Simon and David were two businessmen in their mid 40s. David was visiting Christchurch and it was Simon’s job to give his colleague a tour of the city. Today they were visiting the Canterbury Museum and had stumbled across the Bluff Paua House exhibit around the same time I did.
But before we were allowed into the replica of Bluff couple Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s front room, we were first ushered into an anteroom and were required to watch a context-setting audio-visual presentation to help explain why there was half a seaside house filled with paua shells inside a museum in urban Canterbury.
“It’s Kiwiana, David,” Simon explained as the video started. “I thought it was just a house with a few pauas,” David said.
I’m suspicious of anything described as Kiwiana, because it all seems to just be things from the collective childhood of Baby Boomers. The video name-checked all the usual suspects – Jandals, pavlova, Buzzy Bee and, of course, paua shells. David was suspicious too, so Simon further explained, “It’s part of our heritage – Lemon & Paeroa, tomato sauce, fish and chips.”
The video over, we made our way into the replica house. It smelt clean, un-lived-in. “It’s quite a small lounge, isn’t it,” Simon observed. Well, it’s not like anyone actually lives there.
Simon and David didn’t take long to see the paua room and they soon headed for the exit. Taking one final look around, David said, “It’s ‘Fred’ and it’s ‘Myrtle’ but it’s just a bunch of paua shells.” And I realised this was true.
When the Fluteys were alive, to visit their crazy paua-shell house you had to travel all the way to the bottom of the country – the bottom of the world! – and then go inside this eccentric old couple’s actual house, with the knowledge that this wasn’t just a museum space; it was their real living room.
Reconstructed as a museum exhibit, it comes across more as a memorial to both the Fluteys and to Kiwiana. It’s a crazy frozen moment of something that doesn’t actually exist any more.
But in the absence of the Fluteys, has Canterbury Museum now taken on the role of the eccentric collector/hoarder?
Here’s this serious museum with its dioramas of pre-European Maori, collection of taxidermied birds and hall of Antarctic exploration, and yet there, lurking in a corner, is a pretend house filled with paua shells and other kitsch objects. (Even Te Papa at its most manic was never like this.)
And like the Fluteys, it almost seems that it’s something the museum hasn’t set out to do deliberately. It’s just found itself with a big collection of shells and done the museum world equivalent of opening your seaside home to busloads of tourists.
So let’s stop pretending that the paua house at Canterbury museum belongs to Fred and Myrtle. No, Canterbury Museum is your great-uncle who has built a replica house in his shed and is arranging shells on the wall for the tourists.