Graffiti opens window on past

Otago Settlers Museum assistant conservator Laurence Le Ber with a piece of graffiti from an early settler to Dunedin. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Otago Settlers Museum assistant conservator Laurence Le Ber with a piece of graffiti from an early settler to Dunedin. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Youngsters with spray cans are not the only ones producing graffiti, recent research at the Otago Settlers Museum shows.

A different form of graffiti, created by 19th century settlers to Dunedin, was recently uncovered when museum staff cleaned a set of "unremarkable wooden boards" from an immigration barracks at Caversham, which opened in 1873.

Some notes scrawled in pencil across the four boards, part of the museum's collections, were already apparent, but cleaning in the museum's conservation laboratory revealed more of the text.

Museum assistant conservator Laurence Le Ber said the notes appeared to be left by immigrants from 1883-84.

An infrared image shows details of 19th century graffiti.
An infrared image shows details of 19th century graffiti.
One note recorded aspects of a voyage to Dunedin, and some other messages - like items on a bulletin board - were intended to advise where earlier arrivals had gone after leaving the barracks.

"Some names of people, places and ships are visible though, tantalisingly, other areas were faint and difficult to read."

An infrared image shows details of 19th century graffiti.
An infrared image shows details of 19th century graffiti.
Infrared photography helped enhance some words.

References were found to immigrant ships, including Forfarshire, which arrived at Otago on June 26, 1883, carrying 267 passengers.

One wistful message refers to having arrived on Forfarshire, and hoping to see "a Mary O'Neill", a passenger on the next vessel to arrive.

A Mary O'Neill did, in fact, arrive in on the next ship, Nelson, that year.

Many puzzles remained, but Mr Le Ber said the successful historical detective work was a "real buzz".

He had worked with museum curator Sean Brosnahan, archivist Jill Haley and Dunedin Public Art Gallery painting conservator Jenny Sherman to make sense of the graffiti, which would be displayed at the redeveloped museum.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

 

 

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