journal of museums aotearoa
Three-pronged attackIn May 2005 the three Southland Councils (Southland District, Gore District and Invercargill City) jointly set up the Southland Regional Heritage Committee (SRHC). Its task was to establish and implement a collaborative strategy for preserving the regional heritage of Murihiku/Southland within the context of a ‘Story of Southland’, including the preservation of collections of regional significance that illustrate the stories of Murihiku/Southland.
The SRHC created the new position of Roving Museums Officer (RMO) to provide ‘hands-on’ assistance, advice and support where required, but primarily in collection management and display preparation for the 20+ smaller, mainly volunteer-run, Southland museums. I was lucky enough to be appointed to this role under a three-year fixed contract, funded partially through the SRHC and partially through the Community Trust of Southland with additional support from the Southland District Council. The Southland District Council considers museums vital to the preservation, promotion and sharing of the region’s history and so contributes to my salary and administers the position.
A Roving RoleI had several years experience working at the Southland Museum, where my day to day activities regularly involved the acquisition, interpretation and physical care of a large and disparate collection of objects and materials. However, I have considerable empathy for the voluntary sector, having begun my museum career as a volunteer.
On my appointment as RMO in March 2007, assistance with Te Hikoi – the Southern journey, Riverton’s redeveloped museum and heritage centre, was a priority as the Riverton team neared their opening day. Additionally, during the first eighteen months, as a way of assessing what stage Southland museums were at with regards to registration process, I created and distributed ‘Tagging, Marking and Labelling’ kits and instituted a bulk purchase scheme of museum collection care materials and equipment. I have also guided several museums through SRHC Development and Preservation funding applications and steered several projects requiring the assistance of museum and collection specialists, e.g. accredited conservators of cultural material.
The RMO position was intended to be ‘hands-on’ with a focus on the collections, but what has increasingly become apparent are possibilities for regional solutions to small volunteer-run museum issues. In any given week I might spend time looking at Southland museum issues from a regional perspective, liaising with individual volunteer-run museums and working directly with the volunteers on their collections.
Volunteer-run museums – facing up to the futureIt is difficult at this stage to generalise about the small volunteer-run museums that are spread throughout Southland, except to say that in common with many similar museums elsewhere, geographic and professional isolation, lack of adequate funding, a diminishing volunteer base with a resultant lack of continuity and long-term stability are major issues. However connectedness to community and innovation in the face of isolation are noticeable strengths and Southland’s museum volunteers do an incredible job with the resources currently available to them.
It is my intention that there will be a clearer picture of the region’s volunteer-run museums at the end of my contract period. What is already evident is that they are all at varying stages of development with their collection management.
Redevelopment – a mixed blessingOf particular concern, and what may prove to be the most challenging aspect of my role, is what happens to the collections held by the smaller volunteer museums when they embark on a redevelopment programme. Often a museum’s collection is used as a catalyst for change – for example, ‘more space is needed for storage and display.’ Funding is somehow acquired to ‘preserve the collections’. This usually involves a conservator’s report carried out as part of a funder’s requirement for feasibility study funding, including professional recommendations regarding collection needs, but the resultant data and recommendations may be ignored and the collection may end up no better, or even worse, off after the ‘redevelopment’.
The following is a worst-case scenario based upon several museum redevelopment issues observed during my career.
A significant collection that had been displayed in its entirety in an old museum building is removed from long-term exhibition while the museum is ‘redeveloped’. Throughout the redevelopment process collection objects are housed both on-site and off-site in several unsuitable locations. The ‘on-site’ material is damaged (the room in which it is stored is used as a workshop for the redevelopment) and the off-site material is kept for long periods in environmentally unsuitable locations. Material is also shifted several times and suffered mechanical damage. Theft occurs at several of the unsecured locations, with some items unknowingly ‘on-sold’ when the period of ‘temporary’ storage stretches to several years. After the redevelopment much of this material remains off-site, as inadequate planning failed to determine suitable space requirements, with many objects unable to fit within the newly developed storage space. There was no discussion of collection management before the building project began, and no standardised registration documentation or procedure implemented. Retrospective collection record issues, and acquisition decisions remain ‘ad hoc’, and are not based upon a sound collection management policy.
The redevelopment process disenfranchises many volunteers, resulting in a dependence on a small, dedicated, but exhausted core of volunteers to deal with a range of challenging and ongoing issues. Once the redevelopment is complete, the facility inevitably attracts more ‘significant’ heritage collection items, but this had not been planned for nor anticipated.
Older parts of the building, which were not part of the renovations, remain unsuitable for the display and storage of collection. Since the new extension was not designed with collections in mind, the museum is left with a variety of unsuitable and/or unknown collection storage and display spaces, unsatisfactory environmental conditions, lighting levels, etc. – in short the redevelopment may have created more problems than it solved.
Waikaia Museum - going in with their eyes openEarly on in my role, I learned that Waikaia (Switzer’s) Museum Inc. in Northern Southland was in the midst of a phased community development programme for their museum. My reaction, born of the previously described experience where the collection will suffer from insufficient planning, was to spend three months over the winter (April - June 2008) at Waikaia Museum inventorying the generalised social history collections, assisted by several volunteers. This project encapsulates the type of work that I now undertake throughout the smaller volunteer-run museums around Southland.
Phase One of the Waikaia community development programme had been the refurbishment of an iconic ‘Bottle House’ structure attached to the museum. Phase Two would reconfigure and fit out a conglomeration of older wooden buildings deemed unsuitable for collections and volunteers/visitors alike – with recorded daily temperatures of around 5-7ºC with relative humidity levels of around 78-76% inside during my stay.
A dedicated group had spent several years working towards this project. They are currently gathering existing data and recommendations on their museum to develop a brief for a feasibility study and filling many information gaps. A comparatively quiet ‘winter’ season for the museum presented an opportunity to produce a full inventory by listing, photographing, measuring and assessing the physical condition of Waikaia Museum’s collections over the three-month period. Becoming part of the Waikaia community also enabled me to better understand the collection’s formation and to some extent alter my ideas of object ‘significance’ within the context of this museum.
With no electronic catalogue to produce collection reports (only a hand-written list existed), it was vital to account for the collections at the outset. This way they would be fully considered throughout the development planning, and at the very least, the inventory data will form the basis of an electronic catalogue for Waikaia Museum and provide a means for reviewing current Collection Management policy and practice.
As Waikaia Museum is comparatively ‘young’ - begun in the 1980s - many donors of objects can still provide information on objects that have little provenance attached. This project became a catalyst for bringing together Waikaia Museum’s collection documentation and encouraging donors and informants to add retrospectively to the body of knowledge. This ‘re-provenancing’ of the Waikaia collections will be an ongoing process and can be carried out by volunteers both on-site and away from the collections.
The inventory and associated collection report will indicate the collection strengths and weaknesses, offer suggestions for future collection ‘justification’ and/or active acquisition, signal potential problems surrounding uncertain collection status – such as unresolved loan material (what is on loan and what do they own) - and assess the collection’s potential for future interpretation. The report will also highlight the predominant materials and their associated needs and identify any issues with current Collection Management policies and procedures.
This collection ‘inventory’ will enable the Museum team to make informed statements and forward plans regarding the size and direction of their museum. The information gathered is vital for planning future display and/or collection storage space. Furthermore, by assessing the object material type and condition of the collection, future collection needs can be considered and factored into a redevelopment.
With increasingly limited space and resources, it is critical that museums define themselves - who they are – what stories they should tell and what objects they might use or acquire to tell those stories in a regional context. Waikaia Museum’s stories relate to high country farming, with other significant cultural material on the area’s gold mining past and associated Chinese settlement. The Museum’s greatest strengths, however, are their energetic and innovative volunteer base and their supportive community.
Where to next?My role was intended very much as a ‘hands on’ one with an emphasis on the ‘preservation’ of the collections that support Southland’s stories. There was also acknowledgement that the role might evolve over time in response to the needs of small volunteer-run museums. One clear area of need is the preservation not only of the tangible heritage, but also of the intangible context of the objects/materials, and the provision of suitable storage facilities.
I would like to implement a Disaster Preparedness strategy for Southland’s small volunteer-run museums. This initiative would require liaison and ongoing support from regional heritage facilities. Over time this could extend to all museums, heritage centres, whare taonga, libraries and archives within Southland. My overall aim would be to prepare for and respond to threats to the region’s heritage collections, involving close liaison with a variety of kindred sectors.
Other wider issues which interest me include: shared regional collection storage facilities in one or more locations as a cost-effective solution to the preservation of our Southland collections; significance training for small museums; and a regional research programme investigating ‘Story of Southland’ themes that might be interpreted in museums and heritage centres, e.g. the Chinese in Southland and … I know that I am eighteen months into my 3 year contract, so in reality, and as a matter of priority, I shall produce a forward plan that outlines the state of Southland’s small volunteer-run museums with suggestions for on-going development.
Johannah Massey became Southland’s Roving Museum Officer in 2007. During her previous employment at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, Invercargill, firstly as Assistant Natural History Curator and latterly as History Curator, she gained a Masters degree in Museum Studies from Massey University.
Te Ara - Journal of Museums Aotearoa ; Volume 33; Issue 1 & 2; November 2009
Figure 1: Interior view from foyer – Waikaia Museum. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: JOHANNAH MASSEY
Figure 2: Waikaia Museum, Waikaia (Northern Southland), with its iconic Bottle House - June 2008. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: JOHANNAH MASSEY
Figure 3: Significant and ‘at risk’ objects, such as this brodie helmet, were identified so that conservation priorities could be set. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: JOHANNAH MASSEY
Figure 4: Waikaia Museum Cat. No. 130: Label beneath object reads, “Human hair art made from the hair of the residents of ‘Waikaia’ at the time by Mrs Stirling ‘Dome’.” ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: JOHANNAH MASSEY
Figure 5: Waikaia Museum’s collection was inventoried and spaces put in order so that collection could be fully assessed. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: JOHANNAH MASSEY
Figure 6: Fan with Chinese figures - Collection of Waikaia (Switzer’s) Museum. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: JOHANNAH MASSEY
LAST UPDATED: 28/06/2010