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Canterbury Museum marks 150th Birthday

4 December 2017

Canterbury Museum has marked 150 years since founder Sir Julius von Haast opened its doors to the public.

German-born Haast had begun collecting specimens for a possible museum when he began his role as provincial geologist in 1861.

As a geologist he examined, explored and reported on the mineral potential of the Canterbury region which, at the time, also included Westland.

Making important discoveries about the geology, topography and botany of the province, Haast quickly assembled a wealth of material that demonstrated the natural history of the area.

In 1865, with the discovery of moa remains at Glenmark Station, near Waipara in North Canterbury, Haast and several others excavated hundreds of bones which would be destined for the new museum’s collection and for a programme of exchanges with leading museums around the world.

By 1867, there was a strong public call for access to the treasures Haast had accumulated in his Government-funded role.

When it first opened to the public on 3 December 1867, the museum was housed in three rooms of the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings on Durham Street.

Visitors were welcomed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 11am to 3pm and Haast often accompanied them through the displays, taking time to share his favourite collections and stories.

During its first seven months, an estimated 110 people visited Canterbury Museum each week. On display were geological and zoological specimens including an extraordinary display of moa skeletons.

Within days, there were calls for a permanent and purpose-built museum. It took over two years and £1,683 in government and subscriber funds to construct a suitable stone building.

Opening to the public on 1 October 1870, the Benjamin Mountfort-designed building on Antigua Street, now Rolleston Avenue, is still at the heart of the current buildings.

Canterbury Museum Director Anthony Wright says when it first opened, the museum housed a remarkable 7,887 treasures.

“Today the Museum attracts more than three-quarters of a million visitors each year and is home to 2.3 million collection items which help us tell a myriad of stories about Canterbury, New Zealand and the world.”

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