Huia nest, moa bones and Sir Edmund Hillary's boots - treasures see the light

By Jessica Tyson

The last nest of the huia before the species became extinct is one of the rarely seen taonga to be showcased in a new exhibition celebrating 150 years since Canterbury Museum opened its doors.

Also on display in House of Treasures: Ngā Taonga Tuku Iho is a South Island giant moa skeleton, the boots Sir Edmund Hillary wore when he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest and the dress suffragette and temperance campaigner Kate Sheppard wears on New Zealand's $10 note.

Museum director Anthony Wright says the exhibition is an opportunity for Cantabrians to view some of their more rarely seen treasures.

“Some of these objects don’t go on display very often, either because they’re too delicate, like the Kate Sheppard dress, or because we just don’t have the space," he says. 

The first boots to land on the summit of Mount Everest / Source: Canterbury Museum

The taonga range in size from the 4.5 metre-long South Island giant moa skeleton to the 0.63mm long fairy fly – one of the smallest flying insects in the world.

“The huia nest is one of my absolute favourites. It’s the only known nest in the world, which makes for very poignant viewing,” Wright says.

The huia is an extinct species of New Zealand wattlebird, endemic to the North Island of New Zealand. The last confirmed sighting of a huia was in 1907, although there were credible sightings as late as the early 1960s.

The New Zealand Geographic says, of all Tane’s children, the huia was the most sacred to Māori. Other birds, such as the kōtuku (white heron) and amokura (red-tailed tropic bird) were also prized for their plumes but the huia was pre-eminent. In pre-European times, only chiefs of high rank and their whānau wore the distinct tail feathers in their hair.

The exhibition also includes probably the oldest human-made object in the museum’s collection, an Acheulean hand-axe crafted by an ancient human species up to 450,000 years ago.

House of Treasures: 150 Objects from Canterbury Museum Ngā Taonga Tuku Iho / Source: Canterbury Museum

New book of 150 taonga

The objects in the exhibition are drawn from a book the museum has produced to mark the anniversary. 

Titled House of Treasures: 150 Objects from Canterbury Museum Ngā Taonga Tuku Iho, the book features 150 taonga from the museum’s collection, superbly captured by award-winning photographer Jane Ussher, with accompanying text by museum staff.

“The book is a terrific way to showcase to Aotearoa New Zealand, and the world, the huge range of the collection that we care for on behalf of the people of Canterbury," Wright says. "It also honours the generations of staff, volunteers and visitors who have made the museum the remarkable and much-loved place that it is today.”

The book will be sold at selected bookstores nationwide, in the museum's store and through the museum’s website.