The House of Webb

A Victorian family's journey to New Zealand
4 September 2018, MTG, Napier
By Anna Soutar

The role of the curator in a museum or gallery is to consider an assemblage of ‘things’ and use it to tell visitors a story.  The job is part storyteller, part informant, part educator, part recorder. In Napier Gail Pope is the curator tasked with the story of the Webbs of Ormondville – a story all the more poignant because, of the fourteen Webbs who journeyed to Hawke’s Bay in the last years of the 19th century, no one of that name and very few descendants can still be found in the area. Equally striking is the wonderful condition the mementos of that arrival are in, to the credit of the Museum and Ms Pope.

There is a bound collection of letters sent back to My Dearest Mary in “the Old Country”, including letters from every member of the family: the Reverend Anthony Webb, Mrs Webb, their children Edmund, Mary, Dora, Edith, Annie, Alice and Toby; there are three young nephews Tom, Jim and George; there is the smaller children’s nurse, Rhonda, accepted as part of the family; and travelling ahead, arriving on an earlier voyage, Willie.

While Willie was recording the times he was in, a curator is an illustrator of times gone by – an interpreter of the events and objects from the past, choosing what shall be shown and how it can be displayed. Influenced by curatorial skill and imagination, we visitors may involve ourselves in experiencing times past.

Alongside one display in the gallery is a set of blocks, which Victorians played with long before Rubik’s Cube was invented, and one or more people can work on the puzzle to turn the blocks until a complete picture is revealed, an ideal concentration game for bored ship-bound children.

And while we interlopers play at being sailing ship passengers, with the gentle slish! of smooth running sea, accompanied by the skirling of gulls, a rat runs along the railing and vanishes into the rigging.  We learn that at least one of the passengers tried to complain about rats and cockroaches from their letters home to Aunt Mary.

Of course the Webbs were unaware of the future use of technology to heighten their reportage, for the curator here has wrapped sound and animation onto the Webbs’ own sketches: there go the horses carrying mail to the outlying townships, here is the Rev Webb hat down, shoulders set as he hurries from one parishioner to the next along the mud of the new-formed roads of Ormondville. He owned a horse, but we learn that the minister never quite got the horse to canter and since he found trotting uncomfortable, would walk his horse between most visits.

Those hearty young nephews of the Reverend were put to work in the new land, and soon grass and fences were springing up where once heavy bush grew, to be logged and utilized in building an extension to the cottage so that all the family could be housed under one roof.  The new paddocks can be seen larger than life; the water colour from a sketch book has been enlarged so much that the visitor (me) is looking head height across the fencing, with the mountains framing the view in the distance.

It is 1884 and the family is saddened by the news that Willie passed away while they were on the journey out. Poignantly, Willie whose skill at drawing and sense of humour seemed never to leave him, even at the end, drew the scene of his final moments, in a sketch which the family kept along with the other material. Tactfully and with courtesy, the curator chose to lay this sketchbook in a clean nearly invisible case, leaving us to read and smile sadly at the young man’s predicament.

Research is the curator’s special skill and in this case, old maps have been found to show the isolated location of the new farms, the barrier of the mountains, the route of the rail which very soon arrived to take those logs away. Old church files have yielded documents like the marriage certificate of the Webb’s loyal retainer, Rhoda Mitchell, who was finally married by the Rev. Anthony Webb when she was 40 years old – loyal, indeed.

As well as their scholarship, curators have to be designers and decorators, and to tell the story of the Webb family MTG’s curators have chosen simple free-standing panels, which echo the Victorian wrought-iron palings, to display pages of diaries, photographs, and pressed flower arrangements. Perhaps they were amazed when they found a painting of a Webb child wearing a carefully stitched frock, and then the frock itself to display alongside. Is this the luck of the curator, or determined fossicking? I warmed to a small concertina’d book written by the young Tony, still clean and stored by a proud parent.

Welcoming our small group to the display – why are only a few people attracted to these glimpses through the mirror of the past? – Gail Pope is humble, quiet and seems content to let her exhibits tell the story of the Webbs of Ormondville.

This exhibition is on at the MTG until 23 April 2019

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