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A Museum Person on the Road - New Zealand

With the world's borders re-opening I've been able to hit the road (and air) once again so I've enjoyed getting to catch up on many new Museum's and exhibits all over the place.

Queenstown, New Zealand (August 2022)

With so many great places out there I thought I'd share some of the Museum and cultural highlights of my adventures.

I'm keeping these blogs for big adventures while you find one-off Museum posts over on my Museum page, follow this link: Museum and Places.

Today I thought I'd share a really quick post about some of the great places I visited while in Queenstown, New Zealand back in August. (Unless otherwise stated all photos were taken during my visit).


This is Cromwell, New Zealand.

Located at the junction of two rivers, one of the things that made the town a great location 100 years ago was now making it a great location for a hydroelectric dam in the late 1970s.

It wasn’t until thirty years ago (1992), that a dam began to be filled on the banks of the old town but before that happened there was great concern for the old town. Like it always does when dams are built, this meant that parts of the historic town were to be lost. For this reason, volunteers began painstakingly removing much of the old town to re-build it higher and adjacent to the original site.

Why is this town special? In 1862 gold was found and very soon afterwards a population of around 3,000 had developed. At the time it wasn’t called Cromwell, rather being known as “The Junction” given its location at the junction of the two rivers however due to the rapid population growth it would be just one year before it was surveyed and given the name Cromwell, along with street names hailing from Northern Ireland as well. Ten years later when the town was surveyed again names from what is today the Republic of Ireland were also given to new streets and locations around the town.

By 1871, nine years after gold was found the population had dropped to just under 500 people. A century later, in 1971, the population had grown to 1,000. Today around 5,500 people call the town (the real town not this heritage precinct) home. Its central location as a crossroads has seen it develop greatly and with an airport earmarked to be built nearby it is likely to develop further.

The new “old” town may not be in its original place, but it is great that it has been able to be saved and preserved for future generations.

The Cromwell Argus operated from 1869 to 1948, when it was taken over by the Central Otago News.

Though a small post office was established in 1869 the one in the current street was opened in 1871 with a telephone exchange added in 1910.

Aoraki/Mount Cook

While we were at Mt. Cook (about 4 hours from Queenstown) it was great to explore the history of the region and not just enjoy the amazing views from our helicopter flight and the exhilaration of landing on a glacier (I could easily have been over the moon with those two so this extra history exploration was icing on the cake)!

Exploring Aoraki from the sky (August 2022)

Note: Mount Cook is one of the places in New Zealand to have a dual name with the Maori name Aoraki officially used as well. This was formalised in 1998 following the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act. For this reason, from now onwards I will refer to the site of Mt. Cook as Aoraki.

Did you know that there are TWO Museum’s at Mt. Cook?

#1: Visitor Centre

Yep, this tiny village site has some amazing history to share! I didn’t realise that the Department of Conservation (the NZ equivalent of our National Parks Department) Visitor Centre would have such a great Museum! The building has been designed to showcase the mountain as you can see from this photograph of the main gallery space.

The Museum tells of the first Europeans to begin exploring the Mountain in 1862 but also explains that the scientists were not the first to begin utilising the area. Three years earlier, in 1859, Birch Hill Sheep Station had been established and the land used pastorally.

It wouldn’t be until 1882 that a group summited Aoraki, measuring it at a height of 3,764m.

The first fatalities didn’t occur on the mountain until 1914 when three men were killed in an avalanche on the Linda Glacier. Fatalities don’t seem to be a common theme of the mountain, despite the volatile nature of the activities taking place. It would be 61 years until the next fatalities which occurred in 1975 when Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel undertaking survival training were killed in an avalanche in the Ball Pass.

In 1991 a major avalanche saw 10m fall off the top of the mountain. Subsequent erosion has seen the height of the mountain fall by a further 20-30m, thus reducing the height of the mountain to 3,724m.

Exhibit tributing Freda Du Faur

On the second, lower floor, of the centre is a great educational space for children which showcases many aspects of the history, mountaineering and geology of the region. Hidden in a corner down there (I honestly am not sure why it is a hidden exhibit downstairs) is a tribute to the first woman to summit the mountain – Australian Freda Du Faur.

Born in Croydon, New South Wales, she taught herself to rock climb in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park when her family lived nearby. She began training as a nurse however never completed this when she received an inheritance from an aunt that allowed her to travel and live independently without the need for a husband. Freda first travelled to Aoraki in 1906 however it would take a few years of increasing the difficulty of her climbs and training back at home before she could attempt the summit.

Going against social convention of the time which forbid women from climbing or wearing suitable climbing clothing she travelled with a local well-known guide and together the mountain was summited in a record six hours. On her way back down, she was photographed next to a rock to commemorate the milestone and today this rock is known as “Freda’s Rock” (we walked past this and I was so curious why it was called Freda’s rock – it was only when I came home and looked into the story of Freda that I put two and two together).

She did this in 1910 and the seemingly outdated exhibits shows a mannequin of her – which arguably does show how her dress would have made the task all the more difficult compared to that of the men showcased nearby.

Freda Fu Faur photgraph by George Mannering, 1910

It was during her training at home that she met Muriel “Minnie” Cadogan who would become her life partner. In 1914 the pair moved to England intending to climb many of Europe’s mountains however the onset of World War One stopped this. The next year Freda’s book about her climb to the summit of Aoraki was published and well received.

Sadly, her story then takes a devastating turn. In 1929 Minnie was forcibly removed from the company of Freda by her family. As a result, Minnie committed suicide. Freda then returned to Australia where she busied herself with bushwalking however after battling with depression after the loss of Minnie, she killed herself on 13 September 1935. She was buried in Manly in a grave that remained unmarked until 2006 when a group of Kiwi’s installed a plaque commemorating her importance to mountaineering.

Freda’s story was included in a Kiwi play that was produced in 2017, ‘Taking the High Ground’.

Sir Edmund Hilliary Alpine Centre

While the Government Museum is free to explore in the Visitor’s Centre the other Museum in Mt. Cook Village, located in the Hermitage Hotel (which has its own history – see below) comes with an entry fee and is dedicated to the famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary.

The Sir Edmund Hilliary Alpine Centre is located inside the hotel behind a tourist shop and booking centre for local adventures. Interestingly (for a museum person anyway) the café, which is located upstairs is open onto the Museum with patrons upstairs able to look directly into the Museum and access the Museum via the internal stairs.

I expected a lot of this Museum given the topic and the fact that it comes with an entrance fee however I was disappointed, especially after having just spent much longer than I anticipated in the Visitor Centre loving that Museum.

With the Visitor’s centre paying tribute to the first woman to climb the mountain this Museum acknowledges the first female mountain guide – Kiwi Betsy Blunden born in Christchurch in 1909. Aged 19 she wrote to the Hermitage asking for a job as a guide, surprisingly after being interviewed she was hired. The manager noting that she was a “…fine buxom looking wench” (seriously!) Betsy continued to hike until the age of 90 in 1999! She passed away two years later in 2001.

Sadly, the exhibits look tired and in need of a curatorial touch to neaten up some of the exhibits. A bigger portion than I expected is also not about Sir. Hillary but rather the hotel and other tid-bits of the area (such as a HUGE tribute to motor vehicles making access to the site easier). These things are covered in better detail at the Visitor’s Centre.

While you can read through the exhibits in less than 30 minutes, I hate to say this, but my recommendation is save your $20 and head to the Visitor’s Centre instead.

Hermitage Hotel

The Hermitage Hotel has some interesting history itself, in fact we stumbled upon this before we even headed into the Museum’s which explain the history further.

As we headed out on a walk of the area (which was breath-taking – literally thanks to the hills and metaphorically thanks to the beauty of the area), I noticed the remnants of a fireplace – which in my experience of fire meant just one thing – there had been a building on that location that had succumbed to fire (I was partially wrong). [Tribute to the history of the Hermitage pictured below]

We spotted a signboard in the distance so I beelined for it. This explained that the Hermitage Hotel once stood at this location having been established in 1884. In 1911 the hotel could no longer cope with demand so a new one was under construction at the site of the current hotel (a bit further away from the base of the mountain). Before it could be finished, in 1913, a flood raced down one of the nearby glacier’s destroying the original hotel. All that was left is the fireplace but not for the reason I expected – flood not fire.

The second Hermitage Hotel, 1913 (Aoraki/Mt. Cook Archives, Visitor Information Centre Exhibit)

Having said that the hotel did face the terror of fire many years later when the second Hermitage Hotel (located on the present site) was destroyed by fire on 15 September 1957. Thus, the Hermitage Hotel guests patronize today is in fact the third Hermitage Hotel which was built the following year in 1958.

The hotel is lost again in 1957 (photo from the Sir Edmund Hillary Exhibit inside the current Hermitage Hotel).,

I hope this has given you a quick taste of some of the great cultural sites you can explore from Queenstown, New Zealand and I hope you begin your own adventure!

Sunset in Queenstown, August 2022

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