Museum Profile: Te Toi Uku Crown Lynn & Clayworks Museum
Te Toi Uku, which translates as ‘the art of clay’, is a small museum dedicated to the ceramics industry of West Auckland, in particular New Lynn. New Lynn was home to Crown Lynn whose products were in almost every New Zealand home and can still be found in baches and op shops nationwide, as well as in many private and public collections. It was a highly successful company which at its height in 1971 produced 400,000 pieces a week. Mainly due to pressure from cheap overseas imports, the company closed in 1989.
The museum was opened in 2015 but the story began in 2005 when the Portage Ceramics Trust was formed to purchase a collection relating to Crown Lynn from Richard Quinn. Richard lived nearby and became obsessed with saving objects when it looked like the factory was going to close. He envisaged a Crown Lynn museum but did not live to see it open. Richard collected pieces from op shops but also was able to go to the factory and take away tools, equipment and archives. He also dug in the ground around the factory where shards and old moulds were thrown away. These all help to tell the Crown Lynn story and we owe a debt of gratitude to him for his hard work and tenacity.
As well as the founding Quinn collection, there have been many more donations taking the collection to about 7000 objects. Some of these relate to the early industries in New Lynn which were brick, pipe and tile making, including the Jack Diamond brick collection.
The first bricks were made by hand in the area in the 1860s at various locations along the Whau River allowing transport to the city. After the railway came to New Lynn in 1881 larger operations sprang up, including Gardner Brothers and Parker whose 1926 kiln next to the museum is the last remaining remnant of the clay industry in the area. Some of these larger companies joined in 1929 to form Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company (Ambrico) which later became Crown Lynn.
By the mid-20th century this part of New Lynn was covered in brick and pipe factories and kilns with bricks drying in sheds and outside in the open air. During the 1970s and 1980s these were mostly demolished with the last company, Monier, closing in 2015. The museum occupies a corrugated iron building in Ambrico Place, which is a residential area built on top of the old brick factory site.
What we can offer is restricted due to the size of the building and our staffing of one curator and a weekend host. We can accommodate 30 people in the main gallery space at a squeeze, so we will soon be offering an education programme in conjunction with Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi. We also offer talks to groups of up to 30 along with coffee in Crown Lynn cups from a local coffee cart.
Our operational funding comes from the local Whau Board of Auckland Council and the Portage Licensing Trust has contributed to the purchase and development of the collection. The rest of our work requires additional grant applications to various funders who generally are very supportive of us.
Although small we try to make the most of our unique collection by telling the stories about how the ceramics were made and the people who made them. We hold plaster models and moulds of such iconic items as the Crown Lynn swan. We also have the original potter’s wheel which was used by Daniel Steenstra and probably Ernie Shufflebotham to make hand-potted pieces for Crown Lynn. Amongst other things, the Crown Lynn archive contains photographs, original artwork, and entries in the annual Crown Lynn design competition.
We have a strong fan base of Crown Lynn collectors, but our aim is also to engage with the local community. We receive many visits from former Crown Lynn employees who help us with our research, and we would like to undertake oral history interviews as much as possible. Next year we plan a special oral history project focussing on Māori and Pasifika workers who made up a large proportion of the Crown Lynn workforce.
Between lockdowns we underwent a refurbishment which allowed us to install more exhibitions about the early brick and pipe history and renew our Crown Lynn displays. Twice a year we hold our hugely popular Crown Lynn Collectors Market, the next one being Sunday 1 November.
Please come and visit us when you are in Auckland - New Lynn is a transport hub easily accessible by bus and train!