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Drama at the dinner table


Group projects: a personal favourite from the series of placemats owned by Marion Stevens. Item: CCS0023 is in the care of the Teece Museum as part of the Canterbury College Collection.

One of the most charming objects in the Canterbury College Collection is this group of eight cloth placemats. These placemats depict four comical scenes, all with ancient Classical themes, in a graphic cartoonish style– some with a modern twist. A personal favourite features three caryatids – architectural columns carved into the shape of women that hold up a structure. In this comical scene one of the caryatids sits cross-legged in the middle of the space daydreaming, as the other two glare at her while making up for her slack. Another scene features a dramatic Roman chariot ride where a draped-woman has her arms wrapped around a very serious Roman warrior, her head thrown back in glee – while he looks back in concern, the horse looks back in disapproval.

A roman soldier and his horse side-eyeing their delighted passenger.

While these placemats are satirical and casual in their expression, they show sophistication in their design and ability to evoke a response. The flattened medium of the mats provides a stage like effect and encourages us to come up with our own scripts and the casual modern references sprinkled in – such as the phone – challenges us to reconsider how we view the ancient world. The illustrations incorporate Greek and Roman art motifs including meanders, drapery and references to iconic Classical architecture. The simple lines manage to create a strong sense of the drapery of a toga and the squiggles under the unimpressed caryatids feet set off their hips just like the real ones on the top of the Acropolis. A pose that is called the contrapposto pose.

A perfect example of a casual modern reference – Who do you think he is calling?

One of the delights of objects like these is that they were not for display but were used and enjoyed by students and staff. They once belonged to Miss Marion Stevens, a UC icon, who used them when hosting dinner parties where they were surely a topic of conversation as each plate was lifted to reveal them. For those of you unfamiliar, Marion Stevens was an academic Reader at the University of Canterbury and a collector of Greek antiquities. She went on to become the founder of the James Logie Memorial Collection which is now housed in the city centre at the UC Teece Museum. A recent oral history on Marion revealed her to have a quirky character and a great sense of humour. She was known to travel around on her bicycle with a 2500-year-old vase stashed in the wicker basket on the front of the bike! These placemats, with their tongue-in-cheek illustrations gently mocking the Classical world, would have greatly appealed to Marion. Objects such as these give us a chance to connect to some of the famous personalities of the University beyond their academic achievements

A meandering mind on top a of meander.

We’re still on the lookout for the hidden gems that speak to the history and people of the University. If you think you might have something to add to the survey then we would love you to get in touch!

Find out more about the Canterbury College Collection online here>

Contact the Canterbury College Survey Team at







It’s all fun and games with the Canterbury College Survey

Choosing the perfect gift for your loved ones around Christmas can be a task fraught with many challenges, turning even the most aggressive Christmas lover into a Grinch. Always popular for children are toys that are educational but fun. Many cute and educational toys are often themed around the popular culture of the day, such as Paw Patrol or Peppa Pig. Pictured here are some educational toys from the Canterbury College Collection which strongly reflect the aesthetic sensibility of their time.

Image 2: Detail of Children’s puzzles and games: CCS0150 – 005. Item is in the care UC’s College of Education

Puzzles featuring domestic images, a black and white domino set, and a set of wooden geometric blocks make up this collection, which are thought to have been used by either the Psychology or the Education Departments. The toys could have been used to assess children’s hand-eye coordination, simple motor skills or balancing. Generally, these tests might be aimed at very young age groups and would require that the child look for patterns or identify like shapes as a form of early mathematical learning.

Detail of Children’s puzzles and games: CCS0150 – 007. Item is in the care UC’s College of Education

The geometric blocks above are part of an educational game known as a tangram which originated in China. Children would look at a simple picture and try to recreate it using the shapes, or could just create an image of their own. The booklets which accompany the toys include instructions on how to perform these tests.

Detail of Children’s puzzles and games: CCS0150 – 006. Item is in the care UC’s College of Education

Treasures like this are slowly making their way out of departments and being lost to the University, taking their stories with them. Please contact us if you know of any items that you think might fit the criteria for the new stage of the Canterbury College survey project, or which illuminate the history of UC in any way. We would love to capture their stories before it’s too late.

Detail of Children’s puzzles and games: CCS0150 – 004. Item is in the care UC’s College of Education

Have a very Happy Holiday season from your grateful Collection Technicians Meredith and Kieran. We look forward to hearing from you all in the New Year.

Find out more about the Canterbury College Collection online here>

Contact the Canterbury College Survey Team here>