caves: they are full of dimly-lit chambers, inexplicable artifacts, and the distorted footsteps and voices of other explorers.

In recent decades, strenuous efforts have been made to 'popularise' museums, so that they seem 'relevant' to the gangs of tourists and schoolkids that now troop through them daily. Te Papa, the new national museum built in Wellington in the 1990s, is drenched in light, full of bright colours, and stuffed with computers offering games and quizzes. When the exhibits have captions, they seem to have been written with slightly slow six year-olds in mind. Te Papa is, the experts tell us, an 'interactive' museum.

I wonder whether the kids dig Te Papa as much as the experts might want them to. Sure, they might run excitedly from floor to floor, fight over who gets to play the computer games, and lick their lips at the classic cars that seem to be a fixture in the twentieth century history section of Te Papa. But are museums really supposed to be fun, in the sense that nintendo is fun? Isn't there some deeper feeling -some feeling of awe, or fear, or disgust, or intense bewilderment - which the museum is supposed to conjure, by showing us the treasures and rubbish bequeathed to us by pasts we never knew?

When I was a boy, I loved Auckland Museum because it seemed so radically unfamiliar. Everything about the place - its cold marble walls, its long echoing halls, its interlocking rooms cluttered with dimly-lit exhibits, the half-legible scripts and impossibly long Latin names on the captions under the exhibits - created a sense of displacement. Wandering through the innumerable rooms of the cave, I began to understand that there were other worlds - worlds that existed in the past, over the sea, on the other side of my city - radically different to the one I inhabited. The languid gaze of a God's carved head, rescued from a swamp in Northland a century ago; the still bodies of Anzacs on Gallipoli beach; the dry blood on a special policeman's long baton; the fierce grimace of a New Guinea mask: all of these were invitations into new worlds.

Three decades later, after extensive renovations, Auckland's museum retains its mystery, for me at least. A couple of 'fun areas' designed specifically for kids represent concessions to the new, politically correct model of museum, but the rest of the place retains its old atmosphere. A glass dome has been built over the building's inner courtyard, creating a sort of miniature version of the famous atrium in the British Museum. A number of new wings have opened - I can't tell you how many, or where they are, because I kept getting lost - and there are at least half a dozen exhibitons running, including the heavily-promoted and unreasonably expensive Vaka Moana: Voyages of the Ancestors show, which celebrates the epic deeds of the Polynesian navigators who explored the Pacific many hundreds of years before Cook and Tasman.

With visitors fussing over the atrium and queuing up to see Voyages of the Ancestors, there's a danger that a very fine exhibition called Encounter: New Zealand Design and Decorative Arts might be overlooked this summer. Encounter features everything from Crown Lynn ceramics to tobacco jars to postmodern tikis, but the objects that caught my eye were two handmade clocks. There's a bafflingly complicated astronomical clock which was built in 1948 by George Bolt, the pioneer aviator who lived in Auckland. Bolt's clock features an ornate frame complete with tiny golden spires, and it records the movement of the sun, moon, and stars as well as the passage of time in this city. In the dim light of the museum's marble cave Bolt's creation looks like a magical artifact.

Less eye-catching, but more historically significant, is the temperature-compensated, mercury-regulated longclock built in 1869 by AG Bartlett, one of Auckland's first horologists. Bartlett's clock records the times in London, Wellington, and Auckland with an accuracy unprecedented in the 1860s. We often assume that time is something 'natural', like oxygen or water, but its ebbs and flows are in important respects man-made. In his great essay 'Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism' EP Thompson showed how the industrial revolution and birth of capitalism brought to Britain radically new conceptions of time. The imprecise times kept by an agrarian society dependant upon to the cycles of the seasons were replaced by the rigid rhythms of machine-time. The train and the factory required the precise keeping of time, and not only horologists but the new industrial working class had to adjust.

The caption to Bartlett's clock describes it as evidence of 'the growing establishment of a public time infrastructure in New Zealand'. Bartlett's clock was made six years after the invasion of the Waikato, at a time when the vast amounts of land confiscated from Tainui and other iwi were being made available to British-born capitalists. The old Polynesian garden economy, which had combined some progressive elements of capitalism with socialistic features of traditional Maori society, had been pushed to the margins of the North Island, and an alien, large scale dairying and sheep farming economy was being established. New Zealand was on its way to becoming 'Britain's farm', with all the deference and dependency implicit in that self-identification. Along with the musket and the theodolite, Bartlett's clock is a charmingly old-fashioned symbol of imperialism.

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