Museum22 June 2021by Te ManawaA world of gadgets

With Curious Contraptions open and proving a massive hit with visitors, we take a look into the world of automata and how the exhibition came to be.
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A mechanical wooden sculpture of the Queen
The Royal Wave

A skeletal mariachi band clatters through a spooky tune. A dinghy crew rows vigorously through rough seas. A man eats spaghetti in the bath. They perform the same action again and again, just three among dozens of little gadgets and gizmos that make up Curious Contraptions.

The name for all these machines is “automata”. They’re made by a veteran group of UK-based automata artisans called Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, who’ve been building machines like these since the 1970s.

Curious Contraptions closes briefly at the end of October, opening again in November for a summer season lasting until mid-March next year. With recent Covid-19 lockdowns forcing its closure for nearly two months, the popular exhibition’s extension gives visitors another chance to experience these unique gadgets in person.

Programme developer Gary Collins explains that there’s often a strong upcycling ethos involved in the process. Spare bits of wood and wire scraps can all be incorporated into a new piece.

“I’ve even seen milk bottle tops put into a sandwich press to make plastic sheets, which can be used as a colour filter for LEDs,” he says.

The exhibition has a high level of interactivity, with almost all the automata on display capable of being activated by the turn of a handle or the push of a button. The Queen waves her famous wave, a maestro hammers out a piano concerto and a cheeky dog goes skiing, and it’s the visitor who makes it all happen.

“They have a character to them. It’s like comics that have come alive; they can tell a story,” Gary says.

More than fifty automata make up Curious Contraptions. Each occupies a strange space between toy and sculpture, and it’s this that lends the exhibition its broad appeal. It combines the fascination of mechanics and engineering with the joy of pushing buttons and making stuff go. Visitors of all ages will find something to love.

Curious Contraptions will be open in the Te Manawa Atrium from mid-November until 13 March 2020. Entry is by donation.