Mataura Museum "Reinventing the Mataura Museum"

Mataura Museum

68 Kana Street Mataura 9712 NEW ZEALAND

Mataura, New Zealand
New Zealand Museum Awards / Best Museum Project 2015

Mataura Museum: Bigger on the Inside

Based on a feature written by Michael Fallow, courtesy of the Southland Times

The Mataura Museum’s 1880s cottage sits prettily next to its sadly dilapidating twin. The loved and the unloved. One the empty, deteriorating asset of an absentee owner, the other a home for a town full of stories and memories. It has long been a capacious cottage. Jim Spooner raised eight children here, refusing to allow his family to be split up after his wife Doris died in 1938.

Nearly fifty years later, the volunteer run Mataura Historical Society purchased the cottage, ‘tidied it up’ and in 1993 opened it as a colonial era museum. The townsfolk hit their grand parents’ garages and came up with a host of items of uncertain provenance but a good age; stuff that looked the part. Enough to deck out the cottage with a strong Victorian theme. ‘You should have seen it’ says Mataura Historical Society president Lorena Turnbull, ‘with all that clutter…’

In 2006 the community reassessed its museum and concluded it was tired, small, off the main roadand in want of replacement. A plan to convert the town’s old library proved too expensive; NZ $400,000 indeed! Just another knockback to an industrial town that has weathered plenty of them, after losing its Paper Mill in 2000 and half its Meat Works in 2012.

A Redemptive Project

So back to the wee cottage they went with a budget of NZ$250,000, a redemptive project co-ordinated by the Gore District Council who seconded one of its curators, David Luoni, to the redevelopment. And with him a group of nine women, one surviving husband among them, all volunteers united in their love of their town and a willingness to make themselves useful.

They teamed up in 2011, got the community on board, and after reopening in March 2015, jointly won the Best Museum Project at the 2015 New Zealand Museum Awards. Says Secretary Marie Wilkinson: ‘When we started we knew little about museum practice’. Well, all right, they knew about the district and its people, which is hardly a small thing. What the volunteers didn't know about was: museum systems, collection care, display and narrative techniques let alone the small matter of the new world of modern technology, from digital photography to online cataloguing and social media.

Specialists were recruited to help up skill the volunteers. Itdidn’t always go sweetly and serenely. ‘Sometimes we wondered if, in all honesty, it was too much to cope with,’ says Marie Wilkinson, recalling frustrations of confounded computers, the challenges of packing objects to a high standard and working in a cold old library while the cottage was completely renovated. ‘We were a bit overwhelmed on occasions but we kept going. When things didn't go right we either had a cup of tea and started again, or just packed up, went home and came back another day.’A major satisfaction came from developing a cottage garden and heritage orchard to frame the Museum.

Changes of thinking, not just up-skilling, were needed. Luoni is a perfectionist, the volunteers aren't pushovers. They had to come to accommodations.‘David invited us to think with curators' hats, not grandmas' hearts,’ Wilkinson says. He would repeat: ‘Does it relate to our community? Do we know its story? Is it significant, if so, can we care for it?There were numerous arm wrestles as to whether objects should remain in the collection.

Old School, New School

As for the tiny 50m2 footprint of the cottage, the team came to see it not as a limitation, but as a potential liberation. Luoni says ‘the size constraint forced us to be imaginative’. The cottage is small, but the new storage facility tucked behind it provides extra space, allowing a constant transfusion of items and the stories behind them.Interactive screens in the cottage offer a wide range of background narratives and they're popular - but not more so than the delight when you notice that some of the photographs have deceptive oak frames, holding surprises beneath.A 1920s oak wall phone also holds a surprise, when visitors pick up the receiver. The museum has been designed so that its content can be readily rotated by the volunteers in order to avoid stagnation.

And let's not forget the human component. On the one hand you have the combined online resource of the digital museum community and on the other you have Edna.Edna McKelvie, now in her 90s, is a fount of knowledge about Mataura. Perhaps more than anyone else, says Luoni, ‘Edna is our memory’.

At the other end of the age spectrum is the input from the Mataura School, from the basket of paper lampreys made by the five-year-olds, to the older students' who selected anobject,filmedtheir stories and posted them on YouTube so visitors can use their smart devices to link to their stories.
The effect, of old and new technologies co-habiting, in a building that feels so strikingly bigger on the inside than the outside, and is in its way capable of time travel, becomes faintly reminiscent of Dr Who's Tardis. Ultimately, people emerge from the museum with stories, not just about the town’s factories, many hard-case personalitiesalso surface. Like Constable Jim Brazier, an old-school policeman who solved many a problem with a kick up the bum and a stern word to parents. During the 1950s he'd meet the train bringing seasonal meat workers south and if he didn't like the cut of their jib he'd tell them to get straight back on the train.At his side, oftentimes, was Waiti Waitaiki, a well-respectedMaorimeat worker who accompaniedBrazier as his confidential cultural adviser.

Or meat worker Ted Gilder, who in the 1920s would cycle 12 kilometresfrom Gore, kill his quota of 100 lambs, and cycle home, all by 3pm. To save time washing, Ted would walk naked onto the slaughter board and get hosed down.If such cases are, classic blue collar Mataura, the museum has no less respect for Willie Martin, a cliché-busting local florist who also ran a dance school.

By ensuring all its collection is online, the museum set up a thrilling, emotional discovery for an Englishman, Geoff Ledden, who found letters written between his late father Aubrey and Mataura's Stan White. They began in 1943 when Stan, as a 17-year-old meat worker packing lamb livers into billies for English butcher shops, put his contact address on the top. Aubrey responded and for five years they wrote to each other. When Aubrey died his papers were lost. Geoff was stunned to find so much information about his father from a tiny volunteer museum on the other side of the world.


The project’s vision was to create a heritage asset that Mataura could be proud of, help arrest the perception of a community in decline and toconnect Mataura’s rich heritage to a much wider audience. New Zealand’sMuseum Award judges commended the project on achieving its goal of helping a small volunteer community museumreinvent itself, toremain relevant in the 21st century. The project also serves as an exemplar of howcurrent museum practice can be shared with and applied byvolunteers,on a modest budget, to reinvigorate small community museums.


Browse by year

Browse by category

Browse by country

View all