Behind the scenes: agricultural collections
Behind the scenes at the museum work continues on our collections. This work supports the Cultural Facility Development Project. Currently I am working on the museum’s collection of agricultural equipment. Before I saw the light and became a museum worker I had dreams of being a veterinarian. Having grown up in the suburbs in Christchurch I took agricultural studies as a subject for three years at high school so I would have a better understanding of farm life. I enjoyed studying agriculture and it was one of my better subjects so it is good to dust off that knowledge!
The Waitaki district has a rich agricultural history, think the origin of New Zealand’s frozen meat industry, the development of the Corriedale sheep breed and flour milling. Our collection includes some items connected to these stories but a lot of our agricultural collection is more generic and includes duplicates of items commonly used on farms like scythes and sickles.
One of our more unique stories relates to poultry farming and egg production. North Otago was a big producer of eggs. Part of the challenge of keeping chickens, and most other livestock, is what to do with the males. Often current debates around animal welfare on farms relate to this issue, like debate about the treatment of bobby calves (young male calves) on dairy farms. One item we have previously exhibited is a kimono that was gifted to a local woman by a Japanese chicken sexer just prior to World War Two. Chicken sexing allowed the roosters to be disposed of before too much capital went in to raising them.
Looking at the agricultural collection further I found that we have a set of capon tools (NOM 80/71). They are still in their original box and hardly seem to have been used. Learning more about the process I can see why. A capon is a castrated rooster. Castrating the rooster improves the quality of the meat. The tools in our collection were developed by George Beuoy and the process is as follows “To make a cockerel a capon… a caponizer must restrain the 3 to 6 week old bird by tying weights to its wings and feet to prevent movement and expose the rib cage. Then the caponizer cuts between the lowest two ribs of the bird and spreads them apart with a special tool to open up access to the body cavity. Last, the caponizer searches for the testes, each about the size of a grain of rice, and rips them free of their connective tissue with a small slotted spoon”. This process was undertaken without anaesthetic. There are a lot of sets of vintage capon tools for sale online. I get the impression these kits were sold with the promise people would be able to make money selling capon meat but in the end the process was too difficult for most people.
Our collection also includes equipment for chemically castrating roosters. Again this item does not appear to have been used much (NOM 93/54). This set is for injecting a pellet of stilboestrol under the skin of the rooster. The hormone released by the pellet neuters the animal. With changes in animal welfare rules and developments in poultry farming for meat, roosters are no longer castrated in New Zealand.
However the issue of what to do with roosters remains in the egg industry. Currently rooster chicks are “killed when they are a day old either by gassing or being instantly killed in a machine with a blade” though people are researching ways to avoid roosters being hatched in the first place.
Our agricultural collection can help document these shifts in practise as well as provoke us to think about current debates about farming and ethics.