A Dunedin Masterpiece: The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum

21 November 2019

We’re in Dunedin to take an afternoon train ride along the Taieri Gorge, but we have a couple of hours to kill so we pop into the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum next to the railway station.

The museum is housed, in part, in a stunning art deco building. Coming from England, where history oozes from every corner and crevice, it would be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that 20th century architecture is inferior to “proper old stuff” from earlier centuries. This, in turn, would be to condemn most New Zealand buildings as unworthy of serious consideration. The masterpiece that is the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum is proof positive that such views are seriously misguided.

The magnificent art deco exterior of the Toitu Otago Setllers Museum

The museum is

dedicated to telling the story of the people of Dunedin and the surrounding area, whose character, culture, technology, art, fashion and transport shaped New Zealand’s first great city.

SOURCE: Toitu Otago Settlers’ Museum website, retrieved 21 December 2019

Although the museum is mostly devoted to social history since the arrival of the Europeans, Maori lives are also represented. Suspended from the ceiling of one of the galleries is a Manu Tukutuku, a bird-like kite which was flown to celebrate the Maori New Year. Made from woven New Zealand flax it’s one of the Maori exhibits that catches the eye.

Manu Tukutuku

The early history of Dunedin is captured by some fine old photographs, which are strategically displayed throughout the museum. The undated image below reflects the earliest days of the city, and gives a clue to the effort needed to carve it out of the virgin bush.

Early days in Dunedin

Early Dunedin was, of course, fashioned largely from timber, and it’s no surprise therefore that the city fathers were worried about the danger of fire. A fire brigade was established in 1862, and kitted out with the latest in fire engine technology. The Pride of Dunedin was built by Shand Mason and Company of London, and brought to the other side of the world to help keep Dunedin safe.

The Pride of Dunedin fire engine, built in 1862

Dunedin’s origins lie in the wish of a group of breakaway Presbyterian Scots to create a vigorous new community, where members of the Free Church of Scotland could live out their faith and advance themselves. The first of them arrived in 1848. It’s joked that these early immigrants from Scotland were looking for somewhere cold, damp and miserable to make them feel at home, and the area they chose – which was to become Dunedin – fitted that bill perfectly.

In another acknowledgment of their Scottish heritage the early settlers wanted to call their city New Edinburgh. Soon, however, that was superseded by Dunedin, derived from Dùn Èideann, the Scots Gaelic name for Edinburgh.

The Dunedin Stationery Warehouse in the late 19th century

Dunedin grew rapidly during the central Otago goldrush, beginning in the 1860s. In the mid-1860s, and between 1878 and 1881, it was New Zealand’s largest urban area. The image above shows the Dunedin Stationery Warehouse at around this time, and reflects a local economy that was doing well.

A Dunedin tram

The development of Dunedin as a city and the wealth that it generated in due course required the creation of a public transport infrastructure, including trams.

The Automobile association of Otago’s service vehicle, built in 1924

Private car ownership began in the early 20th century, and of course with it grew also the fear of mechanical breakdown. When their members found themselves in difficulty the Automobile Association of Otago’s service vehicle – built in England in 1924 – could be called upon to help out. Notice that the yellow colour of this early vehicle reflects the branding of today’s Automobile Association (AA), both in New Zealand and the UK.

Peugeot motorcycle pictured at Waipori in 1906

As well as cars, motorcycles were an important part of the transport infrastructure. The image above shows Dunedin motor agent C. J. Fox and his Peugeot motorcycle in the Dunedin township of Waipori in 1906, while below is one of the museum’s must-see exhibits, a restored 1916 Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson, built 1906

I could happily spend all day here at the Otago Settlers Museum, but we have a train to catch. It’s become evident over the last few weeks that New Zealand does museums well, and this one is no exception. It is, like the other museums we’ve visited on this trip, an excellent facility that deserves to be treasured by visitors and locals alike.

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