In the Old Bank shopping arcade in Wellington, New Zealand, under the stairs and next to the gym, the wreck of the Inconstant sits. In this post, I’ll tell you how a ship came to be wrecked in the middle of the CBD, and then discuss why this is an interesting case for curators. There’s a strong argument for integrated curated spaces, location-based museums and the exhibition in every day life. However, there’s also a case for something being so well integrated that it’s invisible.
Why is there a ship in a shopping centre?
Her journey began in Nova Scotia in 1848, built to be 38 metres long and 8 metres wide, with three masts and a maiden voyage cargo of timber. She sailed to South Australia the following year transporting female Irish migrants to Australia, and after repair work, set sail in 1851 with a new cargo of tea and animal skins bound for Peru.
The Inconstant only made it to Wellington. She hit rocks in and was towed to Te Aro harbour by the Royal Navy.
The Inconstant was bought by John Plimmer ‘the father of Wellington’ and turned into a wharf containing an auction house and warehouse known as ‘Plimmer’s Ark’. Over time, it would become a bonded customs store, an immigration pier, the Wellington Harbourmaster’s office and a ship chandlery. As the waterfront expanded, Lambton Quay became landlocked, the upper works of the ark were demolished in the 1880s and the lower hull was left under what became the first Bank of New Zealand, now the Old Bank shopping centre.
The curated space in everyday life
As a curated space, it is obvious that space restrictions and practical considerations have ruled the design and communication of the wreck’s agency and biography. I would hazard a guess that funding has been an issue, but whoever has championed this should be commended because it would have been very easy to cover the wreck back up, or remove it to a museum. It’s a small display, awkwardly situated under a staircase and in a narrow corridor leading to a gym in the basement of a shopping centre. The lighting is poor, you can’t see much, and people who barely notice the display keep trying to get past you.
It’s a small space with perspex-style flooring and an illuminated in-situ display of the wooden remains of the lower hull. Some material culture is also displayed with the relic and down the corridor in a display case, and large information cards are hung which give a chronology of the wreck’s biography.
I am a big believer in location-based artefact display, as displaying the artefact in its cultural context communicates very quickly to its audience that ‘history has happened here’ and that history is housed in a museum like personalities are kept in a cemetery – you are among remains in both places.
Post-processualism has allowed us to explore that an object is more than its physicality, that it’s power isn’t known to those who uncover it and to place material culture within a broader picture of object agency and object biography.
As a curated space, it’s very well integrated into the everyday experience – perhaps too well. Does anyone see it? Can anyone find it? There are a few pointers to it and it’s in the shopping centre brochure, but honestly, I stumbled across it without planning to.
If it’s there to communicate something to the public, I’m not sure it’s successful. It has a feeling of being there because surely you have to make something of it? It’s not a space needed for anything else, and it’s something for the brochure. If there’s a narrative, I don’t know what it is. If there were people on board, I don’t know who they were. I don’t know what John Plimmer was like, but anyone who sees a shipwreck and makes it into an ark has to have a story worth telling.
Where it is successful is whetting the appetite of the casual passer-by to reconsider the space they’re in, and see history as being around them and not just in Te Papa, the phenomenal national museum down the road. I suppose it’s ‘stealth curatorship’ and communication of the past. It may even drop a little hint into the mind of a future maritime archaeologist or material culture communicator.