My grandfather, Arthur Black, often told stories of growing up in Porangahau; a childhood filled with adventure – the rugged Southern Hawke’s Bay landscape providing him and his five siblings with a glorious freedom to roam the countryside surrounding their farm. Although I have never lived in this part of New Zealand until now, family stories passed down through the generations and etched into my memory have made this place, Hawke’s Bay, feel like my place.
I came to Napier to work at the museum as a collection assistant, but for me it is much more than that. I have returned to connect to the place of those who I hold so dearly; to the landscape that nourished their lives and imaginations, as well as their frustrations and hardships. I think the very same motivation that draws me to connect with my family history in Hawke’s Bay underlines why I have chosen to work in museums. The lines that connect us to the past have always fascinated me. Ever since I was little, when I looked at objects I wanted to see so much more than just the physical form. I wanted to know its history, its story, its lineage. Reflecting on all of this, it makes sense that I have a job where I am surrounded by objects!
British potter Edmund de Waal is clearly also fascinated by the stories that objects can tell if you listen hard enough. His intriguing family history is charted through the movement of a collection of netsuke in his memoir The Hare with the Amber Eyes. One excerpt has always resonated with me and, much more poetically than I, articulates the potential power of objects:
I want to know what the relationship has been between this…object…and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the wall, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it—if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.
As dramatic and illustrious as de Waal’s family history is, even the most humble object has a story that deserves to be told.
Netsuke, Japan, from the Black Collection,
collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 37/100/18
A netsuke was used traditionally by Japanese as a way of tying valuables such as a purse or a tobacco pouch to their kimono sash. This intricately carved Japanese octopus netsuke was collected by Greacen Black (no relation) on one of his many travels and donated to the museum in 1937. Can you think of an object which has a rich story behind it? Are there any objects within the museum’s collection which are connected to your personal family history? If so, let us know in the comments below.