Wairoa Museum

Self-described as 'a museum without walls', a living entity linking people, history and place.

Wairoa Museum
Image used with permission.

Part of the purpose and the purview of Our Health Journeys is to highlight medical collections that exist in museums and organisations around the country. They aren't often displayed, in my opinion to their detriment, because they can be fascinating. In the case of Wairoa Museum, they’re doing our job for us. They have approximately 97 percent of their entire museum's collection on display.

The team at the museum have done it very cleverly by converting old shelving units into display cases and converting the old collection storage room into display space. Mike Spedding, the museum’s curator, and I had a conversation about the project and how getting the collections out was really satisfying. It made them accessible to everybody, not just to those who can arrange access to the museum’s back of house.

Image Description
My favourite ‘what not to do’: don't apply cobwebs to stop the bleeding. Image used with permission.

The display case for the museum’s medical collections has four shelves absolutely teeming with pieces of the medical history of the town. The way that Wairoa Museum has created labels about their collections is neat. A collections inventory was done, not just itemising the accession numbers and the objects, but writing a story for the pieces, and for the collections. Those stories have then been lifted from the inventory onto the labels in the new displays. It's informative, it's nicely put together and it is telling the history of Wairoa proudly.

I have a connection to the medical history of Wairoa, for it was the final hospital my grandmother worked at as a nurse before she retired. I cheekily asked Mike if the museum would consider accepting my grandmother’s nursing badge into their collection – my mother has held onto it for almost 20 years and habitually asks me about where it should go. Given my grandmother worked at hospitals all around the North Island, it has not been easy to decide.

Image Description
A close up from a chemist ledger showing how to make 'gravel' and hair tonic. Image used with permission.

A fascinating find in the medical collection was a chemist ledger deposited to the museum by Mr Lyall. It included recipes for things like cough mixture and for something that would help with gout and rheumatism as well as a hair tonic and, bafflingly, something named ‘gravel’. I think I might have to do some research to find out what that is, but I can tell you that it has baking soda and acetate in it.

There is a lovely display, all dedicated to Muriel Cooper, a long serving member of St. John's Ambulance. Her uniform is there, equipment, cups, prizes, medals, awards, certificates, all there documenting the 41 years of her life that she gave to St. John's in Wairoa. She was the first Wairoa woman to receive the Serving Sister of the Order of St. John medal. Muriel herself donated the bulk of the extensive St. John's archive to the museum before she passed away in 2009.

Possibly the best thing I saw was a reference guide from a Johnson's first aid cabinet that included instructions on what to do, and what not to do in certain medical situations. My favourite ‘what not to do’: don't apply cobwebs to stop the bleeding. Your guess is as good as mine on why anyone would ever think to do that.

The museum has been working on digitising a great number of their collections. and having them available to the public through interactive screens; Pūmanawa, Wairoa Stories. These include the memoirs of one of the local doctors, Dr Aitchison. Another interactive in a separate gallery contains more information, stories, pictures relevant to Wairoa, with a whole subset for medical pictures. I found a beautiful photo of the NZANS nurses at the New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Wisques in France in 1918.

There is a lot to explore at the museum and it's exciting to go in and know that almost everything that they hold is available for the public to see.