canterbury’s own lifestyle magazine / a great local read
A Monday morning tea break for the staff at the South Canterbury Museum sometimes involves participating in a general knowledge quiz, all vying for a chocolate fish as the prize. Whether curator, technician, volunteer, student intern or director, all are relaxed – there is a lot of banter and laughter. On the morning that I join the team, university intern Stacey Fraser wins the quiz and scores the chocolate fish. With the prize presented the team disperse, and Museum Director Philip Howe and I disappear to a quiet corner for an interview.

I quickly learn that Philip took on his role way back in 1989 when the Timaru District Council committed to taking on a full-time museum director. Back when the job was advertised, he was a young intermediate school teacher in Timaru with no experience in running a museum. Despite this, he absolutely knew he would kick himself later if he didn’t apply for the job. His degree in history, teaching experience, passion for natural history and youthful enthusiasm helped him gain the position. Taking on the role he immediately started a Postgraduate Diploma in Museum Studies through Massey University’s extramural programme. He has been acquiring knowledge and experience ever since.

Philip talks with animation about his job. It is the nature of the work, the enthusiasm of the museum staff, ceaseless potential and boundless opportunities that keeps him excited. He emphasises that the museum team are constantly looking for ways to engage the community. ‘The museum is not just a place to come and see things, it’s a place to come and participate in broader heritage-related themes, activities, events, whether it’s an exhibition opening, a performance or an opportunity to be involved in some sort of workshop.’ Philip reflects that the role of museums is changing worldwide – ‘museums are not just quiet ivory towers where you go to look at things, but also places where you can go to participate in things where you feel you are part of something.’ Within this there is an emphasis on telling local stories, capturing that nostalgic element where people identify and own their history.

When digging down into where these passions developed, he speaks of growing up in Timaru with parents who supported and encouraged his interests. Natural history was an early favourite. Whether watching Jacques Cousteau on TV or reading nature books his father brought home from the library, Philip’s interest in nature was ‘indulged’. ‘And when I became very focused on insects my parents certainly did not discourage me from bringing things into the house. They got a little alarmed occasionally, when I got into collecting moths – I would open my windows at night and leave all the lights on. My mother got a little disturbed by this, but she was the one that encouraged me, before it was illegal, to bring home lizards – now lizards are fully protected so you wouldn’t do that.’ His memory is jogged and he recalls that a huge part of his passion was ignited as a lad of 10 or 11 when his parents allowed him to wander the Canterbury Museum on his own. The drawers full of insects particularly mesmerised him.

His interest in music, particularly rock music, began with piano lessons and playing in the Waimataitai Brass Band. It was at high school that rock music took on greater significance after taking up the free guitar lessons offered. In his final high school year a group of friends formed a band. There is a hint of nostalgia as Philip remembers playing with his mates. ‘We were pretty clumsy and rough around the edges, and we were into punk – everything from the Sex Pistols to a group called Wire.’ Since 2004 Philip has been a member of the Timaru band the Burritos, but he has a long history of playing in bands, once being involved in playing in church and church-based rock bands, and in some of the South Canterbury Drama League’s musical productions. The camaraderie of playing in bands and being extended musically by playing alongside talented musicians has brought Philip much pleasure. But quite simply Philip just likes ‘playing loud guitar and having fun’

‘Having fun’ extends to Philip’s work environment. Scan the South Canterbury Museum Facebook page and you immediately notice Philip is not afraid to put himself out there, anything in aide of the museum’s cause. Whether it’s dressing up as Governor Hobson for a signing of the Treaty of Waitangi re-enactment with school children, wearing a moa suit and entertaining children with his antics, or leading the winning entry into the 2018 International Museum Dance Off, he is ready to front up. He is zealous about engaging the community with their heritage and showing that history is not just about the ancient past, but it is also about more recent times, ‘it is “our” history and we need to engage with it’.

With such an engaged and ardent advocate for the museum and our heritage at the helm, there is no chance of it ever being some quiet ivory tower.