Six months on the road to happiness

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A (A-chops, President Boobachev, The Littlest ‘Nana) is six months old. He celebrated by having toast for the first time, tripping his gag reflex, and re-eating the bit he threw up. Rock n roll, kiddo. No need to ever kowtow to social mores.

I realised that my three posts on parenting thus far have covered mostly negative aspects. Perhaps that’s because the downside of parenting seem universal (lack of sleep, excessive bodily fluids, changing emotional states), whereas the happier times seem so much more personal: everyone loves baby smiles (right?), but your baby is smiling because you’re singing that ridiculous version of that song they like and only you will do. (I had to triple check ‘you’re’, ‘your’ and ‘you’ in that sentence. I cannot wait for the day I have enough sleep to make basic grammar a breeze again.) Introducing A to music via my ridiculous versions of songs is one of the great joys of each day. Suspicious Minds is his favourite and I am disproportionately pleased by this. He’s also not averse to pawing at the condensation on the window, watching the Wellington rain trickle down, whilst listening to the Manic Street Preachers, like a pre-teen-emo.

Perhaps the downsides are easier to talk about because writing about happiness is so much harder to do. It’s so easy to slip into the trite, the twee, the smug and, ugh, who wants to read that when they’re mired in the depths of sleeplessness and Bongela? When I mentioned that I found writing about the happy times more challenging, Robin suggested that I write about the time A sneezed and farted at the same time, which he finds inexplicably hilarious. Unfortunately, I lack the writing chops to do justice to that occasion.

Or, perhaps it’s easier to focus on the negative because the first twelve weeks are so fucking difficult that it takes a while for you to lift your head up to see how far you’ve come, to see what a unique wee child you’ve created (one who laughs at ‘p’ words such as ‘plum’, ‘pear’, and more inappropriate words ending in ‘aedophile’; one who finds Temple of Love by the Sisters of Mercy unbelievably hilarious; one who talks to the bathtime scary rabbit with the giant eyes every evening). If you’re in those first twelve weeks, kia kaha to you my dears.

It gets so, so much better. Here’s to the road to happiness. And Elvis.

Pink baby bath with a large rabbit's face on it.

Who designed this giant-eyed, wide-grinning, rabbit-faced bath? It’s terrifying.

Getting rid of guilt

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One thing I didn’t expect when parenting a tiny human is the tidal wave of guilt that arrived almost immediately after giving birth. Previously I wasn’t someone who felt guilty unnecessarily (despite several years of Catholic church-going – you rock that guilt trip, Catholics), but raising A has made a guilt-monster out of me. Speaking to a couple of friends – one with a recent newborn, one with a four month old – it seems to be an almost universal experience for new mums (and particularly mums, rather than dads. I don’t know why that’s so.) I’m now on a one-woman mission to get rid of (unnecessary) guilt. DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING.

An early spectacular statement was “Am I making him sleep too much? WHAT IF HE NEVER LEARNS TO READ?“. I received a deservedly withering look from Robin for that one. Other guilt-inducing things including putting him to sleep in a cot rather than in bed with us (what if he’s lonely?), not holding him every single minute of the day (what if he doesn’t have enough hugs?), and not feeding him enough (I’m clearly feeding him enough. He’s huge.)

I need to banish the guilty feelings and save the worrying for sensible things, like when he stays out all night drinking instead of coming home (sorry about that one, Mum, I maintain that I honestly didn’t think I had a curfew); the sheer amount of sweets he’ll probably eat if he’s inherited Robin’s sweet tooth; and the likelihood of him only supporting rubbish sports teams if he inherits both mine and Robin’s inability to pick a winning side – I’m looking at you England (pick a sport, any sport), Leeds Utd, Castleford Tigers and the Warriors.

This post isn’t written with the hope of receiving platitudes – I know I have nothing to feel guilty about as A is a happy, hilarious wee man. Instead, it’s about sharing the feelings that it seems most parents experience, in a hope of helping other people to realise they’re not alone in the new parent guilt-a-geddon, and a form of catharsis for me (a problem shared is a problem banished to the wayside, to be replaced with happier thoughts, such as of Patrick Stewart, sunny winter days and rotating owls). However, if you have any tips on getting rid of the guilt for good, I’d love to hear them!

The Hollow Crown (or, why I love the BBC and you should too)

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Judi Dench, Tom Hiddleston, Patrick Stewart, Benedict Cumberbatch, Maxine Peake, Julie Walters, Simon Russell Beale.

The current crop of best British actors? The best dressed at the recent Met Ball? A list of the most attractive Brits in films, in order? (Damn right Dame Dench comes first.)

Nope, they’re just a few of the stellar cast of The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘History Plays’. Fifteen hours worth of Shakespearean goodness to binge-watch, which I’ve been doing with relish (although binge-watching for me now means watching TV in the boy’s 45 minute naps, so it’s taken me quite a while).

Patrick Stewart’s John of Gaunt eulogises on “this scepter’d isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars”. Tom Hiddleston’s Henry V urges his men “Once more unto the breach, once more.”

(Although I had to laugh at Henry V’s speech wooing Catherine: “notwithstanding the poor and untempering effect of my visage… My comfort is that old age, that ill layer-up of beauty, can do no more spoil upon my face.” Come on, Hiddleston. The make-up department didn’t bother to even try to make you look ugly.)

Tom Hiddlestone at the Avengers premiere, wearing a black suit, waistcoat and tie, and a white shirt.

Ain’t nothing going to make this visage poor and untempered. (By Sachyn Mital (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Hollow Crown is just one of the many programmes that the BBC excels at producing. And this is what our dominatrix-denying Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, wants to destroy. (For the record: there’s nothing wrong with dominatrices. There is something wrong with disowning them once your submissive proclivities are made public. Stewart Lee’s article Defy John Whittingdale and a dominatrix will whip you into line made me cry with laughter, as does most of what he writes. Read it and weep with laughter, and then with despair.)

Whittingdale’s suggested changes are intended to limit the broadcaster’s autonomy, reduce its licensing fee revenue, and impose scheduling restrictions – and even some senior Conservative MPs are opposed. The BBC’s status as an independent broadcaster, free from advertising (for the most part – some of its websites have ads), is what allows it to commission and produce thousand’s of hours of original, world-leading television. In the past fortnight alone the BBC has shown:

  • David Attenborough’s excellent Life that glows, which uses revolutionary camera technology unlikely to be funded by any other broadcaster. This new camera technology, as well as providing ground-breaking TV, enabled scientists to learn much, more more about the species they study.
  • Hinterland, a detective drama set in the Welsh valleys, including Welsh subtitles. Which other broadcaster would produce a Welsh sub-titled programme for mainstream TV?
  • Peaky Blinders: Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy on prime time TV. Do I need to say more?

The BBC also produce popular TV (hello Strictly Come Dancing, you sequinned fiend), impartial news in a sea of other broadcasters and newspapers pushing their ideological agendas, and countless hours of regional programming, given a voice to those regions who often lack other representation in the media. Not in the UK? Don’t think this is a Britain-only spat – your favourite shows could be affected too. Shows such as Dr Who and Top Gear, regardless of what you think of the genres, are hugely popular across the globe. BBC World Service broadcasts a huge range of programmes in 29 languages, to most countries in the world. And it’s not just TV. The BBC websites and the iPlayer are world-leading in terms of their technology. 6Music, Radio 4, Radio 1 Xtra, all your regional stations – from where else would you get such a diversity of niche and popular music, sport, comedy, drama, factual and local programming? The BBC is ridiculously good value for money when compared to broadcasters such as Sky for TV alone (40p per day for the license fee vs a minimum of £20 per month for Sky), let alone the radio and technology aspects.

Whatever your ideological bent, we need the BBC in our lives – without it we’re culturally poorer.

Sleepless, in solidarity

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It always makes me feel better that in the global village of the internet there’s someone out there experiencing the same thing I am. As Rachel of Make a Long Story Short says:

‘Me too’ is a gift, in this bewildering, relentless and often lonely journey into motherhood.

In this case it feels like millions of people are experiencing the same thing – those long, tedious sleepless nights. ME TOO.

We’ve been through the following stages: ‘four month sleep regression’ / it’s 4am and I’d like to be hugged back to sleep / please will you pat my back / who the fuck knows what’s going on in that tiny human’s mind, he’s just 17 weeks old. Good grief they’re tiring.

At the moment we’re in the ‘what is that smell and WHY is he awake again?!’ stage. Poor wee man has terrible wind, and Robin and I have terribly offended nostrils. Add that to the ‘things I didn’t know about babies’ list: everyone says they smell delightful, and they do most of the time, but holy moly they also smell TERRIBLE at times. (As an aside, I changed a particularly stinky nappy whilst out and about, which swiftly went in the bin. A small boy said: “What’s that smell?”. His mother said: “There’s probably something dead in the bushes.” I’m saving that story for A’s 21st birthday party.)

Back to sleep. (I wish.) My friends used to have a Mr Hyde-like character for me, ‘Morning Ruth’, that crawled out of bed grumpy and antisocial. Morning Ruth shouldn’t be spoken to before 9am rolled round and she’d mainlined at least two cups of tea, lest the speaker wanted to be greeted with a snarl and a grunt. Oh how they’d laugh if they could see me now, at 4am, attempting to rock and sing the wee one back to sleep. There’s no room for ‘Morning Ruth’ anymore. It turns out she was a luxury, banished along with dangly earrings and high heels into pre-newborn days.

But the one thing that’s guaranteed to revive my snarling side in the wee small hours is those goddamn Facebook memes about how precious 3am cuddles are. I’m a fan of cuddles at the best of times, but do you know what’s precious at 3am? SLEEP. SLEEP IS PRECIOUS AT 3AM. (Unless I’m at the best party of my life, with Robin and Prince and David Bowie and the booze is free and the tunes are great and the dancing doesn’t stop – in that case, 3am can stick around. But waking up for the fifth time in a night? That can get lost.) And to all those people saying: “Be grateful for these precious moments” – as Emily Writes says, “I am grateful, now fuck off“. (A post well worth reading for it’s evisceration of all those well-meaning but irritating people who just want you to “treasure the moment”. They’re welcome to come round and treasure the moment at 4am for me, if they like. And the smell.)

So, sleepless world of the internet, me too. ME TOO. Please send caffeine.

Five things I didn’t know about babies

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I’m back! My extended absence is due to lot of web writing for work (meaning I wanted to do anything – ANYTHING –  except write outside of work), excessive socialising (or ‘too much fun’ as my mum would say),  and growing a human. Yep, I’m now the parent of a 3 month old and,  desirous of my brain not rotting whilst I’m on maternity leave, I’ve taken up blogging again in an effort to retain my adult vocabulary.

This won’t always be a parenting blog, but raising a human is pretty all-consuming for me at the moment. There are many, many things I didn’t know about babies. It’s a crash course in patience, good humour and tenacity. Here are just five of the things I’ve learned over the past three months:

Sleeping like a baby doesn’t mean what you think it means

Either we’ve been misinterpreting this phrase or the dude who coined it was on some pretty heavy sedatives. There is nothing quiet and peaceful about baby sleep. It’s a succession of grunts, snorts, sighs and, my particular favourite, intakes of breath followed by sudden silence that make you think the tiny human had stopped breathing. I now wear earplugs. Sleeping like a baby? More like sleeping like a tiny troll.

Sleep is a ‘learned skill’

Did you know babies won’t always sleep if they’re tired?  Idiots. Apparently it’s a learned skill, so most naps are preceded by crying, which is wearing both for the baby and the adult tasked with inventing new and non-exciting ways to help them sleep. One of Robin’s recent attempts at helping A sleep resulted in me finding Robin fast asleep and A hanging out burbling to himself on the bed. A thinks sleeps for wimps. As the Beastie Boys sang: ‘No. Sleep. Til Brooklyn!

Evolution sucks

Oh it sucks so hard. Squeezing a giant head out of a tiny hole. Breastfeeding: two people learning a new skill, one of whom is massively sleep deprived; the other can’t even hold their head up. And see point 2: why the hell do babies need to learn how to go to sleep?! Dawkins’ phrase ‘the selfish gene‘ sums it up nicely. Those selfish little genes are concentrating on growing a big brain, and this is the way evolution has ‘chosen’ to grow it – outside the womb. We’re reaping the effects of that big brain and neurologically under-developed newborn period with three months of ‘Whaaaaaat? I have to feed MYSELF? And get to sleep outside that warm, cosy place I was in for nine months? Oh hell NO!‘. (And don’t get me started on Intelligent Design, there’s nothing bloody intelligent about the biological processes involved in raising a newborn.)

Opportunities must be taken

Carpe that fucking diem, my friend (or whatever the Latin is for ‘opportunity’). If you spot an opportunity to go to the bathroom, seize it. Five minutes to answer an email? Use them wisely and type like a whirling dervish. Who knows when such precious free minutes will arise again. I’m writing this blog on my mobile lying on the bed in a quasi-yoga position whilst A sleeps next to me – one of the only two ways he’ll sleep during the day (see point 2, again).

The kindness of strangers is wonderful

I hope this isn’t limited to Kiwis, although I do find them a particularly open and kind bunch. Whilst out and about with A I’ve had so many lovely interactions and offers of help, from the person who offered to ring their husband up and get him to bring a car with a baby seat when the bus broke down, to the various people who made spontaneous “What a lovely baby” comments (even when he cried in the cinema). Those kind of interactions with strangers brighten my days. I’ve also had very little unsolicited advice (hoorah!). Thanks Wellingtonians – you’re excellent.


A place to stand

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The most excellent Te Kupu o te Wiki (te reo Māori word of the week) taught me a wonderful Māori word recently: tūrangawaewae.

Literally translated as ‘a place to stand’ from tūranga (standing) and waewae (feet), it’s one of those beautiful words that embodies a whole lot more than a direct translation can convey. Tūrangawaewae are places in which we feel particularly connected, or empowered, through a shared sense of history and a solid foundation. They provide an external location to our inner sense of our place in the world.

Although New Zealand is my home, West Yorkshire is my tūrangawaewae. It’s a place of shared family, political and cultural history, providing a sense of identity for both Robin and I. And it fostered a love of cheese (Wensleydale, clearly), real ale, dry wit and…erm…railways. Particularly railways with a pub at every station (hello, real ale trail). Although it has its failings, not least in its deprived towns and villages (for which the finger points squarely at neglect by successive London-focussed governments), West Yorkshire, particularly Dewsbury, is still my place to stand.

If I were a better writer, this would be my heartfelt paean to Dewsbury and the people within who don’t subscribe to their town’s neglected status and come up with interesting ways to foster a community (a not-for-profit cinema, a Meet a Muslim day – these make me want to hug every single person involved). But as I lack the skills to write such a paean, and am unwilling to share that much emotion online (as evidenced, I’m northern and British, therefore culturally uptight), I’ll let the pictures do the talking instead.

It's a railway station AND a pub. Marvellous. Photo: rpmarks (cc) via Flickr

It’s a railway station AND a pub. Marvellous. Photo: rpmarks (cc) via Flickr

The Dewsbury Reporter building is ace. Photo: atoach (cc) via Flickr

The Dewsbury Reporter building is ace. Photo: atoach (cc) via Flickr

Another ace building, Dewsbury town hall. Shame the clock hasn't worked for about 20 years. Photo: atoach (cc) via Flickr

Another ace building, Dewsbury town hall. Shame the clock hasn’t worked for about 20 years. Photo: atoach (cc) via Flickr

Ah, this statue. Meant to represent Dewsbury's ordinary people (mill workers), instead it makes them look terrifying. Photo: atoach (cc) via Flickr

Ah, this statue. Meant to represent Dewsbury’s ordinary people (mill workers), instead it makes them look terrifying. Photo: atoach (cc) via Flickr

What is going on here? Accordingly to the caption on Flickr, it's a space camp. Ah Dewsbury, so full of weird. Photo: hathi (cc) via Flickr

What is going on here? Accordingly to the caption on Flickr, it’s a space camp. Dewsbury, so full of weird. Photo: hathi (cc) via Flickr

Bucolic canal basin belying it's town centre location. Photo: rofonator (cc) via Flickr

Bucolic-looking canal basin belying the town centre location. Photo: rofonator (cc) via Flickr

RotoVegas: more than New Zealand’s malodorous carbuncle?

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Unaffectionately known to Kiwis as RotoVegas, Rotorua festers like a carbuncle in New Zealand’s otherwise typically picturesque central plateau. It was to this malodorous boil of a city we headed on an impromptu road trip over the recent long weekend.

Surprisingly, despite Rotorua’s distinctly unattractive city centre (think sports bars, rapacious tour operators, muted locals and bewildered tourists) and the incessant odour of rotten egg (it’s the hydrogen sulphides), it was well worth making the trip.

Don't be fooled. It might look pretty, but it absolutely stinks.

Don’t be fooled. It might look pretty, but it absolutely stinks.

The unexpected arrival of some Bristol-based friends led to us making the six hour drive north, and Rotorua’s beautiful, and hot, surroundings negated the effects of the city itself. And we had a campsite with a BBQ and hot pools (so far, so standard), a lake-side beach (getting interesting) and geothermally heated grounds, which means…GEOTHERMALLY HEATED TENTS. A toasty warm tent when it’s 3 degrees outside is luxury indeed.

We set off from Wellington on the long drive dressed for Rotorua weather (17 degrees, sunny) and stopping off on the Desert Road to see Ruapehu (aka Mount Doom) covered in snow, forgetting that this particular route is 700m above sea level and therefore bloody freezing.

Ruth and Robin next to a snow-covered Mount Ruapehu (Mount Doom)

These smiles are the rictus grins of two people trying to stop their teeth chattering.

Rotorua’s main attraction is the thermal pools, but having been to one previously (a ‘Thermal Wonderland’, no less), and being thrifty (or miserly depending on your opinion), we spent most of the time mooching around the free pools of which, it turns out, there are many.

Robin and Becky (the latest Yorkshire addition to NZ) digging hot pools by Lake Rotorua

Robin and Becky (the latest Yorkshire addition to NZ) digging hot pools by Lake Rotorua

Although the pools were great, if smelly, they were eclipsed by Hamurana Springs, a crystal clear font of water rising from the depths of the Earth. To get to the source of the springs we walked through a forest of giant redwoods, past the Dancing Sands and around the eels’ lairs.

Robin in the redwoods

Robin in the redwoods

Although there were no Shrieking Eels, it was an epic adventure through Princess Bride-style scenery.

DSCF4655I swashbuckled my way to the springs, safe in the knowledge that had Vizzini appeared I would have been safe to go in against a Sicilian even if death was on the line.

Inevitably, despite RotoVegas’ best efforts to emulate Dewsbronx with a little extra sulphur kick, it won us around in the end.

Well played, RotoVegas, well played.

Aid for Colonial Commoners

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Reading the Guardian over breakfast (poached eggs, spinach, Hollandaise, perfect toast) on a Saturday morning is a great pleasure. It’s time to sit, eat, digest (both the news and the breakfast) and to simply be. I no longer have to share the paper with anyone, although sadly the crossword is lamentably a different story, but the routine hasn’t varied since I was a teenager. The family section always comes first, because invariably my sister would take the magazine, my brother the sport, and my mum the news (for fear that if she didn’t read that first it would be old news by the time she got round to it).

And O happy days a friend, henceforth to be known as Elizabeth Giver of The Guardian, has returned from the UK with an armful of papers for me to peruse at my leisure. And, even better, the benevolent one has provided me with two pure, untouched crosswords. If any you too would like to contribute aid to a Colonial Commoner, here are the details:

Demographic: British Colonial Commoner
Sub-group: Northern lefty, sometimes referred to derogatively as a “Guardianista”
In need of:

  • Weekly copies of the Saturday Guardian, crossword untouched
  • Yorkshire Tea (approx. weekly household consumption: 80 teabags)
  • Wensleydale (could be tricky this one, doesn’t travel so well)
  • Gregg’s cheese and onion pasty (or Sean Bean’s platinum Gregg’s card)
  • Special dispensation for a non-Yorkshire item: Cider from Somerset (must be flat, flavourful and so dry it seems incomprehensible that it’s a liquid)

The Guardian Crossword

 

Animal wrangling before 9am

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We’re currently ensconced in one of Wellington’s oldest houses (it’s an almighty 150 years old, a blink of the eye in the UK but an aeon in post-colonial NZ history). The fire is made, the dogs are snoozing, the cat is asleep on the bed and the twenty or so chooks are roosting contentedly in the barn. Outside is one of NZ’s oldest native bushland areas, surrounded by verdant fern-clad hills. At night, the ruru hoot and by day the tui and kaka squawk. It sounds idyllic and for the most part it is.

20140706_213154[1]But everyday for the past week, and likely everyday for the next two weeks whilst we’re dog sitting, the morning’s conversation has gone something like this…

Morning!

Mo…oh the dogs are barking, I’ll defrost the food. [Cue yawning, stumbling out of bed and general cursing at the earliness of the hour]

Hello dog-faces! [Cue tail wagging, jumping, squeaking, barking, general giddiness with excitement]

Milo, get away from the cat. GET AWAY FROM THE CAT.

Yep Manu we’ll feed you next, no there’s no need to trip me up, I know you’re there.

Yes we’re going for walks.

No, please don’t lick Napoleon’s bum and then lick my face. I don’t like it.

Let’s put your harness on first. No, don’t chew it.

Napoleon, get your face out of that other dog’s shit! It’s not for eating.

No, Milo don’t join in too!

STOP CHASING THAT DOG! He doesn’t want to be your friend.

It’s giving me new found sympathy for people with toddlers. With my, admittedly not extensive, knowledge of the smaller section of the human race, I imagine giddy and excitable dogs are the canine equivalents of two-year olds. And good grief they’re hard work when the most you’re used to before 9am is the exertion of chosing what to wear.

As if the giddy dogs aren’t enough on a morning, the twenty chickens seem to have ganged up on their two-legged overlords and, using their limited bird-brained intelligence, have started pecking us whilst we’re feeding them. Perhaps they aren’t familiar with the maxim ‘Don’t peck the hand that feeds you’. Or perhaps, and I think this is more likely, they simply like to see their non-feathered masters running scared. To counter these aggressive fowl, I’ve utilised the age-old tactic of a giant pointy stick, looking somewhat deranged as I take three steps, turn around, and shake the stick menacingly in front of the gang of chickens close on my heels.

By the time work rolls around, I’m about ready for a nap. Full-time animal- and child-wranglers, I salute you.

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Worst journeys, and more penguins

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If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.

Highlights of this week include: discussing the merits of Thierry Henry’s cardigan, a fine piece of knitwear, with my sister (the internet was made for this); the below rather fetching picture of Robin at Otaki Forks; and the promise of Lights Up Knitting (it’s cinema and knitting combined into one wondrous whole, this time with added Kiwi vampires in What we do in the Shadows).

Robin holding a stone

Not sure what the pebble’s done to upset him so much

Prior to these titbits of joy, I finished the Worst Journey in the World, a quietly beautiful account of Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic, written by one of the men on the ill-fated expedition team. The author’s vivid depictions of the stark Antarctic landscape, along with his unshakeable belief in the values of the expedition and enduring love for his companions, made the book a treat to read. It is also, despite the inevitable outcome, strangely hopeful. Everyone has their own worst journeys in life, and The Worst Journey in the World is in some ways an allegory for all of them. I loved it.

As well as being totally immersed in the world of Antarctic exploration, I’ve been working on an excellent project: 30,000 images are now freely available to download from Te Papa’s Collections Online website. FREE! STUFF! I could eulogise for words upon words about why this is great (sharing knowledge; enabling people to use collections objects in creative ways; museums adopting a more open ethos), but I will simply say this: it means MORE PENGUINS FOR EVERYONE.

[Group of Penguins], Dunedin, by Burton Brothers, maker unknown. Te Papa (C.018345)

[Group of Penguins], Dunedin, by Burton Brothers, maker unknown. Te Papa (C.018345)

And I uncovered some gems, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Enjoy these…and check them out at collections.tepapa.govt.nz.