Prominent Lyttelton and Sumner historian Baden Norris died last Wednesday aged 92. Matt Salmons looks back on the iconic museum curator’s life.
A tireless historian, an avid explorer, prospector, wharfside worker, writer and emeritus curator of two museums, Lyttelton-born Baden Norris balanced scholarly pursuits with a down-to-earth attitude.
Close friend and Lyttleton Museum committee member Kerry McCarthy said Mr Norris was a hard worker and a kind, loyal man, who had a passion for inspiring the joy of learning and history in others.
“He was the classic New Zealand gentleman of his age. He was very modest and humble, he always stayed very real and grounded. He was very generous in his knowledge and interested in other people,” Dr McCarthy said.
Leaving school at a young age, Mr Norris joined the merchant navy, serving in the Pacific during World War 2. On his return, he worked as a painter in Rotorua where he met his wife Alice. The couple returned to Lyttelton to marry and had a daughter, Daphne, who lives in the United States along with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The family later moved to Sumner. Mr Norris’ daily trip to work at the Lyttelton Port, in which he passed the archeological work at Moa Bone Cave, connected him with the Canterbury Museum Archeological Society. He would serve as the society’s secretary from 1958-1984, travelling on a number of archeological expeditions.
Passionate about Antarctica, Mr Norris visited the continent 15 times from 1964. On his first visit, he dug out the huts used by Antarctic explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, becoming one of the first to enter them since the expeditions and saving a number of artefacts in the process.
About that time Mr Norris would lay the foundations for the Lyttelton Museum. He wanted to save the area’s history after finding decomposing fish and chips sandwiched between copies of the Lyttelton Times in the town’s archives. The museum opened in 1969, with Mr Norris as its first curator.
“Baden was very proud that he could bring the history and the stories of the ordinary people of Lyttelton into the museum,” Dr McCarthy said.
In 1984, Mr Norris became the official curator of Antarctic history at Canterbury Museum after holding the position honourarily since 1967.
Museum director Anthony Wright said Mr Norris was an “utterly dependable” man, saying he was “good in the very best sense of the word.”
His work ethic and impeccable manners allowed him to feel comfortable in all levels of society.
“He was a very down-to-earth man, but very knowledgeable. He really had it all at the tip of his tongue.”
Mr Wright said Mr Norris had been instrumental in expanding the museum’s Antarctic collection with many well-known artefacts, including Sir Robertson Stewart’s Huskies, Jens and Apolotok.
“He was very fond of the dogs and he was very bound up in retrieving them and having them repaired for the collection. But I would honestly think there are many, many, many things in the exhibits and the collection that we owe Baden the thanks for.”
A “most wonderful storyteller”, Mr Wright said Mr Norris had brought history to life, both as a tour guide and lecturer, telling the human stories behind items and events.
He said Mr Norris would always remain a part of the museum family. “He will always be a part of our story. When our history is written, he’ll be a major player in that” Mr Wright said.
Mr Norris resigned from Canterbury Museum in 2002 and as curator of the Lyttelton Museum in 2010, but continued to provide advice and volunteer service to both museums right up until his death.
His work saw Mr Norris win a number of accolades, including a Queen’s Service Order, Antarctic Conservation Trophy, Rhodes History Medal and, most recently, the New Zealand Antarctica Medal in 2013.
Both Norris Glacier in Antarctica and Baden Norris Reserve on Sumner Rd, Lyttelton, bear his name.
In spite of his accolades, Dr McCarthy said Mr Norris remained humble; grateful for the honours, but did what he did because of his passion for the fields he worked in.
Beyond his legacy at the museums, she said he left behind many people he had inspired and befriended.
“There’s a lot of people . . . who are carrying knowledge, attitudes and understanding with them that they wouldn’t have had if Baden hadn’t been around,” Dr McCarthy said.
“One thing he always said to me was never let any opportunity pass you by, take every opportunity that comes your way and that’s the way to lead
a fulfilled life,” Dr McCarthy said.
•As a child, Baden Norris was taken by his father to see the carpenter from Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Harry McNeish, in a Wellington hospital. Mr McNeish apparently whispered in the young Mr Norris’ ear; “Shackleton killed my cat”. Kerry McCarthey said that later in life, Mr Norris would successfully campaign for a small statue of a cat be added to Mr McNeish’s headstone in Wellington.
•The brass bust of Roald Amundsen at Canterbury Museum has a distinctly shiny nose. Museum director Anthony Wright said the only case of Baden Norris ever being speechless was over Antarctic history when asked by a group of Japanese tourists he was guiding why the explorer’s nose was so big, Mr Norris said touching the nose would bring luck. The joking comment set off a tradition where tourists rub the nose, forcing the museum to regularly apply a wax seal to it to protect the bust.