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How to Collect Memories

09 May 2020
Get an education in how to surround yourself with art work that tells the story of your life and experiences.

The days of visiting galleries and exhibitions are temporarily on hold. The lost opportunity to get motivation from walking through new spaces and soaking in different works is a void The Big Idea wants to help fill. 

Our ‘House Visits’ series takes you into the homes and working spaces of people in the creative world, to see what they have collected on their travels, what it means to them and what they’re using as inspiration inside their own four walls.

Karl Chitham - Wellington

I am currently the Head of Museums at Hutt City Council in Te Awakairangi, Lower Hutt, which includes both The Dowse Art Museum and Petone Settlers Museum. I was born in Lower Hutt Hospital more years ago than I care to remember, so this has been a kind of homecoming.  

I have been in lockdown with my partner and cat (maybe a Maine Coon, but probably just a slightly overweight, long-haired tabby) in a small one-bedroom apartment up on a hill in sunny Brooklyn. It was formerly owned by a friend of mine (the apartment not the cat) and I have fond memories of coming to stay on my trips down to the capital. This tiny pad always seemed to defy my misconceptions about the windy city – it was warm, light, got all day sun and has a lovely garden oasis that’s in the flight paths for flocks of singing and screeching native birds. 

I think of this little gem as a bit of a retreat, but with space at a premium, I have had to be pretty disciplined about the things we surround ourselves with. Aside from the predictable mountain of books, my things are really more like an album of memories and associations – reminders of things I have done, places I have been and people I have met.

Hundreds and Thousands 

Over the years, I have become more and more attracted to colour – a bit like a tall, lanky magpie. This collection of small works holds a lot of nostalgia from different projects I have been involved with as a curator.

The pile of ping-pong balls stabbed with toothpicks were part of an installation by Judy Darragh when I was Curator of The Waikato University Art Collection. There were hundreds of these poked into the lawn outside the gallery – it was up for one night only and I had the job of removing them the next day.

John Reynold’s lyrical blue canvas and Evan Woodruffe’s amorphous portrait on the right are from my time as Director of Tauranga Art Gallery and mark the end of major projects with both artists.

The two ceramic works – the holey figurine and the spotty rock are from artists John Roy and Madeleine Childs whose work I really admire.

The painting in the corner by Lee Morgan I purchased from the Whanganui Art Review when I was a judge. The day after the awards ceremony I popped back in to see the show and kept coming back to this work and decided I couldn’t leave without it. The wharenui is by the Museum of True History [MOTH] – I am obsessed with miniatures so this little cardboard replica was a must-have.

Food for the Soul

As I mentioned – I have an extreme book fetish. Over the years it has proven a bit of a curse as we move house fairly regularly and boxes of books are not good for the back.

The first book shown here is by artist and academic Tessa Laird. She had an exhibition with potter Peter Lange at Objectspace and by the time I got to see the show, all of the works had sold. I mentioned to a friend how sad I was to have missed out and on my 40th birthday she turned up with this amazing gift.

I am an average cook at the best of times and admit to not really having any enthusiasm until I moved into a flat in Kingsland, Auckland in the early 2000s. On my first night, one of my flatmates cooked dinner – pasta made from scratch with green beans. It was the most delicious thing I had ever had and it opened my eyes, tastebuds and stomach to the joys of cooking (and eating).

Obviously in lockdown food has taken on vast importance for many of us as a distraction, comfort and necessity. One of the first things I did when Alert Level 4 was announced was to make my go-to dish; Cardamom Rice and Chicken from my favourite cookbook Jerusalem. It’s still in the freezer 5 weeks later.

The Fates

A friend of mine Caroline Billing runs a gallery in Christchurch called The National. I curated a small exhibition for her called The Weathering, which was a response to the way the city looked and felt in the years following the earthquakes.

I was keen to include work by Suji Park, who I had always been a big fan of. Her small figurines were rare at this time but we managed to track down a small grouping for the show. This one was from a pair, but its partner had been damaged so we didn’t include it. I felt sorry for her so decided to bring her home with me and now she is one of my most treasured objects.

The felt work by Peter Robinson was also an unexpected addition. Along with some friends, I had been asked to help with the website content for Peter’s project for the Sydney Biennale. I couldn’t afford to travel over for the opening so was feeling a bit sorry for myself and then one day my friend turned up with this gift from Peter – he had made every volunteer a work as a thank you for their help on the project.   

Past and Present


These two pictures talk about different takes on history. The artwork is by Sara Hughes and was a limited edition she did for an exhibition at Tauranga Art Gallery. The project referenced all of the buildings along the main street in Tauranga town centre using architectural features and window details to tell the story. This was one of the works given to me as my farewell gift and reminds me of all the amazing people I met and worked with during my time there.

The photograph is my grandmother on my mum’s side. I never met her or my grandfather but I like having their photos as it reminds me that there is so much I don’t know and still have to learn.

Karl Chitham.