Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The aura of history...

Today I had an intensely pleasurable experience.

 I was running late, between appointments down in Wellington. I was at Te Papa looking at Colenso’s botanical specimens. I wasn’t sure what they’d be like or even what they’d reveal. 

As it turned out I was a little late getting inside the bunker. But eventually I was in the lift and being taken through the curiously impersonal interstices of the beast. The polite young man from Te Papa and I wandered through a corridor so wide a vehicle could drive down it.  Somehow it was as if the drabness of the exterior was reproduced in its most intimate parts. 

I was led into a room and introduced to the ‘protocols’. This was to do with showing me on a map where exit routes were. I thought this meant I would have to find my own way out. But it was in case of a ‘natural disaster’. (And actually when I was led to the lift at the end of my appointment, I felt completely confused about where we were heading. In a natural disaster I wouldn’t have recalled the exit routes which were shown in the abstract on paper....)

Anyway finally I was taken into the room where the botanical specimens are stored.  This is a large impersonal room with a number of blue metal shelves which slide along. Each shelf, approximate two to three metres high? - is packed with the miniature dynamite of specimens. 

But I felt an almost incredible sense of delight to find a photo of William Colenso looking over the collection (the only decoration in the whole room.)  It was an historical photo, in an old frame which made it even better. (I think the photo was taken around the 1880s, when Lindaeur portrayed him.) I loved to think of Colenso as a kaitiaki of the botanical collections and felt how thrilled he would have been.

I mentioned to the polite young man  how recognition was a complex journey for Colenso. He seemed surprised. He told me the Colenso collection was the most important part of their botanical collection - ‘over 4000 items.’

I did not tell him about Colenso’s self doubts and the way contemporaries delighted in portraying him as a blundering amateur.

But  it was when the young man opened up one of the small brown paper packages no bigger than an envelope I felt another burst of pleasure. 

Inside was a twig which could have been cut yesterday. It was covered with a vivid yellow lichen and the cut, through a branch approximately 3/4 inch thick, showed evidence of an extremely sharp knife. 

At the bottom of the packet was some little bits of grit and dirt.

It was as if it was still living. (It was called Monegazzia Sticta if I have the spelling right.)

But written in pencil was Colenso’s handwriting, as always very specific: Te Houtotara 9th April 1850.
So I was looking down at a piece of wood which he had collected one hundred and fifty one years ago, almost to the day. 

I realise to most people this would mean very little. But to me it was so exciting that I felt the past almost tangibly, as if the stick had an aura all its own.

I took some photos which I can't show you for copyright reasons (fascinatingly Te Papa want to own all copyright of photos taken in the museum. I wondered if this applied to casual tourists, who take snaps of exhibits. Ownership of image is a deeply complex issue, it seems, in the contemporary world - which is flooded with images.)

But it felt good to be inside Colenso’s private hidden museum.


  1. Great post, Peter. I know what you mean about objects from the past having their own aura. The fact that actual fingers, two hundred years ago, touched this brick or that page, seems something like magic. It makes time seem like such an arbitrary, odd factor.
    Susan Pearce

  2. I write about this quite a bit in my current book on Colenso. It kind of makes the pilgrimage aspect a bit more real...that is, visiting actual sites and seeing things as seen by....I really love it.

  3. What a wonderful experience - I would have been elated, and blubbing (-:

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