My partner and I have recently returned from two weeks’ holiday in New Zealand.
It was a whirlwind fourteen days across both islands, taking in cities, wilderness and a huge diversity of landscapes. Both of us were struck by the huge variety of places you could encounter in just a few hours of driving.
As I said, this was a holiday. Which means that I made a deliberate decision to leave my “work” head at home and simply enjoy the experience without burdening myself with the meta-analysis of it all. Before we went away I made a pact with my partner that I would not drag him on a “Museums of New Zealand” tour (although I did gain an exemption to visit Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum in Wellington – more later). Put bluntly, I wasn’t going to spend my holiday thinking about signage design, quality of interpretive text, or musing on why experiences had been planned out the way they were. I was just going to approach everywhere we went as an ordinary visitor.
So rather than a considered review, I thought I’d just point out a few things which I thought were interesting or noteworthy, without any major analysis.
Worthy but not dull
There are lots of important bits of information about safety, cleaning up after yourself, and so forth that need to be presented to visitors. But Kiwis seem to have a bit of a sense of humour about it, which means (a) you’re more likely to read the signs and (b) remember them.
There did seem to be a bit of a theme across New Zealand of adding a dash of humor to interpretation – this even extended to Air New Zealand’s safety briefing video, which was full of rugby puns and gentle digs at Australians (the ‘put on your own oxygen mask before helping infants’ bit was illustrated by a sulking Aussie rugby fan).
Also, on our various roadside ventures into national parks and scenic vantage points, there were helpful instructional signs giving estimated walking times to particular destinations. Having this information was useful in deciding whether we had the time to factor a particular side trail into our journey or not. (And whether it was a trail for leisurely strollers like us, or the full-on hikers for whom NZ is a Mecca)
A way of looking closer
At the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki (NW coast of South Island), this illustration gave a whole new perspective to the geological formations in front of it:
Making the drive an interpretive experience
Points to our travel agent for this one. For the South Island leg of our tour she included hire of a Kruse system, a GPS-based travel guide which you plug into the car’s cigarette lighter (funny we still call it that although most cars ditched the lighter function years ago). It’s not a satnav (we had one of those as well), but rather a unit which uses your GPS co-ordinates to select and play audio tracks about the places you are driving through. The commentary includes Maori legends, the history of towns and places, tips for spotting local wildlife, suggestions of nearby scenic destinations and practical information (such as “this town has the last ATM for xxx km”).
It’s much more relaxing than combing through a guide book (which I can’t do when in a car anyway as it makes me travel sick), and was delivered at a sufficiently gentle pace mixed in with music (although my partner would have liked a ‘skip’ function for some of the songs which are admittedly an eclectic mix).
Kruse was a useful interpretive tool, revealing a depth of meaning to the places we were driving through (without it, many of the smaller towns would have been insignificant 80 km/h zones). It also helped us to understand the changes in the landscape as we moved across the island. We also took its advice for some scenic detours and stopping points which were definitely worth the trip.
On a technical front, it’s usually clever enough to know when you’re backtracking on a route and so doesn’t re-play the same tracks ad nauseum. Even in ‘holiday’ mode, I couldn’t help but marvel at the huge amount of time and effort that must have gone into researching and writing all the scripts. The hire was only NZ$10 per day and definitely worth it (I’ll take my commission now! 😉 )
Te Papa Tongarewa
As New Zealand’s national museum, this place was understandably HUGE. There was no way we were going to see everything and so we didn’t even set out to try. Fortunately, their current major travelling exhibition (European Masters) was one I had already seen in Melbourne so we could tick that off the itinerary straight away.
The building wasn’t the most intuitive in the world to navigate, but signage around the main congregation spaces was reasonably good and it was clear enough to find what was on offer on which floor, once you got the hang of the fact that the floor you’d arrived on was “Level 2”.
We concentrated mostly on the Maori culture and New Zealand history exhibitions, which for us first-time visitors to NZ were englightening. There was an informative exhibition on the Treaty of Waitangi, known as New Zealand’s founding document, and which I was only vaguely aware of prior to visiting. It presented the background to the treaty, and how differences between the Maori and English translations of the document have had ramifications which continue to this day.
I also enjoyed exhibition about the culture and experiences of Pacific peoples (from places like Tonga and Samoa) who have settled to New Zealand more recently. (I unleashed my inner kid, spending a lot of time on a virtual mixing table mashing up Pacific pop music.) There was also a large wall of objects linked to a touchscreen where you could select an item and find out its significance to a particular community. It contained more modern objects like T-shirts, flyers, album covers and so forth, but in display terms it was not dissimilar to this one from the Pounamu exhibition:
The exhibition also presented some of the challenges faced in modern Pacific communities. Canned corned beef has become a major staple in many Pacific islands, displacing the people from more traditional food sources and creating an economic dependence on imported goods. This piece of art, a cow made from corned beef cans, was commentary on the issue:
And now, because it was a holiday, I’ll self-indulgently finish with a few snaps of the amazing scenery to prove that NZ is definitely a place worth visiting . . .
(PS Photo credits to my partner and his uber-fancy Canon)