A Week in Whanganui: Moa Bones, Museums, and Art

Last week, I did something unusual – I spent six days in Whanganui, New Zealand. Whanganui is a pretty place, a large town/very small city traced along a shimmering river, a bit off the beaten tourist track on the west coast of New Zealand. WanganuiRiverAnd I was there to spend time volunteering at the Whanganui Regional Museum…
WHM-MuseumOutside…in their moa bone exhibit. This is not just the largest dedicated moa exhibit in the world, it is also “living storage” for the museum’s  significant moa bone collection. I was there to help process moa bones for physical and online curation, and to document the process for other volunteers. You can read more about the technical and communication aspects of this at my professional blog here.WhMu-MoaRoom   I was able to get up close and personal with the moa collection – a fascinating experience.Moalab-skull

ECwithDNAspecimenDo I look stylish? Enh, probably not. I went up to “Wangers” with a thoughtful fall capsule wardrobe in my luggage, and then the weather there decided it was going to be summer again. So I could only wear about half the clothing I had with me without broiling, and I was too wrapped up in the museum to care much. I wonder if other capsule wardrobe travelers get caught out like this.

The museum also hosts rotating art exhibits from their deep collection. This month they were opening an exhibit about retro New Zealand woodcraft by a company named Sovereign. Here are some sleek 50s and 60s pieces from the exhibit.

WhMu-retrowoodartI timed my volunteering week to be in Whanganui for the Open Studio art festival. That meant I was in Whanganui for their first Pecha Kucha on Friday night. On Saturday, a friend and I zipped around to multiple glassblowing studios and artist exhibits. There’s lots of wonderful artwork and I will be back for the next Open Studio next year. Here’s a hasty shot of the treasures in progress at Chronicle Glass Studio:
ChronicleStudiosTo complete my “geekcation” I even found a great new pair of eyeglasses at Eyes on Victoria – turns out they have exotic French and Italian frames, along with Karen Walker’s world-famous-in-the-world NZ designed eyeglasses and sunglasses. I am really lucky to be able to take a week off of work to volunteer in a natural history collection at a museum. It was a fantastic six days, thanks to everyone who hosted me and who I visited along the way!


After a week of volunteering (and handling other bones with care) I was allowed to hold a giant moa leg bone. SCIENCE!!!


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Friday Follies: Bohemian Rhapsody

I told you were were all going to be hippies this coming summer. Burning Man happened for the 27th time this week, and “festival fashion” is a thing. Not only is there a “burner look“, but other festivals such as Glastonbury and Coachella are being mined for their style concepts.

It’s no use going to Burning Man and the like if your brain isn’t switched on. I’m enjoying this regular coallation of science news links by Aimee Whitcroft, Wellington-based geek extraordinare and the coordinator of Nerdnite Wellington. Get it in your feed and feel your IQ soar.

If the idea of wearing a wee wreath of flowers with your gumboots is too depressing, be inspired by my style crush of the week: “goth punk steampunky bohemian fairy” over at Couturgatory!

Or, check out the deliciously raw jewelry from Shh by Sadie – the creator alternates between being in Wellington, NZ and Wales. I saw some of her goodies at Rex Royale on Cuba Street recently. Hoping she restocks her Etsy store soon…

Shh by Sadie is having an arm party and you’re invited – click to view her full collection!

To rock your bohemian self, Aethercon is coming to Wellington again in the second weekend of October, with a theme of “post-apocalyptic steampunk.” I’m emceeing the daytime events and costume competitions, so start planning for your post-crash utopian looks. There’s also a steampunk ball that evening, with performers, plus costumes judged by visiting boylesque luminary Ray Gunn.

Lastly, Bohemian Rhapsody by the Muppets.

Someone loved this vintage radio, built in Christchurch, NZ

“My greatest luxury”: radio in the 1940s and my Nerd Nite talk

Tonight, I’m giving a talk at Nerd Nite Wellington! It’s about the history of wireless communication, our passion for it, and whether or not we are loving our wireless access to death. Here’s a tidbit from the presentation – a glimpse of what radio used to mean to a stylish young woman living through World War II.

Someone loved this vintage radio, built in Christchurch, NZ

““My wireless was small, round-shouldered, encased in shiny brown Bakelite; I treasured it as my greatest luxury….That little friendly lit panel, with all those names and numbers printed fanwise, red and green, represented freedom, warmth, a world that was alive…During the war I think the wireless must have been a greater blessing to more people than it had ever been before. No telly, no outside lights after dusk, many theaters and some cinemas closing down, almost everything rationed….I certainly enjoyed my wireless more actuely and greedily than I have ever enjoyed it since.”

excerpt from “The Purple Dress”, Jenifer Wayne’s memoir of growing up in the 1930s and working for BBC Radio during World War II.


When decor is up for debate

In early January, my guest room got repainted with a cream ceiling and palest ashes-of-roses walls. But at my house, the post-repaint luminosity and the new gate latch goes unnoticed. People are too busy reliably flipping out about three or four decor elements.

At the end of the day, the details of our homes are there for us, not for our visitors. The things we love give us daily pleasure when we live amongst them, just as the spin of a Tibetan prayer wheel generates good energy. “Your apartment, it’s like your skin,” a friend of mine once said. And just as we are encouraged to care for yet reclaim our own bodies, we should feel equally comfortable doing whatever we want with the spaces we live in. Whether that’s the right wall color, a coffee table balanced on an engine, or the Victorian taxidermy turtle dish placed just so.


Taxidermy is one of my long-term fascinations. In my living room, there are two pieces of taxidermy: an assemblage of birds and a red deer fawn, known as the “Fawn of Satan” due to its evil, knowing expression. Small children go right up to the fawn, begging to pet it. Adults get stuck examining the birds. Revulsion, fascination, and questions of legality come up. A tastemaker I know declared, “Two pieces of taxidermy is all right. Any more is creepy.” If I ever find one of those Victorian turtle dishes at the right time, I’m afraid the room will officially become creepy. You may find it so already…

If you put flowers next to the taxidermy, it's less evil

The birds are all, I was told, Australian interlopers to NZPoignantly, people didn’t pay half as much attention to the taxidermy when my cat was alive. Living nature trumps the dead. But when it comes to human attention, even dead, preserved nature trumps the 8 pictures and two shelves of bizarre objects that are also in this room. Evolutionary psychology in action.

After a visit to my house, if somebody likes me, they forward me taxidermy links forevermore. Keep ’em coming, my lovelies, especially to sites like Ravishing Beasts. And just as Bon Bon Rocher receives boudoir-themed gifts, I get “mad naturalist” ones. Stingray spines, boxes of shells, souvenirs from the La Brea Tar Pits museum, Neil Pardington’s Vault exhibit catalog for my birthday, to my delight. Last year a friend of mine gave me this carefully preserved weta, which I have placed temporarily in this bell jar, like the treasure it is.

The bell jar used to have a clock in it. I'm working on the base.

Nude Photos

Are nude or pin-up photos ever tasteful? Are they tasteful when they’re nudes of yourself, of your lover, or of a stranger or friend? What about full-color baroque-frame pin-ups compared to artsy black and white? There’s a huge discussion on the topic here at Metafilter. For the time being, I’ve applied the “Rule of Two” to the nude photos…even though a third one is framed up.

Do you notice the subtle warmth imparted by the slightly rose-hued wall? Or are you all OMG NAKED PHOTOS?

If you are worried about children seeing your nude/pin-up photos, there’s an easy solution. Just put some taxidermy in the same room, closer to a child’s eye level. Your nude photos are now invisible to anyone who hasn’t reached puberty!

Dan McCarthy Print

Poster art and screenprints are another of my long-term loves, and lots of my visitors share the love for this Dan McCarthy print. Which surprises and delights me. I never knew so many people shared my taste for skeletons, bees, and dinosaur skeletons, combined into a gracious statement on environmental decay and extinction. I got this for $30 online when it first came out.

Dan McCarthy print, "Shared Memory: Pollinators", 2008

There are two testaments to this print’s power: the many discussions about bee colony collapse we’ve had at my dining table, and the fact that nobody has ever commented on the fact that the room that has this print is missing its skirting boards/baseboards.

Since Dan McCarthy made this print, his art has gone in a completely different direction – his web site is here, but a lot of his earlier prints can be found through third-party sellers.

Some day I’ll do a post on my retro kitchen, but that’s another story…

Exhibit A: Rockabilly Kitchen, original 1940s layout - note the "pie safe" cupboard

“Vintage Lifestyle:” Cupcakes Against The Abyss

Why did it take me until this month to hear the phrase “vintage and rockabilly lifestyle”?

At first, I was grumpy. “How can an aesthetic be a lifestyle?” Then I looked around my house.

Exhibit A: Rockabilly Kitchen, original 1940s layout - note the "pie safe" cupboard

I hauled this taxidermy around for years. People thought I was mad. Well, WHO'S MAD NOW? Oh, I still am.

Er. If a “vintage lifestyle” is about the aesthetic, the look, the stuff, I am guilty as charged. So, what does it mean to love vintage things but be impatient for the future?

(By the way, these pictures don’t even show the leopard-print sheets. Or the art-deco light fixtures. Or the rusted hand-forged coat hooks I rescued from a junk shop in Auckland, soaked in oil for three weeks, and lovingly hand-sanded. Or the atomic barkcloth curtains that I made with the fabric I ordered from the U.S. for a song (this stuff, with a blue background). I list these things and I think, “Perhaps I could have been saner?” Oh well, moving on.)

The other day in a slip of the tongue I said, “Now that we all live in the 22nd century,” then I realized I wished it was true. I like the Internet, eating food from around the world, being huffily offended at the least jot of racism, and women with science careers. You know that it’s possible to update a Twitter feed using brainwaves alone, right?  How cool is that? And I eagerly anticipate stem cell medical advances and the new ceramics-based electronics.

But just as Western culture took 75 years to fully assimilate the impact of industrialization from 1850 to the 1920s, I think we’re not done with modernism and its changes just yet. The 1990s, you may recall, were all about the cyber and the techno and the virtual, glossy Matrix-style coats, rubber fetish wear. We were chafing at the bit to start the future. Then 9/11 happened, and in the U.S.A., people looked backwards. Cupcakes, aprons, vintage Atari games, That 70s Show. Europe soon jumped on the bandwagon (“Ostalgie” in Germany, the U.K. going retro too) and it trickled to the Southern hemisphere. We’re still unpacking both the retro suitcase we turned back to (which did have layers and layers of cool things in it) and our massive ambivalence about actually having started the future.

For myself, I’m aware that the main space in my abode, my living room, stylistically exiles the Cold War period. As a young teenager I had nightmares about Chernobyl and nuclear disaster – and the space where I spend many hours leaps from Art Deco to 2001, as if the years when we all lived in nuclear terror didn’t exist. But from my non-nuclear bunker, I can contemplate peak oil, global warming, apocalyptic science fiction, and social flux, and take comfort from cupcakes. And let’s face it: if I had Aeon Flux’s cheekbones instead of cupid’s-bow lips and an hourglass figure, my personal style would be less retro.

Aeon Flux - remember when the future used to look like this?

Judge for yourself! There is a mind-boggling array of blogs combining housewifery and “vintage lifestyle” content.  The blogroll here at B. Vikki Vintage is a good cross section.

A vintage lifestyle magazine in South Africa, for a change.

Thinky thoughts on vintage lifestyle advantages.

Retro-futurism: the past’s perspectives on the future. Paleofuture Blog is a treasure trove of this madness.

If you’re in Wellington, NZ, this month’s Nerdnite, on Monday the 19th, is exceptionally interesting. A speaker is discussing Steampunk Digital Humanities, “using new digital tools to reinterpret and visualise traditional data.”

And, finally, long-term retro aficionado artist Robert Crumb’s A Short History of America. So much nostalgia…and this was drawn in 1979. “What next?” as the last panel asks. Crumb himself did an addendum in 1989.