Slow-developing exhibitionist in our midst
The Victorian exhibit in the Southland Museum and Art Gallery is like the slowest-moving BBC costume drama ever.
In the drawing room the poised pianist and her dashing admirer were demurely close for ages. Then, overnight, he turned away from her. And now they seem to have gone their separate ways.
Did that mourning grandmother in the hallway play a role in the breakup? After all, if you looked really closely, as generations have, you’ll surely have noticed she dressed much older than she appears to be. Something suspicious going on there.
We might contend that this famously longstanding exhibition has been a drawn-out drama the details of which have been easily missed unless you spend time taking it in.
Perhaps the same could be said for the museum itself.
The lights are out now. It’s closed to the public as an earthquake risk, apart from the tuatarium visible from the outside.
But the museum has survived more than a few hard times as well as enjoying sustained successes down the years.
And it all started with an entrepreneurial pieman.
Andrew McKenzie’s Scotch Pie Shop and Museum opened in Dee St in 1872. It is said to have had more than 1000 specimens including stuffed birds and seal, insects and at various times a live kiwi, kakapo, tortoise and – sure, why not? – a monkey.
In 1875 the museum was sold to the Athenaeum, a place of literary uplift in the centre of town; a library that was open only to its paid members. On top of it stood a statue of of a proud female figure, later to be placed outside the existing museum’s site in Queen’s Park, and widely mistaken for Britannia. In fact it is Minerva. The goddess of wisdom, yes, but also of strategic warfare. (A secondary role the symbolism of which we might want to bear in mind from time to time.)
Deliciously, given the fame that would lie ahead, records show that in the late 1880s a live tuatara was said to be roaming the shelves of the Athenaeum.
Its artefacts were popular but were kept in cramped conditions and began to deteriorate. Meanwhile, the Southland branch of the Royal Society was leading a movement of institutions and organisations interested in forming a dedicated museum, and looked to the Government for help.
In 1907 responsibility for the museum was handed to the Southland Education Board and in 1912 the collection was moved to the mezzanine floor of in the new Southland Technical College.
In this incarnation it didn’t lack for bodies ready to fund it. The Athenaeum Committee was still on board, along with the borough council, the county council, Southland Education Board, the High Schools Board, Teachers’ Institute and A & P society.
A Southland Museum Board was formed in 1915 and it quickly found the financial backing was dropping away. By 1926 only the Invercargill town council was still stumping up. Deterioration of the collection again became a vivid concern and conditions were so cramped the curators stored some of the collection in the Invercargill water tower.
By the 1930s ambitions for a dedicated museum were again gaining public traction, notably from the reaction to a call from historian Fred Hall-Jones for a fully provincial museum and gallery. Here was a project worthy of completion in time for the 1940 New Zealand centennial celebrations. They had even lined up a site, at Queen’s Park.
But it wasn’t a serene business and dissent around the councils was palpable, giving rise to criticisms of parochial attitudes. Still, they pressed on until something happened to galvanise public feeling.
‘‘Hitler or no Hitler! Southland will have new museum’’ declared one headline.
Whether or not Der Fu¨hrer harboured any specific tactical intention to confound this faraway new museum – history is silent on that point – local sentiment was that its completion during a time of material as well as funding shortages would be a triumph over adversity. And Minerva, who had toppled from her stance on the Athenaeum roof, was transported to the museum site.
Honorary curator Jack Sorensen had been fundraising like a good’un, but the finances didn’t allow for an art gallery to be included.
Sorensen was appointed the first director of the new museum and his standing was such that this bespoke of the sort of professionalism that help attract the likes of Carnegie funding. By late 1941 he had left for active service as an Antarctic coastwatcher, replaced by David Teviotdale.
On May 9, 1942, the museum opened. Very gratifying. Barely two years later it was becoming overcrowded, the absence of art space apart from a few walls was sorely felt.
By 1950 the trust board had approved a scheme for an art gallery to be attached and, when Teviotdale resigned aged 82 in 1953, Olga Sansom became possibly the first female museum director in New Zealand.
New as it was, the building was leaking, the growing collection was deteriorating in the damp and by 1958 the board’s finances were in an unsatisfactory state, local bodies weren’t showing a whole heap of interest in museum work, and Sansom resigned.
In spite of voluntary help the museum closed on April 4 1959 – security was the cited reason but behind this was the reproachful stance that the museum had been taken for granted over the years and the board, which had managed on ‘‘a pittance’’ for long enough that the public was blinded to its true needs.
It reopened in mid-December as local body co-operation again became evident with five years of assured finances, greater council representation on the board and – happy days – the art gallery and museum store extension were opened in 1961.
Also that year a fully-grown male tuatara, George, was put on display and became an immediate hit with the public.
The observatory opened in 1972 (the telescope constructed and donated by the extravagantly talented young Russell Beck) and the purpose-built tuatarium opened in late 1974, by which time Lindsay Hazley was on board and en route to developing a captivity breeding programme that would become internationally renown. Essentially, he used some farmboy smarts and realised that male tuatara are more inclined to breed if there’s a bit of competitive edge to it.
Crucially, in 1975 Beck, was appointed director, a position he would hold until 1999.
It was under his watch that the late 1980s project, a spectacular pyramid roof, took place, requiring another closure fro April to November 1989 before an opening celebrated with an audio-visual event the 1990 Equinox Spectacular in which images were beamed on to the pyramid roof, lasers, fireworks, gunfire and live music entertained the large crowds.
Then, dark deeds done in the dark. In 1991 notorious wildlife smuggler Freddie Angell was jailed for stealing two tuatara from the museum.
Still, by 1992 the the museum was attracting the highest per capita attendances for any New Zealand provincial museum.
Come 1997 the Beyond the Roaring 40s gallery opened to the public and the following year it was officially opened by Sir Ed Hillary.
That pyramid roof was again the subject of an audio visual show when an estimated 20,000 people wrapped up for lights, fireworks song and dance in the Our People celebration of 800 years’ human history hereabouts in 1998.
‘‘That’s what we designed the pyramid roof for,’’ said Beck,"to make the museum come alive’’.
In 1999 he retired, tired, he said of cap-in-hand fundraising. And you couldn’t say easier times lay ahead.
In 2004 the museum’s trust board changed its constitution to secure longer term funding from the Invercargill city, Southland and Gore district councils. It reduced the number of board members from 20 to eight. And the ICC picked up the management contract.
David Woodings, who replaced Beck, was ‘‘terminated’’ in 2005 due to ‘‘irreconcilable differences’’.
‘‘I guess there were visions that I had for the organisation that were not necessarily shared,’’ he said.
Rather than replace him the council had its library manager Keith Harrington assume the extra responsibility until Gail Ramsay was employed in 2006. Storage space had yet again become an issue for staff and in 2008 Wixon Architects won a contract to design concepts for a new museum.
Fundraising for $26 million technically began but scarcely developed quickly By 2011 with fundraising one-third of the way there, the city council decided to scale back the original plan due to the 2010 collapse of Stadium Southland and a resetting of civic priorities to rebuild it.
The following year Ian Pottinger complained about museum displays that hadn’t changed in 40 years, drawing both support and disagreement from the public.
An operational review by museum consultant Ken Gorbey did not lead to conspicuous momentum and the mire just seemed to deepen.
Civic eyes and priorities turned to the wider agenda of inner-city redevelopment, part of which included relocating the museum’s art collection (and other publicly owned collections) into a new facility.
It became a saga of stalled momentum, during which building standard laws have – or depending on whose views you prefer, have not – complicated things mightily. The museum has been closed. Its art collection is to move into a new centre in Wachner Pl, and plans for a reopening on the existing site, albeit potentially years away, are under way.
Dispiriting, for now. And yet, as history curator David Dudfield says; ‘‘This museum is a gestalt’’. Come again?
That’s ‘‘a delightfully pretentious term for a thing that is perceived as greater than the sum of its parts’’.
‘‘There is the collection, from taonga to art, cultural history to natural history – thousands of diverse objects with countless and fascinating stories to tell now and in the future.
‘‘There are our living taonga – our tuatara – as iconic to Invercargill as Tim Shadbolt, cheese rolls and purrrple worrrrk shirrrts.
‘‘There is our location , in the stunning surroundings of Queen’s Park. The wonderful artists, historians, researchers that use our spaces and collections to interpret their worlds for the public. But for me the museum’s main strength has always been our connections with the community.’’
St John’s Girls school junior pupils walk along Queens Park to the Southland Museum & Art Gallery.