I recently discovered Museum Hack, a New York company providing independent, alternate tours of the Met and the Museum of Natural History. Museum Hack describe their tours as being fast-paced, interactive and filled with stories, gossip and games. This concept inspired me to lay down the challenge to our Wellington Emerging Museum Professionals (EMPs) for someone to ‘hack’ an exhibit in one of our city’s museums or galleries. In the end, it fell to me to lead the way.
I decided to take aim at the Museum of Wellington’s Telling Tales exhibit. Telling Tales has always been one of my favourite museum exhibits because it places stories as its central focus. These stories create a space that encourages visitors to connect on their own level and through their own experiences. Embracing these unique connections, and in the spirit of Museum Hack, I decided to make it a truly alternative tour which took the history of Wellington and presented it through a completely different lens.
In the early 1920s, the Wellington City Council unveiled plans for a tunnel through Mt. Victoria near the Basin Reserve. While debated raged within the Council over the exact location and design of the tunnel, public outrage and condemnation grew. The most outspoken members of the city formed a group called Save The Basin in an attempt to stop the development and protect the city’s heart, the Basin Reserve. After years of consultation and hearings, the tunnel was rejected and the development of Wellington moved away from the eastern suburbs and headed towards the Kapiti Coast.
Surprisingly, this isn’t a true story. But it isn’t too far away from one. It’s always struck me that one of the fascinating things about history is just how insignificant the triggers can be that lead to the moments we celebrate. While museums focus on the objects, people and moments that the writers of history tell us about, there is value in exploring the alternatives, the could’ve beens. After all, it’s a fine line between fact and fiction.
Exploring that fine line became the basis for my own ‘museum hack’. Using the real life stories and objects of Wellington’s past from within Telling Tales, my tour created a new past that was plausible, thought-provoking, and, almost 100%, made up. While the tour itself was a success, the real value in it was what came after. Our little gathering of EMPs sat down over a coffee and a beer to debrief the experience. Within the group people offered their own alternative histories, moments of change and experiences with the vagaries of writing history. To me, that’s the value of museums: it’s not always about reality, but it is always about inquiry, discussion and enjoyment.
1990 saw the launch of Absolutely Positively Wellington as a marketing campaign for the city. While the public rejected the concept and it was shelved, there were several Wellington City Council members who were looking for an opportunity to relaunch it. In 1992, a surprising opportunity arose in the form of a British television comedy show. Absolutely Fabulous was a smash hit for comedians Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, especially here in New Zealand. Off the back of the show’s popularity, Wellington City Council relaunched their brand as Absolutely Fabulously Wellington. For the next decade, French & Saunders acted as spokes-‘sweeties’ for the city, appearing in countless advertising campaigns and at local events.
Director, NZ Cricket Museum