Museum artefacts can reveal surprising stories

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Pilgrim and Sons, Kakariki Diorama, circa 1881. Collection of the Southland Museum & Art Gallery Niho o te Taniwha. Gift of John Matheson, 1947. PHOTO: Southland Museum & Art Gallery Niho o te Taniwha

DID you know you could be fined for shooting hares in Southland in 1883? It took me by surprise too.

The magic of museum collections is artefacts don’t necessarily tell the stories you expect them to.

Take this small habitat case containing two kakariki crowned parakeet – a red-crowned parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae) and a yellow-crowned parakeet (Cyanoramphus auriceps).

This diorama was one of many sold in Invercargill by amateur taxidermist George Walter Pilgrim (1854-1932) by means of an art union on March 30, 1881.

Much like the raffles we know today, art unions provided the public the chance to win artworks (or in this case taxidermied birds) in return for a small fee.

They were popular because the value of the work often exceeded the fee, providing art lovers a good opportunity to procure works they could not otherwise afford.

As the items needed to be exhibited in order to attract people to take part, they also had the benefit of making art accessible to more people at a time when art galleries and museums were yet to be founded in many towns.

In the case of Pilgrim’s birds, they were exhibited across three venues in the city, including the City Baths on Tay St, the Criterion Hotel, and the Empire Hotel.

So what has a hare got to do with all this?

George Pilgrim was an Englishman who immigrated to Invercargill in the early 1880s.

In November 1883, he found himself on the wrong side of the law, being brought before the Magistrates Court for breaching the Animals Protection Act 1880.

While our 21st century brains might leap to the assumption this was for killing native species like the two kakariki in the habitat case, it was in fact the crime of shooting a hare which landed him in trouble.

The incident was problematic because, under the Animals Protection Act, hares were classed as game and could only be killed by licence holders.

By contrast, the same law afforded little protection to native species.

In the case of our kakariki, these birds were fairly widespread at the time and their appetite for berries, seeds and fruit made them unpopular with farmers and orchardists who would have them killed to protect their crops.

Courtesy of this culling, habitat destruction, and introduced pests, their descendants are now much fewer in number with red-crowned parakeet now only common on our predator-free islands.

  • Southland Museum collections manager Kimberly Stephenson
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