I spent an hour last week listening to the oral submissions to the Grey District Council regarding History House, the nearest the town comes to having a museum. It is funded by the Council but run by a group of volunteers who oversee a big collection of photographs which have been donated, plus some objects. It has been located in an old building down by the wharves and the building is both out of the way and has been judged an earthquake risk, so has had to be closed to the public.

Estimates vary as to the cost of getting it up to standard but they tend to be in the $300,000 range. It is the only cultural institution to be funded by the council but visitor numbers have been low; it’s out of the town centre, perhaps difficult for visitors to find and its exhibitions don’t change. There has been no curator or curatorial function.

The local I-Site, run by a capable entrepreneur, proposed to the council that the I-Site take over the running of the facility, move it to an empty shop by the railway station where visitors disembark daily from the popular Trans-Alpine train, develop some souvenir type product for sale, extend opening hours and make it ‘modern’. The council accepted the proposal and were now hearing submissions.

However, most of the people speaking were against the idea. By handing it over to business interests, it is commercialising the town’s heritage. It will lead to the probable demolition of one of the few old buildings remaining. The volunteers who have given generously of their time feel betrayed. Donors will object if money is being made from their donations.

Sartre has the concept of the practico inert, the dead weight of the past and I felt this as people tended to ramble on.

The I-Site manager told the meeting he had made the proposal in good faith. Business is about location. No one goes to the present place because nothing changes. You go once and that’s it. The volunteers have his respect and they can still be involved. Here was a man with the praxis of business, born from the need to make a profit or at least break even.

I was there to speak of the need for the curatorial role to interpret a collection, to enable an ongoing dialogue with whatever is happening in the community. But on this occasion I certainly felt like an incomer, an outsider.

Heritage is a bemusing field. There’s an interesting book I made a contribution to: Heritage, Labour and the Working Classes, published by Routledge in 2010. One of the writers states that heritage was once focused on architecture and archaeological sites: the old, the beautiful, the great and the good – castles, cathedrals and Stonehenge. It was a matter of celebrating in nostalgic fashion,  past economic and cultural elites. But of late, given the demand for diversity, it is a much wider field which encompasses ‘places, artefacts, and cultural expressions inherited from the past which reflect nations, communities, families and even individuals.’ But it has also become a field that ‘defines the disturbances, irregularities and uncertainties of the present, much more than it truly represents the past.’

This is certainly true of History House. Faced with the need to move to an economy based around tourism and dairying rather than extraction, Greymouth/Mawhera has to embrace the visitor. It has no great natural attraction so is relying on its ‘heritage’. After the train trip how do we get people to stop in the town rather than immediately heading off to the glaciers and Queenstown?  The council and the I-Site see an opportunity, but the traditionalists are nostalgic, sensing that the museum’s ability to validate the community and families and local individuals will be lost.

There is no easy solution and this ‘disturbance’ will continue to fester. This is where the curatorial role will be vital: to validate the community in a way which is of interest to the visitor, who is often after a genuine cultural experience rather than a souvenir. The souvenir, if you like, should come at the end of that experience rather than being that experience.  But curators are expensive. As I said to council, there are people in the community who could curate an exhibition on a koha basis. If you can make a film you can make an exhibition.

There is as well, a structural problem to be solved: not just a business, not just a community group of volunteers – what about a co-operative with the stakeholders (including the I-Site and the Friends, plus Heritage West Coast, Greymouth business etc) becoming  shareholders and the council as patron? This could drive a road down the middle of the muddle and become a win-win situation?

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