Slow-de­vel­op­ing ex­hi­bi­tion­ist in our midst

The Southland Times - - Front Page -

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.

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